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Liberalism Starts with the Individual
Ben Klutsey speaks with Emily Chamlee-Wright about individualism, tolerance and pluralism
In this second installment of a series on liberalism, Benjamin Klutsey, the director of academic outreach at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, speaks with Emily Chamlee-Wright about individualism, tolerance, and the principles that should govern intellectual discourse. Chamlee-Wright is the president and CEO of the Institute for Humane Studies. She has written six books, including Liberal Learning and the Art of Self-Governance and The Cultural and Political Economy of Recovery.
This series also includes interviews with Alan Charles Kors, Ilana Redstone, Richard Ebeling, Robert Talisse, Danielle Allen, Roger Berkowitz, Virgil Storr, Kevin Vallier, Juliana Schroeder, John Inazu, Jonathan Rauch and Peter Boettke.
BENJAMIN KLUTSEY: This conversation is part of a series on liberalism and how to advance the values within the tradition in our society. Today our guest is Dr. Emily Chamlee-Wright, one of my favorite people in the whole wide world, and so I’m really excited. It’s going to be a real treat. Dr. Emily Chamlee-Wright is president and CEO of the Institute for Humane Studies.
She is an accomplished academic leader, scholar, and educator. Prior to joining the Institute for Humane Studies, she was the provost and dean at Washington College and was previously the Elbert H. Neese Professor of Economics and associate dean at Beloit College. Thank you so much, Dr. Chamlee-Wright, for joining us.
EMILY CHAMLEE-WRIGHT: Thanks for having me here, Ben. It’s a pleasure.
KLUTSEY: Likewise. So, we’ve been investigating liberalism and its roots from the Enlightenment period till this day. And we want to continue that investigation with you, touching on some of the things we’ve highlighted in this series but also looking at it from different perspectives. And particularly, since you’re an economist, I want us to be able to touch on some economics as well.
Liberalism and Individualism
KLUTSEY: The first thing I’d like to do is to go to the question of the individual. I’d like to explore a bit about the importance of the individual within the concept of liberalism versus group identification. So basically, why does liberalism at its root start with the individual?
CHAMLEE-WRIGHT: That’s a great question because it’s also a source of a lot of misunderstanding about liberalism as well. Liberalism starts with the individual because it’s the individual’s plans and purposes. The individual needs some scope for experimenting with her plans and purposes so that all sorts of things can happen, including trial and error and the learning that can come from that.
And also, it’s the way in which we can tap one another’s capacity and knowledge so that we put that into play—not only for individuals to benefit themselves, but also that’s the best way for individuals to benefit others, is to have a maximum scope of freedom so that we can explore what our talents are. We can experiment so that we can learn and grow those talents and so that we can put them into play when we’re advancing our own purposes. But that also, in an unintentional way, advances the purposes much more broadly. It improves the opportunities for others when each individual is given the maximum opportunity to explore what she or he has to offer in the world.
KLUTSEY: Fantastic. Now, it would be easy if just one type of person lived in society, which would mean that they’d have the same preferences, interests, choices. But we live in a heterogeneous society, and we’d like to think of America in particular as a melting pot because of the different people with different backgrounds who come here. So what makes for a plural society?
CHAMLEE-WRIGHT: I like that question because it is getting at the question of how we move from having respect for the plans and purposes of the individual toward the aims of also wanting a pluralistic society. That’s what I meant to add with the last question, that one of the reasons why the emphasis on the individual is so misunderstood within liberalism is that oftentimes it’s construed as that’s the only thing that liberals care about.
By emphasizing the individual, that leaves no scope or room for emphasizing the social order and for focusing in on society. And that’s exactly the opposite. By focusing on the individual, that’s the basic building block for developing a functional society.
I also want to start by saying that that, I think, is the vision of the good society, is a pluralistic society. It’s a society that is open in a radical sense. It’s open in the sense that it can allow for lots and lots of individual plans and purposes that are very different from one another. Your plans and purposes are particular to you, and my plans and purposes are particular to me. And so, 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. And so, the things that you don’t want to produce, that you don’t have a comparative advantage at producing, I can produce perhaps or someone else can produce because that’s the thing that we have a comparative advantage in pursuing.
And in doing that, I’m cooperating with you because that means that that’s a thing that you don’t have to worry about, and that allows you to pursue the things that you’re really good at. But you’re also cooperating with me because you become part of the group of people who allow me to find a market to produce things at scale. And so, even consumers are unwitting cooperators with producers because collectively they make it worthwhile for a producer to specialize in the thing that she wants to specialize in and is good at producing.
