Sherif Girgis is a doctoral candidate in the philosophy department at Princeton University, and a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School. He graduated with summa cum laude from Princeton with prizes for best senior theses in ethics and philosophy. He then studied philosophy at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He is the co-author of “What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense” and visited Hillsdale College last week to lecture on the subject.
You have studied both at Princeton and Oxford. How does education differ in two continents?
In England, educational institutions are only for education. It’s not all people do, of course – and thank goodness – but there isn’t the American emphasis on using higher education in particular to become well-rounded. That was important preparation for graduate study back in the states, where you need to limit yourself in order to make progress.
You won the Rhodes Scholarship in 2007. What set you apart?
These things are a crapshoot, so it’s hard to know what made the difference. I was probably helped by having a different moral and political perspective and set of interests than most people who compete or win. For me, personal and academic development have both had a lot to do with exploring how faith and reason relate. So if there was a unifying theme, that was probably it.
What was the general feel of philosophical debate during your undergraduate years?
Princeton has unusually vibrant discussions of moral and social issues, mainly because there’s a critical mass of dissenters from the orthodoxies that prevail at some other schools. They include both students and faculty.
You had an ally in Dr. Robert George, one of your old professors, who co-authored your book “What is Marriage.” Was his response unusual?
He’s certainly in the minority on the faculty – maybe 5 percent would identify as conservative. But a small minority, vocal and articulate enough, can make a very big difference. And that difference doesn’t just benefit conservatives. I think most liberals at Princeton would say they’re better off for it, too. It makes discussions more stimulating and fun.
What was the response like when your initial article on marriage came out in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy?
The responses spanned the spectrum: indifference, puzzlement, fascination, etc. And a lot of surprise – that there could be rational arguments for the traditional view, that there were academics keen to make them. There has also been some good, honest, critical engagement, and a number of people writing in to report that we helped them make or change their mind on the issue. Those, and the people who disagree but say we helped them think more critically about the issue and see the case for the other side, were the most encouraging.
You have said that you oppose the death penalty. Why is that?
What makes it wrong to seek the death of the innocent is intrinsic to us: it’s part of what makes us the kind of creatures we are. But such a trait, by definition, can’t be lost or forfeited under any circumstances. Not even, then, when innocence itself is lost. Most traditional attempts to get around this require thinking of the individual as related to the common good as organic part to whole in a way that I think is ultimately untenable. So it must be wrong, in principle, to seek the death of any human being, innocent or otherwise.
How is it possible to be a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton and a J.D. candidate at Yale, at the same time? How do you keep up?
“Keep up” is a strong way to put it! So far I’ve done only one in any given year. I’ll spend two more years at Princeton, then one year back in law school and – hopefully – finishing up my dissertation and law degree together.