The Philosophy of Liberty with Mark LeBar

For nearly 20 years, Mark LeBar has been a popular mainstay at IHS events and programs, especially summer seminars. LeBar — a philosophy professor at Florida State University — first broke onto the IHS scene in 1996, at the recommendation from his professor and fellow IHS alum David Schmidtz. After this initial introduction, LeBar continued his involvement with IHS by attending weekend workshops and other job market programs. One papers workshop even helped him “make contacts with senior people in my field whose support has enabled me to make important moves in my career.”

LeBar adds that summer seminars represent a truly enriching educational

Mark Lebar

experience, divorced from many of the bureaucratic challenges that arise in a traditional educational setting. “IHS is a place to test out ideas without the usual constraints that occur in higher education,” he notes.

It’s the free exchange of ideas at summer seminars, LeBar goes on to say, that incubates a certain culture that builds on itself. These forums have pushed his own thinking in new directions, thanks to the analytical insights from engaged participants.

At summer seminars, you’re able to build momentum. The bandwidth of freely exchanging ideas grows larger, and a shared culture emerges. A certain momentum builds at these events, much more so than you might typically experience in the classroom or even over an entire semester.

– Mark LeBar

Much of LeBar’s philosophy borrows from the ancient Greeks, especially Aristotle and Plato. LeBar argues that Aristotle’s emphasis on two chief components of human nature inform our ethical intuition.

First, Aristotle acknowledges the harmony between our rational and animal selves, which explain human behavior as both the ability to reason and to act on primitive impulse. Second, individuals are sovereign creatures and yet can experience their good through others. These essential facets of life lay much of the groundwork on which LeBar rests his philosophy, which is deeply sourced from eudaimonism — or the study of the actions that lead to a good life — as originally explored in Aristotle.

Our natural inclination towards sociality sustains a deep source of the value and meaning humans develop over their lives. It’s the relationships we cultivate, says LeBar, that define what it means to be free. Moreover, liberty ceases to apply when people intrude on these opportunities to make and tend to our social relations. These interferences not only violate the right of the individual to govern themselves, but they destroy the goods we can create as social beings.

At the more granular level, LeBar expands on what he means by liberty. True liberty, he argues, is equality of authority. This idea — which was expressly articulated by Immanuel Kant, but originally found in the writings of John Locke — asserts that no one person can impose a moral obligation on another without equal and reciprocal authority. “We are limited by a reciprocal and equal power to obligate,” he says.

When, for example, the state imposes crude drug prohibition laws on its citizens, an unequal moral obligation is foisted upon citizens without recognizing an equal moral power in those citizens. These kinds of violations blunt ethical intuition and attenuate the capacity for agents to lead virtuous lives.

Thus, liberty necessitates a deep commitment to equality of authority, which ultimately equips individuals with the capacity to reason and use good judgment in how they choose to live a good life.

The Philosophy of Liberty with Mark LeBar
Aristotle bust

Much of my career has focused on what counts as the good life and what it means in terms of the relationships we have with others. There hasn’t been a lot of work on this from an Aristotelian perspective, so investigating these topics is a valuable inroad into what it means to live well.

– Mark LeBar

In his next book, LeBar will expand this eudaimonist approach to the meaning of justice.  In addition, he plans to research the ways in which social norms contribute to the productive capacity of different societies. This more institutional glance will examine how social life inheres within the productive framework of society. In other words, this question will address the connection between virtues, social norms, and economic and political development.

After each IHS event, LeBar is amazed at not just how many passionate and devoted students he encounters, but how many of them make the transition from student to faculty. Students he met ten to fifteen years ago are now in faculty roles. To see this evolution reinforces LeBar’s belief that sharing ideas in a community like IHS can encourage students to explore their interests and go on to lead successful lives, both in and outside of academia.  

IHS is the infrastructure, the operating system that supports scholarly connections. This community aspect is what makes IHS so meaningful, and it’s what generates new and upcoming ideas and scholarship.

– Mark LeBar

A philosophy of liberty is one where individuals are free to pursue their own ends without treating others as a means to those ends. LeBar’s scholarly insights demonstrate that living well doesn’t just mean living in isolation. Rather, living well implies respecting the domain of others by never asserting a moral obligation on them without recognizing an equal moral authority in return. LeBar’s approach to philosophy adds to the many voices that are exchanged at IHS events and programs, contributing to a conversation that remains ongoing.   

The Institute for Humane Studies is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2021. For more scholar spotlights, video interviews, photo galleries, and in-depth conversations on classical liberal ideas, visit TheIHS.org/60.

60 Years Advancing the Ideas of the Good Society

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