How Can We Become a Better Society?

A look at the future of intellectual liberalism with Dr. Emily Chamlee-Wright

What does a tolerant and pluralistic society look like? How do we get there? Institute for Humane Studies President and CEO, Dr. Emily Chamlee-Wright, addressed these questions on The Bridge, a podcast by the Mercatus Center.

The host of The Bridge, Benjamin Klutsey, begins by asking about the importance of the concept of the individual within the larger construct of group identification. He asks Dr. Chamlee-Wright why liberalism’s roots begin with the individual and what’s its significance.

For Dr. Chamlee-Wright, having respect for the plans and purposes of the individual is the basis of a functional society. She explains how an emphasis on the individual improves the opportunities for others when the individual is given the maximum amount of freedom to explore what they have to offer.

To Dr. Chamlee-Wright, this demonstrates the idea of a good society and open society, meaning that it can allow for a variety of individual plans and purposes that are all very different from one another.

You’d think that at the outset that that would be a recipe for divergence; it would be a recipe for conflict. What liberalism does is it searches for the right rules of the game, the right institutional rules of play within society, that allow us to pursue those individual plans and purposes that are very much divergent. But with the right incentives, with the right rules of the game in place, we will have a strong incentive to align our activities with one another.

From here, Dr. Chamlee-Wright explores how a tolerant society promotes economic prosperity through our differences. As an economist, Dr. Chamlee-Wright views a tolerant society as an ecosystem of cooperation, in which our differences lead to productivity.

The benefits of trade, the extra productivity we get from trade comes about because there are different costs that we incur when we are productive. You’re productive comparatively on some things, and I’m more productive comparatively on others, and when we exploit those differences, it’s to our mutual benefit.

Emily Chamlee-Wright at microphoneThe same can be said for intellectual exchange as well. “The benefits of intellectual exchange, the benefits of cultural exchange, the benefits of all kinds of human transactions, economics included, comes about because we have differences,” she says. This is because there is a kind of symmetry between an economic argument favoring an openness in trade, to an intellectual argument, favoring an openness in ideas.

The free exchange of ideas brings prosperity, but what happens when we inevitably begin engaging with people and ideas that are illiberal in society? How do we tackle the perennial challenge of a free society: policing thought?

For this, Dr. Emily Chamlee-Wright addresses the significance of good conversation. As a society, is it a necessity to have free speech within the realm of the public square; this is the basis of the first amendment. But as Dr. Chamlee-Wright notes, a vast majority of our conversations are not taking place in the public square, they’re taking place in people’s homes, and in classrooms, and in the workplace.

We’re at a moment in our history where we’re coming back to those [discussion] principles and defining them more clearly, being more intentional and deliberate about deploying those principles in conversation; in our academic conversations, in our public discourse, but I think even in those living room conversations as well.

According to Dr. Chamlee-Wright, pluralism won’t reach its thriving level unless we know how to respectfully talk with one another. Admittedly, respectful dialogue is a challenge and something that needs to be practiced and cultivated. She also strongly believes that it needs to be modeled by scholars, as they play a pivotal role in fostering that setting in the classroom.

There are certainly challenges to cultivating this type of discourse, and one such challenge presents itself in the form of social media. The term “bumper sticker intellectualism” comes to mind when discussing how some social platforms tend to trend away from a nuanced debate.

What’s troubling about that [social media] is it substitutes quick conclusions for thoughtful discourse. It substitutes an ideological position for critical thought. So that’s a problem.

It’s easy in this day and age to become discouraged with the state of discourse after discussing the challenges social media presents around it, but for Dr. Chamlee-Wright, she is feeling optimistic about liberalism’s future. “The liberal project is not a completed project,” she says. “The path towards a good society is a long and crooked one.” 

It is with this in mind, that Dr. Chamlee-Wright spearheaded the Discourse Initiative, a series of conversations aimed at drawing scholarly attention back to the liberal tradition. These conversations will gather scholars across the ideological spectrum who believe that the liberal tradition, broadly understood, is central to achieving the good society.

I’m excited to be able to play a part in bringing scholars together around the most important conversations you and I could possibly imagine ever having. And what an opportunity. There’s a lot that’s going on in the world that’s of concern. And also, every single one of those concerns is an opportunity for us to learn and for us to grow and, I think, advance the liberal project.

Listen to the episode of The Bridge podcast here for the full interview featuring Dr. Chamlee-Wright. For more information on the Discourse Initiative, IHS faculty and graduate programs, or funding opportunities, visit  

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