And so, we have this sublime ecosystem of cooperation when we start with a respect for the plans and purposes of the individual. So, the social order in that widespread system of social cooperation that we see in the marketplace, for example, but in broader civil society that might be upside of the market as well, that widespread set of patterns of cooperation begins with individuals having a lot of scope of freedom to experiment with their own individual plans and purposes.
They try things out, they learn, they course-correct, they try new things out. And it’s in that process that we get the kind of widespread social cooperation and coordination that is the hallmark of a functional market society, for example, and also civil society.
But you mentioned pluralism. Isn’t there a tension, perhaps, between an emphasis on individuals and also a pluralistic society, where people have not only different aims and purposes, they have different outlooks on the world. They have different worldviews. They have different paradigms of what good looks like with respect to family life or religious life, for example.
The way to get there—there is a kind of recipe, I think, within liberalism that allows us to connect the dots between individualism and pluralism. And I think it’s by way of toleration. So, one of the fundamental principles of liberalism is toleration, that idea that . . . and I think is connected with the freedom of conscience. It’s an essential building block here because when we are tolerant of others, and that includes not only that you just have a different set of plans than I have so I should be tolerant . . .
If I’m a liberal, I’m tolerant of those plans, and if you’re a liberal, you’re tolerant of my plans so long as we’re not predating against each other, so long as we’re not forcing one another to do something we don’t want to do, as long as we’re not stealing each other’s stuff. Then that tolerance allows us to say—I could say, “Well, Ben doesn’t know what he’s doing over there. He’s pursuing some set of activities, and I just think that’s the wrong thing to be doing.” But I’m still going to be tolerant of it because it’s not hurting me.
And vice versa, that you’re tolerant of my plans and purposes because it’s not hurting you. And in that process, by having that toleration, that’s where the learning process is going to happen. And so, there’s a lot of things that we learn when we are tolerant of divergent points of view. At a minimum, one of the things that we learn is that we can survive amidst all that diversity.
You and I have different points of view about how to live the good life, for example. And we learn that, “You know what, he’s got a very different way of thinking about the good life than I do. And the fact that he exists in the world doesn’t hurt me.” And that’s an important lesson for me to learn.
If you have points of view that I even might find morally obnoxious, I still can say, “As long as it’s not hurting me or hurting somebody else, then I can withstand that.” I can build a resilience and internal forbearance towards that and learn that I can live through that experience of you pursuing ideas or plans and purposes that I don’t particularly like. As long as it’s not harming me or anyone else, I think I can learn to be tolerant.
So, that toleration, that minimal standard of toleration—one thing that we learn is that we can survive amidst a lot of this difference.
Liberalism and Economic Prosperity
KLUTSEY: Since you’re an economist, I wanted to touch on how these values of liberalism—individual autonomy, functioning in a pluralistic society, fostering viewpoint diversity and toleration—how that might lead to economic prosperity.
CHAMLEE-WRIGHT: Yeah. I think that there’s a parallel here because one of the most basic insights from economics is that it’s our differences that are the source of productivity. That if you and I have exactly the same skill set and exactly the same ability to be productive across different kinds of categories of production, you and I would have no benefit, would experience no benefit from exchange if we have exactly the same comparative advantage.
The benefits of trade, the extra productivity we get from trade comes about because we actually have different—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. That’s a basic insight from introductory economics.
And I think that that’s true for intellectual exchange as well. If I know everything that you know and you know everything that I know, and if you and I share exactly the same point of view on all different matters, there’d almost be literally no point in us even having a conversation, if you could even think about it in those abstract terms. So, 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.
And so, I think that there’s a symmetry between the economic argument favoring openness in trade and an intellectual argument favoring an openness in intellectual exchange. That it’s in that intellectual exchange that we learn things, that we learn that maybe our point of view was flat-out wrong, or maybe it could benefit from having a new perspective added onto it, challenged in some way.
This is again why toleration and freedom of conscience is such an important driver of pluralism. It’s an important driver of intellectual pluralism because we don’t discover unless we’re engaging with people who have different points of view, who have disagreements. And so that’s an important piece to all of this.
But if there’s one point I would like to add on that, though, is that I think that . . . Here I’m venturing into more of a theoretical assertion. There is a strong liberal argument in favor of a minimalist tolerance, which says that what we should be arguing for is a toleration that asks very little of us, i.e,. to merely tolerate one another.
