Intellectual Integrity and the Relevance of Sociology to Public Policy

Earlier this academic year, I sat down with my friend and colleague, Robert P. George, an American legal scholar, political philosopher, and public intellectual who serves as the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. We discussed various issues of mutual interest, including intellectual virtues, intellectual diversity, and how social science research impacts public policy.

On Sociology

Margarita Mooney (MM): Sociology and other social sciences have a commitment to empirical research about certain types of research questions. Are there some particular questions, or trends, or problems, with our civic institutions, or culture, or morality, that sociologists should take up?

Robert George (RG): I think family sociology is a critical field, especially today, where, at least in our own society and civilization, the status of the family—even the question of what counts as a family—is up for grabs. The family as we’ve known it… here [in the West] and elsewhere is fragmenting in certain sectors of society, and in many cases failing. Family disintegration is a significant phenomenon. The failure of family formation and lots of children being born to single mothers and so forth are very important social phenomena and I think it’s important for sociologists to understand them and understand them accurately. …[T]o flourish as a society, we need the help of social scientists—just as we need the help of natural scientists—to help us to understand what’s actually happening so we can make good decisions as individuals, as communities, as societies, and as a polity. We need to make good decisions about how we should behave and what policies we should enact or avoid enacting if we believe that having children brought up in intact families with a mom and a dad is a good idea. Sociology doesn’t have the key to all mysteries, but it can provide information and analysis that will enable opinion-shapers and policymakers and ordinary people to make good decisions.

On Religion

MM: How is it that you see religion shaping, in positive or potentially negative ways, our civic institutions?

RG: Sociologists do well to examine the mutual influences of religion on other culture-shaping and culture-constituting phenomena and the impact of those phenomena on religion, religious beliefs, and religious institutions. I think what needs to be avoided is any kind of reductionism where you try to reduce everything else to religion or try to reduce religion to something else or some other combination of things. I think there is a distinct category of human beliefs, activities, and experiences that we use the word “religion” to name. Those can’t be reduced to other things completely, so we should avoid the kind of reductionism that tries to explain away religion. But that’s true of other things as well… you can’t reduce everything to feelings, you can’t reduce everything to appetites, you can’t reduce everything to wants, you can’t reduce everything to matters of belief, you can’t reduce everything to economics any more than you can reduce everything to religion.

MM: So morality is not an epiphenomenon of religion?

RG: Not any more than religion is an epiphenomenon of the economy or the “mode of production” or something like that. There’s no one thing that is the master explanation for everything else in human affairs. …[H]umans are very complex creatures. We are biological creatures—organisms—and therefore our integral flourishing is in part constituted by our physical health, our wellbeing, our strength and vitality. But we’re not just physical. We are also rational creatures. I’ve always found it difficult to improve upon Aristotle’s concept of human beings as rational animals—our nature as human beings is a rational nature. An integrally flourishing person is not only physically healthy but intellectually sharp. And just as one can flourish or fail to flourish… in terms of physical health …one can flourish or fail to flourish in respect of one’s intellectual wellbeing. This is true for all human beings: you can be sharp, astute, careful and critical in one’s thinking, attentive, judicious in one’s judgment. Or you can be inattentive, dull-witted, un-judicious, uncritical in one’s thinking, prepared to believe the last thing anyone told you or the most recent thing you’ve read in the newspapers…. [M]ore than that, not only are we physical and rational creatures, we have emotions. We have feelings, and there, too, we can be emotionally healthy or emotionally frail and failing. And more than that, not only are we physical creatures, and intellectual creatures, and creatures that have feelings and emotions, we are also social creatures. …[W]e can flourish or decline in terms of the quality of our friendships and relationships.

On Advocacy

MM: What are some implications of sociological research for our civic institutions, governmental institutions, and non-governmental institutions? As someone myself who is really interested in the intersection between scholarship and public policy, I wonder what you have learned in your various roles that might help others who are interested in connecting theoretical scholarship, empirical data, and public policy?

RG: I’ve served on three United States government bodies and one United Nations body. I served on the United States Commission on Civil Rights in the 1990s and then, in the 2000s, on the President’s Council on Bioethics; then, from 2012 to 2016, on the U.S. Commission on National Religious Freedom, which I also chaired for two years; and then I served on UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST). On all four of those commissions, I learned just how important having sound scholarship at the policymaker’s disposal really is. My wish, my advice, my exhortation to sociologists, political scientists, economists, to other social scientists is to play it straight, tell it like it is, try to avoid having your work colored in one way or another by your political opinions, whether you are a conservative or a liberal, whether you are a libertarian or a socialist, whether you are progressive or a critic of progressivism. None of us can completely keep our political opinions [to the side] any more than we can keep our value judgments out of this kind of work, but we really need to avoid the politicization of social science, not just because that’s a bad thing in and of itself, but because we need sound scholarship to make good individual and social choices. [W]e should avoid politicizing social science because we need work that is truthful, is accurate, isn’t shading things in an effort to push any political agenda.

Now, that doesn’t mean that scholars should never be out there advocating for policy views they happen to favor—for me to suggest such a thing would make me a terrible hypocrite, because I’ve been out there for my entire career being politically engaged, being an advocate for causes I believe in and think are in the interest of our nation. But I think we need to be clear about what the requirements are for our role as scholars and we need to be vigilant not to let our advocacy color our descriptive social science research. Integrity means to call it as one sees it in light of a dispassionate assessment of the evidence, whether those judgments and analyses help the cause one believes in or hurt it. That’s what it means, in part, for a scholar, to have integrity: to put truth above ideology. We as scholars are fundamentally in the truth business. And so, our job is to tell the truth as best we can understand and let the chips fall where they may.

On Intellectual Diversity

MM: Being known sometimes as a conservative, sometimes as a classical liberal, perhaps a little bit of both, what do you make of the claim that faculty are underrepresented as either conservatives or libertarians, or potentially even classical liberals?

RG: It’s pretty obvious …that there’s a significant underrepresentation of conservatives, and to a lesser extent, libertarians in sociology and in political science. I agree with …social psychologist Jon Haidt about this. I worry about groupthink and being in the echo chamber, the bubble. And, my most fundamental worry is not that the ideological and partisan imbalances are unfair to conservatives—I think there’s a good deal of unfairness to conservative scholars or people who are conservative who are applying for academic jobs including in fields like sociology, but that’s not my most fundamental concern. It’s not with fairness towards conservatives. It’s with pursuing the educational mission, the scholarly and teaching mission, the mission of universities. I think you need some significant range or variety of viewpoints and perspectives, substantively and methodologically in order for fields and departments, colleges and universities to achieve their fundamental aim which is truth-seeking…. We need the stimulation that comes when we are challenged by people who see things differently. That helps us to avoid such hazards as confirmation bias. Here, conservatives, the handful of us in the academy, really have an advantage, because we are being stimulated and provoked and challenged all the time, and I think that’s great. I think for us to do our jobs properly we really need the stimulation and challenges that come from people seeing differently on very important moral things, ethical things, matters of principle, and even political matters, when we’re in the domain where politics cannot be kept entirely out of it.