2019 - Restraints on Federal Power, Constitutional Structures and Civic Virtue
Robert P. George Speaks on Civility and the Common Good at Baylor Law’s Federalist Paper Lecture Series
By Baylor University Student Writer, Caroline Maxey
When Robert P. George walked to the auditorium to speak at Baylor University School of Law, he was welcomed by a room full of law students, professors, lawyers, and even undergraduate students from Baylor University. George is a graduate of Swarthmore College, holds M.T.S. and J.D. degrees from Harvard University, and the degrees of D.Phil., B.C.L., and D.C.L. from Oxford University. In addition, he has earned twenty-one honorary degrees, the U.S. Presidential Citizens Medal, and has served as a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, among many other accomplishments. He is also the author and co-author of six books and the editor of several more. His articles have appeared in the Harvard Law Review, the Yale Law Journal, the Columbia Law Review, and many others.
A brief introduction from Baylor Law’s Dean Brad Toben provided the basis for what was to come in the upcoming lecture by George. Dean Toben highlighted the importance of studying the Constitution and the Federalist Papers and thanked sponsors John and Marie Chiles for their continued support of this academic endeavor at Baylor Law. As Robert P. George took the stand, he elaborated on the roles of government for the common good of the people, giving examples from history, providing critical philosophical views as applied to government, and the amount of power the federal government truly holds.
When asked what can be done when confronted with a difficult conversation with someone of opposing views, George said, “Stand up for what you believe in, and don’t let people intimidate you into silence.” The current climate is divisive in the United States, but George believes that respecting what other people say and being open-minded is critical to these conversations. In his lecture, he noted that divisions among like-minded people on both sides of an issue can cause tension. We cannot assume that good people will agree on what defines “the common good.” People will often disagree on what that good requires, according to George.
To support this point, he mentioned Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, during the rise of Hitler’s Nazi regime. Chamberlain is known for appeasing Hitler, but Professor George pointed out that Chamberlain wanted only to avoid the destruction that would come with defying Hitler and was doing what he could for peace. This, George said, was a wrong decision with good intentions. Reasonable, good people like Chamberlain and those who disagreed with his interactions with Hitler can and will disagree. However, both the Prime Minister and those who opposed his decisions simply had a different view of the common good (and did not know the full extent of Hitler’s evil acts). This is something that we often see today in politics, social issues, and throughout government.
To help explain the common good, George pointed to the teachings of Aristotle in his lecture to show what the common good is not. “Looking at a narrow interest instead of the good of all,” he said, is against the common good. The common good is the good of human beings, all sexes, races, and all people. For a society to thrive without anarchy, a system, or government, must be in place to enforce this common good. The right of any legitimate ruler is rooted in their duty to serve. George emphasizes that rulers have the right because they have the duty, and by making decisions based on the common good, rulers fulfill their obligations to those they rule by being their servants. Any community, he says, will have a common good, but the people within these communities must also learn to coordinate their behavior together.
Professor George also noted that, according to the Founders, to fulfill the responsibilities given to the government, the government must abide by the limits placed upon it in our Constitution. The role of legitimate government is to establish conditions that can help people achieve goals for themselves, not to do everything for them. Of course, he notes, the government is responsible for preventing exploitation and abuse, monopolization, and predatory practices. The government should step in only to care for what the people themselves cannot. The common good, George says, enables people to act more fully. It is facilitative and encourages people to help themselves more fully and efficiently. This is what a limited government achieves and how a government serves the common good of the people.
As his lecture ended, George spoke about the modern political culture where debates are shut down, opponents are drowned out, and name-calling takes over arguments. George encourages the people to decide to overcome corruption and not allow it to infect the political culture at large. The people can conduct themselves in a way that elevates, even with those with whom we disagree, and robust but civil public debate needs to be exemplified by all of us. “Bad behavior on political institutions can weaken these institutions,” George says, returning to the common good of the people. The political culture must support the common good of civil society, which requires the people's virtue.