And there’s value in this approach because it means that . . . Let’s say you and I practice different religions, for example. A spirit of toleration might start out as a very, very minimal tolerance, where I disagree with everything that you believe in terms of your religiosity, and you would disagree with everything I believe in terms of my religiosity or my ideological standpoint, for example. And yet, as long as we’re not harming each other, you and I can still live peaceably together. Yeah, we can coexist.
And so, that minimalist notion of toleration is, I think, a necessary building block to liberalism. It is what allows us to both have freedom of conscience. We can pursue our conscience in our own ways, and we can also coexist together.
But my theoretical assertion is that—and maybe it’s not only a theoretical assertion—I think that there’s lots of places we can point to within the history of humankind, where we start with a minimalist toleration, where you and I are just holding our noses and barely tolerating each other but coexisting. Something funny happens over time that we might find ourselves in a moment where we’re waiting in line at the shop, and we strike up a conversation. And I learn that Ben is actually not as obnoxious a fellow as I had originally thought. And Ben learns that Emily is not as obnoxious a woman as he may have originally thought.
That even though we come from different perspectives, we practice different lifestyles or pursue different religions or have different ideological beliefs, when we engage with one another, we actually find out that that person isn’t so bad. Now, it’s a big leap to go from that little conversation all the way to a pluralistic society where difference is genuinely embraced. But that’s how it happens. It happens in these small little steps.
And this is one of the reasons why I think market society is so important, is it gives us lots and lots of opportunities to have these little moments of non-cataclysmic collision—these nice little moments where we just end up chatting or having maybe an intellectual exchange perhaps or just even being neighborly to one another. That those moments within market society and civil society are the ways in which we start to build up experience that gives us the sense that it’s not only do we learn that we can merely coexist, we also learn that maybe I was wrong about not only Ben but also the group that Ben belongs to, and vice versa.
And so, the more opportunities we have for these little tiny soft collisions and conversations, the more we learn that we can live in society productively but also really thrive if we have that spirit of openness amongst others who are different from us. So, I do think that there is a need for the argument favoring a minimum tolerance as a baseline.
But I think once you have that, time and time again we experience that, as we become more and more accustomed to people who we thought originally were very, very different—too different from us to ever be good neighbors, for example—we learn that most of the time we’re wrong about that. And that’s how we build towards a more tolerant and flourishing society.
KLUTSEY: I think that our thinking also gets refined through that process. I recall a line from [John Stuart] Mill’s book On Liberty that says that the ideas that we hold onto so vigorously and fiercely, if they’re not challenged—we don’t allow them to be challenged and debated—they become dead dogma because we forget even the reasons why we hold on to those ideas in the first place. So, it seems like there is also that added benefit to it.
CHAMLEE-WRIGHT: Yeah. And Mill’s interesting along these lines. I think that Jacob Levy’s book Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom is helpful on this because he does help us understand both Mill’s argument in favor of tolerance, but also Mill was worried about prejudice at the local level. I mean, this is one of the things about groups—different groups—is that groups can also be the source of power and sometimes power that is illiberal and a source of authority that liberals would want to challenge.
And so, this is one of the things that even though I’ve just talked in very glowing terms about pluralism, I appreciate Jacob Levy’s argument as well because he challenges us to understand pluralism without romance. We need to also recognize that there are challenges within a pluralistic society, that some of the differences that we will be engaging are, in fact, things that are highly illiberal.
We need to ask ourselves what we do in that context. That’s part of the challenge of living within a pluralistic society, is we’re challenged to be tolerant of views and perhaps group practices that we don’t like or we would argue are illiberal. That’s an important piece to this puzzle, too.
And so, it’s important for us as classical liberals to engage that challenge and to understand, what are the appropriate ways to treat difference within society? And how do we wrestle with the question of, what do we do when there are groups that practice norms or reinforce norms that we consider illiberal? What’s our response to that as liberals? And that’s an important challenge.
Challenges to Toleration in a Pluralistic Society
KLUTSEY: I want to come back to the economics. But before we do that, since we’re still on coexisting with one another, I wanted to get your thoughts on what you see in our current society. Since we live in a very diverse, pluralistic society, I mean, I think there will always be challenges in the way that we work out how we tolerate one another and coexist. Do you think there are severe challenges in how we do this?
I’m thinking of your recent paper. It’s a 2019 paper on self-censorship and association life, where you talk about a range of tactics that limit free speech, like a calling out on social media or overzealous policing of procedural compliance, ostracism, and so on. Are we in a new era of challenges to liberalism?
