Does Liberal Order Rest on Moral Foundations?

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At a time when liberalism is being tested, IHS partnered with Dr. Ben Johnson, a law professor at  Penn State Law School, and philosophy professor Dr. Brian Kogelmann of the University of Maryland, to convene a group of scholars concerned about the state of liberalism. The goal of the program was to better understand, not only the inherent tensions within liberalism that can threaten its integrity but also the cultural supports that can sustain liberalism by relieving those tensions.

Dr. Ben Johnson
Dr. Brian Kogelmann

The coronavirus pandemic precluded convening scholars in person, shifting IHS  programming online. This pivot meant undertaking a host of rapid-fire experiments with new technologies, schedules, formats, and curricula. But amid those challenges there was an opportunity to develop a superior online convening capability that would outlast the pandemic. IHS staff asked what could be done as well, if not better, in the online space. 

One thought was that online convenings could enable a group of scholars to confer with each other on a regular basis over an extended period of time, forming a stronger community and one that could sort out complex ideas more effectively by dedicating sustained attention to them. IHS put this idea to the test by designing its first-ever reading group, Moral Foundations of Liberal Order, for faculty and advanced graduate students with Professors Johnson and Kogelmann as partners.

The group met once a week for six weeks. A typical session would feature a selection by one of liberalism’s founding figures— giants such as Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Smith, and Burke— as well as contemporary scholarship building on and often critiquing their views. The curriculum moved from liberalism more broadly to liberalism in the American context in pursuit of those beliefs, attitudes, and institutions that can sustain liberalism in the United States.

These Thursday evening conversations were marked as much by civility as by vigorous critique and productive disagreement. A sense of mutual respect and shared endeavor accumulated from one week to the next, creating a community of inquiry remarkable for the depth of its explorations. 

This program’s success indicates that a series of short, online convenings can build vibrant communities of inquiry of a kind that would be prohibitively expensive to create in person. As importantly, it suggests that online convenings can rival, and in some cases even surpass, convenings held in person when it comes to providing intellectual rigor and challenge. “Six years at Princeton and three at Yale”, Ben Johnson remarked, “this was one of the most intellectually invigorating experiences of my life.” 

I loved the focused topics and small discussion format, and that it was stretched out over a few weeks to give our thoughts time to develop.

– Kevin Vallier, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bowling Green State University

For more information on IHS Reading Groups and Discussion Colloquia, or additional faculty and graduate programs, visit. TheIHS.org.

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