November 11, 2020 Print

Leonard P. Liggio was the executive vice president of academics at Atlas Network, and was “the great builder” of classical liberalism’s revival in the second half of the 20th century. As a scholar, as a gentlemen, and—perhaps most of all—as a behind-the-scenes builder of the freedom movement, Leonard set an inspiring example for us to emulate. To ensure that the new freedom champions of today (and tomorrow) appreciate Leonard’s many contributions, Atlas Network established the Liggio Lecture Series as a central part of its annual Atlas Network’s Liberty Forum & Freedom Dinner, one of the freedom movement’s must-attend international events.

The 8th Annual Liggio Lecture was delivered by Professor David Schmidtz of the University of Arizona. Below is the text of his lecture.


As moral philosophy emerged from Scottish Enlightenment, it spawned social sciences in general and political economy in particular. Towering over Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume and Adam Smith were on a quest to “introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects” (to borrow subtitle of Hume’s Treatise).

Things didn’t go according to plan though, and therein lies a story.

To be clear, while I’m going to talk about a feature of the Academy that I regret, I have no personal complaint. Things have gone well, I’ve had fabulous mentors, one of whom was Leonard Liggio.

Leonard had an extraordinary career and was blessed with some great colleagues.

He was an awesome scholar, and he did it the right way. He sweated the details, and put together incredible narratives stuffed with detail. Anyone who ever heard Leonard lecture knows what I’m talking about.

Leonard had a moral compass and a big heart, but he was shy. I had many conversations with him when I was a student, but he was so low key. I’d ask him a question, he’d answer in detail, with footnotes, and that was the end of the conversation. That’s all I got from him in terms of reaction or recognition, so I wasn’t sure he even knew who I was.

But then I got my first invitation to Europe, and that’s how I met Jacque and Pierre Garello in Aix-en-Province in 1988.

Then I got my second invitation, this time to Dubrovnik in 1989 just weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall, when everyone knew the world was going to change.

Both of those invitations were quietly instigated by Leonard Liggio, and Leonard was tickled—he knew those would be formative events for me, and he knew I’d never forget.

So, I didn’t know Leonard well, but I knew him well enough that I can thank Leonard for showing me what kind of man a scholar can be. I won’t forget that either.

Thanks so much—Brad and everyone—for having me here at this event. It’s one of the great honors of my career.

And now let me try to connect a few historical dots, in a way I hope would’ve intrigued Leonard.

For Scottish Enlightenment scholars, the mid-1700’s was a heady time. Europe had never seen a better opportunity to make progress.

Hume and Smith were pushing the frontier of moral science. Among philosophers, Scottish observation-based approach was called empiricism.

The Enlightenment view was that there is such a thing as human nature, and it can be studied and understood.

The point is not that anything about the human condition is logically necessary, but that in crucial ways the human condition is law-like. There are regularities.

Certainty is not in the cards, but we can have grounds for making predictions.

To a scientist, having a basis for prediction doesn’t mean we’ll never be surprised. That was never the point.

The point is, science helps us understand what to count as a surprise. We can know when the world is off-script and trying to teach us something new.

But it’s also true that ambition of Hume and Smith would become a victim of its own success. Their advocacy of observation-based reasoning (and of specialization) would lead in the 1800’s not to Philosophy becoming Moral Science, as they envisioned, but rather to the social sciences splitting away from Philosophy, becoming their own siloed specializations, and leaving Philosophy to reinvent itself as a discipline that was anything but empirical.

By the mid-1800’s, John Stuart Mill would come to be seen as taking empiricism to the limit, arguing that everything we know comes to us by experience and experiment.

Even propositions like “2+2=4” are learned by generalizing from observed results. In his day, Mill was visible and influential as an expositor of the new moral sciences.

So, Mill was taken seriously when, in service of making moral philosophy more scientific, he produced a series of works culminating in 1848 with Principles of Political Economy.

In those writings, Mill separated study of how goods are produced from study of how goods are distributed. That’s what you do for sake of analytical rigor and tough-minded science: if 2 things can be separated, you separate them.

How goods are produced is a question of economics. How goods ought to be distributed is a question for philosophers: those who work on justice.

As one of our Arizona alumni, Kevin Vallier notes, Mill also thought humanity had largely exhausted frontier of technological progress.

To be sure, the telegraph was invented by 1837, and by 1848, many could see that electricity’s potential, especially regarding distance communication, was far from exhausted.

Even at the time, then, there was ample reason to doubt that a steady-state economy was around the corner, and to doubt that better distribution was only remaining avenue for substantial human progress.