CHAMLEE-WRIGHT: Yeah. That’s a great question about are we in a new era. When I’m tempted to think that we’re seeing challenges to freedom of conscience and speech like we’ve never seen before, I try to remember Galileo and other figures who faced a lot of overt censorship. And that isn’t to belittle the concerns from today, but it’s to recognize that there are lessons that we can draw from the past and that this will be a perennial challenge to a free society—the policing of thought.
So, those challenges I don’t think are new, but I do think that they are presenting themselves in new forms and in ways that are raising challenges for all of us. The way that I address that, though, is to draw the line between liberal principles of the Enlightenment era, principles that really are the foundations of higher education, certainly within the American sense. The foundation of the open university is really an Enlightenment— It’s a legacy of the Enlightenment, that commitment to intellectual openness, that commitment to the search for truth wherever it leads. That owes its foundation, I think, to Enlightenment-era thinking.
To get at it, though, I think that we only get so far if we are merely beating the drum of First Amendment principles. First Amendment refers to speech within the public square. And so, it’s a necessary condition for a free society to have freedom of speech in the public square. But we need to recognize that so many of our conversational spaces are not the public square. It’s our living rooms. It’s our kitchen tables. It’s our classrooms. It’s our workplaces. The First Amendment—we can lean on that principle, but it doesn’t provide enough guidance because I think that we can actually do better than conversations that look like Hyde Park free speech free-for-alls.
We want our conversations to be better than that. And to have those conversations that are better than the free-for-all, we need to have some guiding principles. And some of those guiding principles are things like assuming good faith of the people who are in the conversation, assuming that people who are engaged in a conversation with us genuinely want to learn what our point of view is. We should also adopt that same posture when we’re entering into a conversation with someone else.
We ought to be focusing in, making sure that we are entering into that conversation with a sense that we’re committed to really learning from them as well. So, that presumption of good faith, that practicing of good faith, is one of those design principles that’s essential to a good conversation. Another one would be a posture of humility. Just because I know something about a topic doesn’t mean that I’ve exhausted all the things that can be known about that topic.
And so, when I enter into a conversation with somebody else, I have to recognize that they may be seeing that same thing from a point of view or through a lens of life experiences that just were not available to me. So, they can help me—even if I’m an expert on something—they can help me understand the world and the things that I care about in a way that just otherwise wouldn’t be available to me unless I were engaging that conversation with them.
That’s really, I think, a hallmark of what it means to be a liberally educated person, is to enter into any conversation from that perspective that says, I have the opportunity to really learn something from this person, and that that learning will be genuine. I can’t learn it unless I’m talking to that person. And so, those are just a couple of the design principles that I think are essential to good conversations.
And I do think we’re at a moment where we need to—I’m not saying that we’ve never known these principles before—but I do think we’re at a moment in our history, we’re coming back to those 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.
Those are the sorts of moves I think we need to make if we’re going to improve the nature of the conversations we’re having with one another. And going back to pluralism, pluralism doesn’t work well. It doesn’t get to that thriving level of pluralism. It doesn’t get to that kind of pluralism that goes beyond just merely tolerating one another unless we know how to talk with one another. And that isn’t something that’s obvious.
I think that that’s something that actually needs to be cultivated. It needs to be cultivated by scholars. I think it needs to be modeled by scholars. And so, this is one of the reasons why I’m in the business of supporting scholars, is because I think that they play a critical role in helping us to improve our game with respect to the kinds of conversations we’re having.
Speech on the Internet and Social Media
KLUTSEY: Does social media make this more difficult with anonymity and what is it, 40-character tweets and so on? I wonder if that’s the case.
CHAMLEE-WRIGHT: Yeah. I think that that’s exactly right. I think that, of course, there are things about internet speech that we should all love. One of the things is how easy it is to find new things out, to be able to tap in if you’re a kid in a remote area of the developing world. If you’ve got an internet connection, you can still gain access to a Harvard professor’s lecture. This is a great thing. And so, we should be celebrating that.
That said, there are real challenges around social media speech, as you pointed out. There are some platforms that tend away from nuanced debate and tend towards bumper-sticker intellectualism, where if you can pack it into a very tweetable phrase, that that’s the thing . . . What’s troubling about that is that it substitutes quick conclusions for thoughtful discourse. It substitutes an ideological position for critical thought. And so, that’s a problem.
The other part of the problem is that it tends us towards an impulse to weigh in very quickly on something. So, something happens in the world, and if we don’t immediately respond, one of the common critiques is that person didn’t respond quickly. They didn’t signal where they stood on that issue quickly enough, and so that must mean that they’re complicit with wrongdoers.
