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.