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The Table Video

Robert P. George

Should We Tolerate Evil Opinions? - Robert George on Peter Singer, Abortion, and Seeking Truth

McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University / Founding Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions
September 12, 2015

Robert George says we need to defend everyone’s right to present reasons and arguments for even the most abhorrent and evil ideas, such as abortion and infanticide. He uses the example of his colleague Peter Singer to illustrate the importance of devotion to truth.

“I would be the first one in line to oppose the eviction of Peter Singer from Princeton University…. our devotion to truth should be so powerful that we are willing to [listen to what he has to say].”


Are there intolerable opinions? If so, how should we spot them and respond to them? If not, how do we tolerate evil opinions?

You want to take that one brother?

Sure, sure. [audience laughing]

Or we can just pass it up and go another [chuckling]

No, no , no, I think, brother Robert, he’s got an answer to that. [chuckling] [audience laughing]

Warren: That was very Jesus-like of you to do that. [laughter] You take that one.

I’m something of an extremist on this. I will confess an extreme supporter of John Stuart Mill’s principles of liberty in chapter two of “On Liberty”. I’ve been a critic of Mill’s general harm principle articulated in chapter one of “On Liberty”. I can’t give you the page number

Warren: Yeah, I was…

Cornell’s got it memorized. [chuckling] But in chapter two when he talks about liberty of thought and expression, and my view is that, especially in the university context, especially in the context of a university that is non-sectarian like Princeton University, that doesn’t make a faith commitment upfront, take a stand, but presents itself as an institution that is welcoming all points of view, providing a forum for the engagement of ideas. So, the kind of university in which I spend my days.

I think it is very important that we be willing to listen to anybody who’s willing to come into the university context and present reasons and arguments. In other words, do business in the currency of academic discourse, the currency of reasons and arguments even if I deeply oppose, if I abominate the position being articulated. Professor West and I have a famous colleague, Peter Singer.

Peter Singer not only believes in the legitimacy of abortion through the entire nine months, he believes in infanticide, the killing of infants, the moral permissibility of the killing of infants even after they’re born. Now this to me is an outrageous abomination. In a sense, that is an intolerable, intolerable idea. The idea that any human being, any member of the human family, can be directly targeted for killing, that, to me, is just an intolerable thing.


And yet


I would be the first one in line to oppose the eviction of Peter Singer. It’s a scandal to some of my conservative pro-life friends to oppose evicting Peter Singer from Princeton. Now, there’s some people who feel about me, some people feel about Cornell, the way I feel about Peter Singer.

Now, and that’s because Professor Singer is prepared to make arguments and give reasons for his position. So if he’s willing to do that, I am willing to listen and I am, in fact, willing to listen with an open mind. Now, none of those arguments has cut any ice with me. I’ve listened to them respectfully.

Warren: But he has the right to persuade you.

It’s not just the right to say it.


He’s got more in the university context, in the context of truth seeking, He’s got the right more than to say it, as terrible as I think it is, he’s got the right to have me listen and thoughtfully consider what he has to say. Our devotion to truth should be so powerful

Warren: Yeah, yeah


that we are willing to do that because it is conceivable that even an opinion that strikes us and me and probably strikes many of you as so abominable, could be right. And even if it’s wrong, which I’m quite confident it is, We have something to learn about the basis of our belief in the sanctity of life. From confronting the very best reasons that a very intelligent person can adduce against the sanctity of life position.

Professors Singer makes, leaves us in no doubt that what he is aiming for is the destruction of the basic sanctity of life principle that’s part of our Judeo-Christian heritage. So now, does that mean I’m in favor of simply unlimited speech? No and I don’t think anybody really is. What I’m against is abuse. Hurling epithets, incivility, a grunt or a name-calling

Warren: Yeah.

episode is not making reasons and arguments. It is not the currency of academic discourse to simply verbally assault someone or brutalize someone. But if someone’s willing to make arguments and provide reasons and cause us to think, then I think, we’ve got to tolerate it in the rich sense of toleration, not just letting him speak, but listening to him.