And that’s a really dangerous place for us to be in. When we can’t take the time to actually weigh through the nuances of something, when just taking the time to think is understood to be a signal of wrongdoing or your complicity with wrongdoing, that’s dangerous for us. There are lots of things that are real challenges, but just one more to fit in here is that it means that young people especially are—it means that they can’t make mistakes in a local level.
Every human being on the planet has said something that they shouldn’t have said. Every human being has uttered something that makes them look like a jerk. And maybe in some respects, it’s like they were a jerk. But the point is that human beings are not perfect, and they certainly don’t start out that way. But what allows us to get a little closer to being on the right course is we learn, and we learn through our mistakes.
The problem with social media is that the mistakes aren’t local, and they’re not in small groups anymore. Even if it was said in a small group, if it got captured by somebody else and was posted online, now the world knows. And so, the course correction that comes from that—I have no problem with someone—if someone says something that’s morally obnoxious, their friend should say, “Hey, that’s obnoxious. You shouldn’t say that.”
That kind of abrasion is a good kind of abrasion. That’s part of the learning process. But there’s a point when that social abrasion gets weaponized online, and it’s a full force, cataclysmic kind of abrasion. That weaponized version of abrasion, I think, can be too much of a consequence for somebody who’s trying to learn. And I also think it gets abused by those who then use it not really to help their friend or the other person that they’re in the conversation with maybe course-correct, which would be a morally upright thing to do.
When you stand up to someone and you say, “That was not an okay thing to say,” that pushback is certainly appropriate. But when you use social media to just then elevate your own, to self-promote through moral grandstanding, I think that’s a real problem. So, I think that the grandstanding and the amplification that can happen on social media is actually something that’s highly corrosive of not only our conversations, but also, I think it’s morally corrosive.
KLUTSEY: I really like your point about the reactive nature of this, which makes it difficult for people to pause and reflect, to give their responses to whatever it is that’s going on. You hear phrases like “silence is violence” and deployed towards things where someone might want to take a minute or a day or two to reflect on their response.
Design Principles for Good Conversation
KLUTSEY: So, it’s a really great point. And it also seems as though we need these design principles now more than ever. Can you outline them for us? You’d mentioned humility as one of them. You talked about the assumption and practice of good faith. What are some of the other design principles that can help us?
CHAMLEE-WRIGHT: Sure. I could talk about that all day. You probably didn’t want to open up that floodgate, Ben. One is contestability. And that goes back to, I think, what you had signaled was an original concern about, is there contestability of ideas in the public square and on campus, on college campuses? And so, this is one of the reasons why I emphasize the importance of intellectual diversity. It’s not that I think that there should be equal time for political ideologies or anything silly like that.
Intellectual diversity is important because it’s the contest of ideas that helps us to understand what’s wrong with our own ideas, with our starting points. If you think about going into any other kind of environment where you want to improve—if you enter into the gym to get physically fit and there are no weights in the gym, well, that’s not a very good gym. And so, if you enter into an intellectual environment and there’s no one pushing back on you at all, that’s not going to be a very productive intellectual experience. You’re not going to learn very much.
Intellectual diversity only comes in an environment where ideas can be contested. And that’s what I mean by contestability. So, we need an environment where there’s contestability of ideas, even if it’s in a classroom that might say, “There are boundaries here. We’re in a class around political theory, and we’re going to talk about these political theorists today.” We can limit the conversation to those political theorists. But beyond that, you don’t want to say there’s only one point of view about this particular theory that we’re discussing. So, we don’t want to overly limit our conversational spaces if we’re going to learn.
Another of the design principles that I think is fundamental to liberalism is that if we’re going to have productive conversations, we have to assume that everybody in the conversation is our dignified equal. And that is that symmetry between liberalism broadly understood and good conversations, is that you don’t get special status in this just because you come in a particular package. I don’t get special status in this conversation because I come in a particular package. You may know more about something than I do, and so I might be deferential to you and your expertise. But in the broader world, you and I both have equal moral standing.
And that’s what I mean by, we’re all dignified equals in this conversation. If you don’t have that, you don’t really have a real conversation. So, I think that that’s important. It helps us to understand that students’ perspectives—even though they’re not the experts—their perspectives really still matter in the academic conversation in the classroom because they’re part of the production process of new knowledge. They’re part of the production process of their own learning. So, their status within the classroom has to be respected as being on par with everybody else in a moral sense.
