Symposium on Rationalism Pluralism and Freedom

Symposium on Jacob Levy’s Rationalism, Pluralism and Freedom

RPF-coverWhat should liberals think about so-called “intermediary” groups like churches, the Boy Scouts, and universities? On the one hand, such groups can help to protect individual liberty by serving as a check against the monolithic power of the centralized state. On the other hand, those groups can and sometimes do threaten the liberty of both group members and outsiders.

Jacob Levy’s Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom is a fascinating exploration of these questions through an investigation into the history of liberal ideas. On Levy’s analysis, there are two equally important but ultimately irreconcilable strands in liberalism: a rationalist strand that seeks to impose uniformity, order, and and equality upon the social order, and a pluralist strand that is skeptical of the central state and friendly toward local and customary forms of organization.

Given those descriptions, it might be tempting for readers of this blog to think of rationalism as a statist view, and pluralism as the classical liberal alternative. But matters aren’t quite that simple, and the underlying tension not that easily resolved. A radical libertarianism founded on a universal vision of human rights, for example, seems to be as much a rationalist view as the more state-centric forms of socialism. In both cases, a vision of society is based on a comprehensive vision of justice that is difficult to reconcile with, say, a robust form of federalism that allows local communities significant discretion in the organization of their own affairs. Justice is justice, and while the “framework for utopia” may allow within it significant room for self-direction, the framework itself is non-negotiable.

Ultimately, on Levy’s view, the tension between rationalism and pluralism is one that we must live with, rather than overcome. Is he right? And if so, what institutional forms are best suited to striking the right balance?

All this week, we’re going to be exploring these issues in a symposium on Jacob’s book here at Bleeding Heart Libertarians. Starting later today, we’ll be running a series of essays by scholars examining various themes and theses in the book. Those of you who haven’t read it yet can get up to speed by reading some of the reviews here, or listening to this excellent interview Jacob did with Libertarianism.Org’s Free Thoughts podcast here. For those of you in the DC area, you can also go to the book event Jacob will be doing at the Mercatus Center on January 21st.

Our contributors this week include:

  • William Baude – William Baude is Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School, where he teaches federal courts and constitutional law. He received his J.D. from Yale Law School, and his B.S. in Mathematics from the University of Chicago, where he took American Political Thought from Jacob Levy. You can follow his writings on Twitter (@WilliamBaude) and SSRN.
  • Russell Arben Fox – Russell is professor of political science at Friends University, a small Christian liberal arts college. He received his Ph.D. from Catholic University of America in 2001; between then and beginning at Friends in 2006, he taught at universities in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Illinois. He’s published academic articles and reviews on such topics as American nationalism, classical Confucian political thought, Sheldon S. Wolin, communitarian theory, J.G. Herder, populism, Mormonism, public education, German romanticism, and bicycling. He is currently working on a book on community, democracy, and sustainability in mid-sized cities. He lives with his wife Melissa and their five daughters (though one has left the nest), serves at his church, bikes to work, and contributes to the Bernie Sanders campaign in Wichita, KS. Russell blogs at In Medias Res and occasionally at Front Porch Republic.
  • Annelien de Dijn – Annelien de Dijn is a Senior Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands as well as a NIAS Senior Research Fellow (2015-2016). Her research focuses on the history of political thought in Europe and in the United States, from 1700 to the present.  She has a particular interest in the fraught and contested history of freedom in the West. She has held visiting appointments at Columbia University, Cambridge University, the Remarque Institute at NYU and U.C. Berkeley. A past recipient of Fulbright and B.A.E.F. fellowships, Dr. de Dijn was educated at the University of Leuven in Belgium and at Columbia University.
  • David Watkins – David Watkins is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Dayton, and occasional blogger at Lawyers Guns and Money. His research focuses on contemporary democratic theory, republicanism, and political theory and immigration. Recent publications include “Compared to What? Judicial Review and other Veto Points in Contemporary Democratic Theory,” Perspectives on Politics, June 2015 (co-authored with Scott Lemieux), “Institutionalizing Freedom as Non-Domination: Democracy and the Role of the State,” Polity, October 2015, and “Justice for Border Crossing Peoples,” in The Meaning of Citizenship, ed. Richard Marback (Wayne State University Press, 2015).
  • Paul Horwitz – Paul Horwitz is the Gordon Rosen professor of law at the University of Alabama, and the author of dozens of articles and of two books, The Agnostic Age: Law, Religion, and the Constitution (Oxford University Press), and First Amendment Institutions (Harvard University Press). He has been a visiting professor at the University of Iowa, Notre Dame, and the University of San Diego, and was an associate professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. He is a former law clerk to the Hon. Ed Carnes of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Professor Horwitz received his LL.B. from the University of Toronto, where he was co-editor-in-chief of the University of Toronto Faculty Law Review, and his LL.M. from Columbia Law School.
  • Richard Garnett – Richard Garnett teaches and writes about the freedoms of speech, association, and religion, and also about constitutional law more generally. He is a leading authority on questions and debates regarding the role of religious believers and beliefs in politics and society. He has published widely on these matters, and is the author of dozens of law-review articles and book chapters. His current research project, Two There Are: Understanding the Separation of Church and State, will be published by Cambridge University Press. Professor Garnett is regularly invited to share analysis and commentary in national print and broadcast media, and he contributes to several law-related blogs, including Mirror of Justice and PrawfsBlawg. He is the founding director of Notre Dame Law School’s new Program on Church, State, and Society, an interdisciplinary project that focuses on the role of religious institutions, communities, and authorities in the social order.

Please join us for what should be an exciting and enlightening week of conversation!


    No professional philosopher to help navigate the muddy waters, though? Meh…

  • Koen Swinkels

    It may be useful to distinguish between 3 forms of pluralism in the realm of justice:

    1. Pluralism re answers to the question what is just*

    2. Pluralism re answers to the question how to best achieve / implement a given conception of justice

    3. Pluralism re agents who are tasked with achieving / implementing a conception of justice

    In a bottom-up situation in which people and groups each try their own methods for achieving / implementing their own conceptions of justice (at a local or non-local level) there would be pluralism of all 3 kinds.

    In a situation in which there is only one person or group (the state) who determines what is just, how it is to be achieved / implemented and who tasks itself with so achieving / implementing it, there would be pluralism in none of the 3 senses mentioned above.

    Currently it seems that many philosophers of justice assume that there is one right answer to the question what is just, that ideal theory is the method to find that answer, and that the resulting correct conception of justice is to be implemented in a top-down way, by agents of the state or by groups or people who are tasked by the state to do so.

    *Maybe also make a distinction here between 1) the idea that there is / can only be 1 answer to the question what is just even though currently there is a plurality of candidate answers and it not yet clear which is the right one, and 2) the idea that there is no single right answer (and that there cannot or need not be one) to the question what is just, that there is a plurality of valid answers to that question

    • Koen Swinkels

      Some years ago I wrote a draft paper that discusses some of these issue: “Justice Theories and Practices: An inquiry into the role and nature of knowledge in statist, ideal theories of justice and the pluralist alternative”