Classical Liberalism in Contemporary Political Philosophy

In this week’s episode of Ideas in Progress, we examine classical liberalism in contemporary political philosophy with Dr. Jason Brennan. A professor of philosophy at Georgetown University, Dr. Brennan led an IHS and Liberty Fund, Inc. Advanced Topics (AT) discussion colloquium earlier this year. Host, Dr. Anthony Comegna, opens by discussing the various themes laid out in assigned texts.

I was wondering if you think it’s fair to say, as I’ve heard some classical liberals lament at least in recent decades, that philosophers today kind of treat natural rights theory as a relic from the medieval period?

– Dr. Anthony Comegna
Classical Liberalism in Contemporary Political Philosophy
Dr. Jason Brennan, photo courtesy of Georgetown University

“Our reader for this event is laid out thematically, and the first theme is natural rights,” Dr. Comegna begins. “I was wondering if you think it’s fair to say, as I’ve heard some classical liberals lament at least in recent decades, that philosophers today kind of treat natural rights theory as a relic from the medieval period?”

Dr. Brennan responds, noting that in regards to natural rights, it’s hard for people to fully comprehend what is at stake. “I think part of what’s going on here is something like we recognize that the institutions that we live under, the rules of the game, including rules of the game like property rights and how marriage is going to work, or how rights of free speech are going to work, are in a sense partly conventional because we recognize that morality doesn’t draw a really fine line about these things. Then what ends up having to be done in any given society is come up with some mechanism to create a fine line where there really isn’t one.”

The purpose of a race is to measure relative ability, and that’s why it’s important to have equal starting points. A society is not trying to measure ability. It’s not trying to create a competition. It’s trying to create conditions under which people can cooperate with one another for mutual advantage.

– Dr. Jason Brennan

In addition to natural rights, themes touched upon in this AT included equality and justice, and Dr. Brennan addressed some insights garnered from the readings. Regarding the idea of equality, Dr. Brennan stated the following:

A society is not trying to measure ability. It’s not trying to create a competition. It’s trying to create conditions under which people can cooperate with one another for mutual advantage.

– Dr. Jason Brennan
Civil Society

“It’s not like a race, and so it doesn’t have the same need to make sure that we have equal starting points. The purpose of a race is to measure relative ability, and that’s why it’s important to have equal starting points. A society is not trying to measure ability. It’s not trying to create a competition. It’s trying to create conditions under which people can cooperate with one another for mutual advantage.”

As the episode progresses, additional topics from the colloquium are explored, including a mention from Dr. Brennan on the upcoming book Moral Grandstanding by Doctors Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke; both of whom have worked with IHS in the past during a Manuscript Workshop for their aforementioned book, as well as having taken part in an IHS and Big Think video series collaboration on the same topic.

Get in on the discussion! Download this episode and others of Ideas in Progress on our website, SoundCloud, or iTunes. New episodes are available every Wednesday. Interested in more information on the IHS programs mentioned in this week’s podcast? Visit our website for additional details on Advanced Topics Discussion Colloquia, Manuscript Workshops, or our Civil Discourse video series with Big Think.

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