I guess I’ll sneak in one more. There’s quite a few others. Critical thinking is obviously one. But I would say that when we talk about civility, it’s a commonly misunderstood word. So, I think a special emphasis needs to be put on civility.
Some see civility as politeness. And so, people have pushed back on that to say, “Oh, in the face of injustice, you want me to be civil, meaning you want me to be polite and give equal time and listen patiently while someone goes on a racist rant, for example. Well, I’m not having it. I’m not going to be polite to that person. So, I’m going to reject your claim that I need to be civil.”
I think that’s the wrong way to think about civility because I would agree with that person that one needn’t be patient and polite to the person who’s engaging in a racist rant. First of all, they’ve broken the most fundamental rule of what it means to be in a good conversation, as they’re not treating the other person in the conversation as a dignified equal.
Secondly, I think that if we are in a moment where we need to say a hard truth to someone . . . Let’s say you’re at a dinner party, and your host is going on and on in this kind of boring, telling stories. And we know what politeness means. It’s like we endure the stories, even though it’s not our favorite thing to do. We’re the guest in that person’s home, so we act in a polite manner. That’s appropriate.
But let’s say that person then starts going off onto some illiberal racist rant. That’s not a moment where you need to be abiding by the rules of polite society. I think it’s fine to step outside of what’s expected of you in that moment, which is, “Oh, I’m supposed to be polite and not challenge my host.” I think that you could set aside the norms of politeness in that moment.
And then you can say to that person, “You’re acting in a way or you’re speaking in a way that is offensive. You’re acting or speaking in a way that’s morally obnoxious.” And I might go on and explain why. By speaking truth in that moment when it’s generally exercising a good deal of courage—at least, I think it can be hard to dig deep and to find that gumption that’s required to speak outside of the boundaries of what would ordinarily be considered polite.
But I would say it’s the height of civility. When you hold a mirror up to somebody and you say, “This is not appropriate,” I think that actually is civil because what you’re doing is you’re recognizing the dignity in that person to say, “You’re not living up to the best that you can be. You’re not upholding values that we all would have agreed to in advance about how this conversation would go. You’re not upholding that principle of inherent human dignity.” So, in that case, you are acting in a way that’s civil. But it’s civility with courage.
And so, I think that’s a better way to understand what it is that we’re after when we talk about the importance of civility. It’s not politeness, right? Oftentimes, if you were to draw a Venn diagram, the politeness circle and the civility circle, they have a lot of overlap. But it’s not a perfect overlap. And there are times when you are required to step outside of the boundaries of the politeness circle.
But you’re still well within the civility circle if you’re speaking truth to power, if you’re calling someone out for acting or speaking inappropriately. I think that’s still honoring the dignity within that person. And so, I think of that as being still within bounds of civility.
KLUTSEY: Now in the context of things are tweeted or posted in the blog somewhere and it’s archived 10, 15 years, what’s the role of forgiveness in this? I was thinking about that as you were speaking on that and wondering whether that plays a role in this conversation, having civil discourse.
CHAMLEE-WRIGHT: I’ve just now added a new design principle for me to think about, potentially write about. I think that’s a really important principle. Like a lot of these principles, we could probably find some examples where they tend to be more defaults as opposed to hard rules that we never would want to abridge. I mean, honesty is a really good example of this. I think of honesty and fair dealing in conversation as being an important design principle.
But if you came to me and you told me you were upset and you want to know how to get a gun, I would lie to you and say, “I don’t know how to get a gun. And I don’t think that you can even get one.” I would do whatever I could to lie to you if I thought you would harm yourself or somebody else. There are times when honesty and fair dealing in the conversation— There are extreme examples like that where, no, we’re going to take that off the table.
So, I think that maybe forgiveness is like that, where there are times where it’s so egregious or that the person has such power that what they did 15 years ago actually might be important. And I think that there are differences between somebody who’s 65 and what they did 15 years ago versus somebody who’s 20 or 25 and what they did 15 years ago. That matters. So, I don’t know that there’s going to be any hard and fast rules on this one.
So, with all of that caveating put aside, I do think that there is an important principle at play here for forgiveness because it does go to that. If we think that there is the opportunity for people to learn through their mistakes, that’s really important for us to then figure out, well, what are the boundaries around forgiveness? And so, what I’m admitting here is I think it’s a really important point that you’re making.
And I also think it’s one that deserves scholarly attention because I don’t think I know exactly how I would put those boundaries. I’d need to think harder about that, about what are the hard cases that help to inform when it’s appropriate to forgive and when it perhaps isn’t appropriate to forgive? That’s a really good question, and I love that this conversation has led me to thinking about adding another one to the toolkit.
