The biography of the conference’s first speaker:
“Paul E. Kerry is an associate professor in the Department of History and member of the European Studies faculty. His training spans several universities including Oxford, Harvard, and Chicago and his publications have engaged with European intellectual history, transatlantic ideas, and historiography. His book on Goethe and Enlightenment thought is scheduled for paperback release this year. He is an associate editor of the University of California Press Carlyle edition and has served as editor for volumes on Goethe, Schiller, Carlyle, and Mozart.
His forthcoming publications include articles on Benjamin Franklin (Cambridge UP) and on Thomas Carlyle (Fairleigh Dickinson UP). Last year he co-organized the Transatlantic Ideas of the American Founding conference at the University of Edinburgh. He has been awarded fellowships at Cambridge, Oxford, and Edinburgh and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. In 2007-2008 he was the Ann and Herbert W. Vaughan Visiting Fellow at the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, Princeton University.”
The following is a summation of Kerry’s remarks from “Good Is to Be Done and Promoted: Robert P. George Intellectually Engaged in Making Men Moral,” which were a walkthrough of George’s life and an interaction with George’s seminal book, Making Men Moral. I’ll mostly be writing in Kerry’s voice, an important point to note as you read.
Kerry began with some excerpts from bluegrass songs that Robbie George has played. He also gave words about missing Richard John Neuhaus, who was scheduled to speak at the conference before his passing. Next, Kerry looked over Robbie George’s life, observed his three degrees, and considered his prominent ideas. George has written 14 books, 80 scholarly articles, and 200 contributions to popular media, including First Things, Weekly Standard, WSJ. He has been invited to speak at over 100 places and has made appearances on BBC, CBS, ABC.
The conference, Kerry noted, is about promoting a “healthy moral ecology.” In the book, George makes the case that though laws cannot themselves guarantee morality, they do assist those who engage in the work of character formation—parents, teachers, and others.
George has offered a critique of liberalism in his book. There is not one form of it, but George does zero in on “epistemological skepticism.” George argues very densely; each word has meaning. He points out, importantly, that legislation does not make men moral; but it does make it harder for men to be evil.
Reviewers had different responses to Making Men Moral. One reviewer pointed out that the title might be “triply offensive.” Productive work, men, and morality are all unpopular ideas in certain circles. However, the reviewer concluded that the book was carefully done and charitable.
Chief Argument and Method
Natural law theory marks the book. Countering Hume, George and the contributors argue that reason does not need to be the slave of passions. People can reason about how to get what they want, but not what to want. Hume argued that reason could not identify certain ends as desirable. George has countered this view with force and exemplified a reason-driven approach to prominent moral issues that enfranchises thinkers of all beliefs and backgrounds.
George’s method is dialectic; his edited volume features scholars who disagree sharply. He has edited a number of volumes on natural law. Since publication of Making Men Moral, George has refined and reloaded the concept of natural law. Making Men Moral seeks to create a method by which ideas may be critiqued in the public square. Professor Cornel West and George have “strong ideological differences” (this prompted considerable laughter). Recently, George was invited to meet with the Pope; West was invited to meet with Hugo Chavez. Despite this fact, George has made West his friend, and the two enjoy friendship to the current day.
Effect of George’s Work
George has also worked with the Anscomb Society, which seeks to promote a chaste lifestyle, a view of womanhood that esteems motherhood, and a robust view of marriage, among other essentials. This society allows students to find a haven from the “hook-up” culture. George has worked hard to create a campus culture in which mindless conformity is boldly challenged on the strength of principle.
Kerry then shared a letter from a student who found their soul freed by discovering a new vision of marriage. Professor George has sought to communicate a broad vision of morality to the American public. He also has a strong interest in speaking to his fellow Catholics, including those who would seek to free themselves from the “inconvenient limitations” of Catholic teaching. George seeks to bring together Jews, Catholics, and Protestants in common social cause. The evangelical-Catholic alliance is in George’s view “unprecedented.” In addition, George has reached out to the Mormon community on matters like the recent Proposition Eight affair in California.
Great texts in George’s view are sometimes coopted on campuses. Liberal arts education best helps one to be true to oneself. Classical liberal arts seeks to liberate students, but the classical approach seeks to liberate us from slavery to our desires, to allow us self-mastery, where modern liberal arts do not. It actually enslaves us to self.
Kerry then played a video clip of George speaking about “pro-choice” argumentation and noting that this language begs the question. Being pro-life or not is not a mere choice; it involves a fundamental understanding of life. George believes that reason teaches and overwhelmingly legitimates the pro-life position.
George’s Making Men Moral is a highly important text, filled with important thought and, perhaps even more importantly, a sound method by which one may engage crucial questions of the public sphere.
Kerry’s talk was engaging and impressively broad. He gave listeners a sense of Robby George; he summarized the essential argument of the text; and he placed the issues that George has engaged in their proper context. This was a strong start to the conference, and the personal touches–bluegrass music, some humor, and personal anecdotes–contributed to the talk’s strength. The excellent food and lush setting of the Grant Events Center only added to the enjoyment of the dinnertime session.
Next up: Southern Seminary Dean Russ Moore’s talk.