Implementing Conversational Principles
KLUTSEY: Great. I wonder if that also plays a role in conversations about the Founding Fathers and things like that because I know that that’s a very relevant conversation these days. Now, for the academics who might be listening to us—professors and folks who might be in policy and so on—and might be wondering, how do we implement these principles? Is it a matter of modeling them and leading by example?
CHAMLEE-WRIGHT: It certainly includes that, for sure. We always want to be modeling these principles, one of the ways. And some of us will model certain kinds of principles, just because of our role, more so than others. So, for example, I think that a scholar is in a great position to model the design principle of humility. But not only humility as in deference to expertise, but humility as an active curiosity, a knowledge-seeking humility that recognizes that even though they come into the classroom with expertise, that they are not the only source of new knowledge in the classroom experience or in the scholarly experience.
And modeling that can be so powerful to a student when the faculty member is, the professor is, practiced at the art of asking the right question that helps the student understand that he or she brings something to the table even though they are not experts themselves. They bring something valuable that informs and improves the quality of the scholarly conversation. And that takes a lot of modeling, and it takes a lot of skill. It’s one of the, I think, hallmarks of the masterful teacher who can do that.
The first thing they need to do is check their ego at the door because it means that they’re putting aside their own need to be seen as the expert. By tapping that creative and that source of insight with students, I think can be transformational in terms of helping students understand what it looks like and feels like to be a liberally educated person. If that’s all that professor did, that’s such an important contribution that they don’t need to do much else.
Doing that really, really well is fantastic. But that being said, I do think that in our intellectual communities, both in primary, secondary school and in post-secondary education, I think we need to be more deliberate about it. Perhaps this was never true, but I don’t think it’s true now that we can just assume that there will be a default toward assuming good faith on the part of our conversation partners.
What I’m advocating for is a hermeneutics of understanding, which has this posture that says, “I really disagree with what Ben has just said.” Instead of going to the default that says, “So, Ben disagrees with me. That position that he’s holding is evil. Therefore, he must be evil. Therefore, I don’t need to listen to Ben because I don’t want to have his evil thoughts polluting my thoughts.”
A hermeneutics of understanding says, “Well, that’s really intriguing. Ben disagrees with me on this. We’re looking at the same data; we’re looking at the same world. I know that Ben’s really smart. And he comes away with a conclusion that’s different from mine. I want to understand why.” It doesn’t mean that I have to be ready to toss out all of my years of thinking about that topic on a whim just because you disagree with me.
But it does require me to say, “I’m curious about why Ben disagrees with me.” So, that hermeneutics of understanding, I think, is really important. And I think that that actually has to be deliberately cultivated when it’s so much more enticing and tempting, and it’s a kind of intellectual laziness, to default to a hermeneutics of suspicion. So, if we default to the hermeneutics of suspicion, it’s that, “Ben disagrees with me. It must be because he . . . ” and then fill in the blank: “. . . is a trafficker in bad ideas and evil ideas.”
That I think actually does require thought. It requires a kind of training to get us away from that. There are some who argue that there’s a part of our brain that sees people who disagree with us as a modern version of a threat, and we respond to it as if—our primitive ancestors would have quickly run in the face of a threat, a wild beast about to devour them.
We want that part of our brain to protect us from threats, but unfortunately, we don’t need that in moments of intellectual exchange. But our bodies react as if that’s what’s happening to us. And so, that impulse needs to get trained out of us. Or we need to control it. We need to let the higher-order thinking processes allow us to say, “Hey, wait, slow down. Slow your heart rate down. Just because he disagrees with you doesn’t mean that he’s evil.” And also, it doesn’t mean that he necessarily thinks that you’re evil either.
And so, calm down; you can have the conversation. Act curiously. And start to ask some good questions. And that needs to be cultivated. You need lots and lots of reps, and I think we need to be deliberate in our coaching of younger scholars. Whether those younger scholars are 10-year-olds or undergraduates or graduate students, we need to coach one another into thinking in that way.
The Future of Liberalism
KLUTSEY: And as we get to the end of our conversation here, there’s one question I like to ask our guests, is whether you’re optimistic or not about the future of liberalism in our society today.
CHAMLEE-WRIGHT: There are lots of reasons to be concerned. If we look around the world, we are seeing rising illiberalism right at a time when we ought to be bullish on liberalism. As Deirdre McCloskey argues, thinking of the hockey stick of human flourishing that has come about through liberal ideas, also liberal impulses and economic liberalism, we ought to be thinking more positively than ever. But we’re seeing illiberalism emerging in a kind of extreme cultural reaction on both ends of the ideological spectrum.
But also in the world of ideas, we’re seeing a lot of challenges—intellectual challenges to liberalism from both the left and the right. Economic progressives want to have much more top-down control of economic processes. And interestingly, so do people on the right who are conservative populists, nationalist populists, who want to see a lot more top-down control of economic processes through industrial policy.
That kind of challenge requires us to pay very clear, close attention, and we need to be engaging in those conversations. And what’s interesting to me, though, is—and now you’re going to really see where I want to get to—is that I am an optimist ultimately. I think that there are real challenges to liberalism right now. That said, ultimately, I’m an optimist because I do believe in the power of conversation, that when these ideas are actually put forward . . .
And also, by the way, I do think that the liberal project is not a completed project. You referred to the Founding Fathers before. The path towards the good society is a long and crooked one. I do read the works of the Founding Fathers, but not with a sense of reverence like they had everything right, for goodness’s sakes. Of course, they didn’t. No one ever has. And so, the liberal project needs to continue to be built.
One of the things I’m most excited about is that with these challenges to liberalism, it gives us a reason to call people back to the conversation around liberalism. There was a time at the disintegration of the Soviet Union, for example, when it was declared the end of history, that liberalism had won, that really there aren’t any great debates anymore. I think we got a little lazy as liberals. I think that we started to see liberalism as the ground that would always be there.
And just like when you get out of bed in the morning, that ground is going to be there and it’s going to hold you up. You don’t wonder, “Should I get out of bed today? Maybe the ground won’t support me.” No, you don’t think that. You just pop out of bed, right? You don’t think about it. And so, liberalism is like that. For a long time I think we forgot to defend it. We forgot to think about it seriously. And now we’re pushed to think about it seriously, to engage its challengers and the challenges alike. I think that we need to be thinking hard about it.
We need to be calling people back home to that project broadly understood. The broad liberal project requires more than just a few people who are focused in on classical liberal ideas. I think it includes those people. I think it includes classical liberals. But classical liberals also need to be engaging in conversations, both on the left and the right, with anyone who still has any kind of connection to the liberal project. We need to be calling those folks back home and setting the table and saying, “Let’s have the conversation about liberalism broadly understood.”
And this is part of the work that I just was doing. I couldn’t imagine a more optimistic project than to be setting the table to have great conversations about liberalism because I do think that that will be part of the answer. And part of the reason why we still are moving forward to advance the liberal project broadly is because we now have reason to come together around the conversation.
KLUTSEY: I love your optimism. And one final question: I know that the Institute of Humane Studies (IHS) is working on this project called the Discourse Initiative. Can you talk a little bit about that?
CHAMLEE-WRIGHT: Sure. And my last comment is the perfect setup for it, which is to say that we’re seeing illiberalism on the rise in both popular culture and challenges to liberalism within the academy. This is a moment where we need to make sure that we’re drawing scholarly attention back to liberalism broadly understood. So, whether it’s a scholar who is left of center, a classical liberal, a right-of-center scholar, as long as they still have roots within the liberal tradition broadly understood, as long as they still see the value of building on the liberal project of a free society, a society in which every human being can flourish, as long as they’re still in that game, we should be talking to one another.
And that’s where the Discourse Initiative starts, is IHS wants to set the table for those conversations. Those conversations are literal conversations, in-person conversations, written conversations. We’re supporting book projects and scholarly research that help us to grapple with the challenges to a free society, help us to grapple with challenges coming from both left and right around the liberal project. And also, applying the ideas of liberalism, especially at a moment when we’ve got so much disruption going on.
I mean, think about the confluence of all the disruptive forces. We have a global pandemic. We have the economic chaos that comes out of that pandemic. We have a deep desire for real, radical social change with respect to policing and criminal justice reform, for example. We have a massive ideological realignment going on. This is a moment where we have all of this disruption going on.
Classical liberal ideas need to be a part of each of these conversations. And so, again, 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.
KLUTSEY: Thank you. And I think this is a good place to end on that positive, action-oriented note. Thank you very much, Dr. Chamlee-Wright, for taking the time to speak to us. We really appreciate it.
CHAMLEE-WRIGHT: Thank you, Ben. And thank you for all the great work that you do and that Mercatus does. You are part of the project of building a better society, and I count myself lucky that I get to be in your company.
KLUTSEY: Thank you.