And yet, still, for whatever reason, Mill did expect the coming age to be an economic steady state with relatively little news on the production side.

Human progress would come via better distribution, not rising productivity, which made distribution the central topic.

Today, we don’t remember Mill pressing that unfortunate distinction, but it shaped our thinking so fundamentally we can hardly imagine not treating production and distribution as separate topics.

Scottish Enlightenment philosophers like Hume and Smith studied historical patterns that, to them, were relevant to questions about ethics, say, the ethics of trade barriers.

But ethics was no longer moored in observable consequences of alternative trade policies.

Ethics and political philosophy had turned into something else—something so far removed from science that today, calling it moral science could seem oxymoronic.

But sometimes, what looks like two things is actually one, along lines of the morning star and evening star. If we presume to treat them as separate simply because they appear to be so, we make mistakes.

Ironically, in aftermath of Mill’s distinction between production and distribution [of how society works and what makes people good for each other], philosophy retreated from what empiricism had been, and it was cut off from the scientific study of what makes some societies more productive than others.

The remnants of philosophy were left to ask how we ought to distribute pie. By default, we were left to assume that, since distribution is the question left to philosophers, it must be the question of justice.

Consider not only how abstract but how deceptive it is to imagine a pie sitting there, passively waiting for us to decide how to slice it.

Treated in academic isolation, there is no testable answer to question of how to divide it.

We have only rival intuitions about the fairness of dividing the pie one way or another.

When intuitions conflict, we have no tools to resolve the conflict, other than to look for flaws in people who see things differently.

Undergraduates infer from our inability to resolve debate that it’s “all relative” or “all subjective.” We know they’re badly mistaken, but after a century of distancing ourselves from tools for constructing testable moral hypotheses, even our best attempts to steer students back toward verifiable truth seem more clever than wise.

Yet, there was a time when we knew that justice has roughly nothing to do with how we treat the pie, and everything to do with how we treat bakers.

If we set aside everything we’ve learned about the terms of engagement under which bakers are better off living together, there is no testable answer to question of how to divide the pie.

We know justice isn’t merely a matter of opinion, but we made it look that way when we started treating Philosophy as outside realm of empirical test.

Philosophy is now something like this. We look at a snapshot of a busy intersection. We see how arbitrary it is that some people have red lights and others have green.

We focus exclusively on the snapshot because cause and effect and empirical generalizations about process that we study in sociology, economics, and psychology—these things are all autonomous social sciences now.

What works is the province of social science.

What’s fair? That’s Philosophy. If we set aside social science and just look at a snapshot of social life at its busy intersections where traffic is congested and conflicts of interest become apparent, then we can have a vision beyond reach of testing and refutation: 

Namely, in an ideally just world, everyone would have a green light—at the same time. It wouldn’t be prosperous. Or productive. Or peaceful. But it would be just.

Would it be just? How would we know? What would count as evidence? To call something just is to say something good about it.

What’s good about justice?

Consider that something evolved among human beings as a device for managing traffic. We call it justice.

Justice did not evolve as a device for telling us what to want—what our destination should be (although we’ve been misconstruing it that way).

Instead, what we call justice evolved as a device for coping with a realization that enduring peace starts with recognizing everyone has their own life to live, and to avoid being a threat to our neighbors, we have to treat them as having the right and responsibility to decide for themselves what to want.

Justice evolved as a device for conveying our mutual intention not to be in each other’s way, and beyond that, signaling a mutual intention to be positively useful, to be a positive contributor to the lives of our neighbors, to build places for ourselves as contributors to a community, playing roles that our neighbors can appreciate.

That leaves us needing to know what justice is, and needing to know means needing our beliefs about justice to be not merely untestable intuition but to somehow, some way, be grounded in observable fact.

So one thing that we can say is that some forms of equality, like everyone having a green light at the same time—that’s a prescription for gridlock. But there are other kinds of equality. 

We simply learn to take turns. When you’re next in line, then sir, it is your turn. That doesn’t look like equality when you take a snapshot of it, but it is a profoundly egalitarian institution. In that case, justice isn’t everything, but it’s a foundation, and nearly everything we want from a community is built on that foundation.

Let me rephrase, and in the process stress, if justice has anything to do with effective traffic management, then justice is all about the fact that we have different destinations.

So, let’s ponder that for a second.

Observe the extent of disagreement and diversity in society. Consider how idiosyncratic and incompatible our individual visions of perfection are, thus how unfit any of them are to be a blueprint for a community.

Part of the essence of toleration, of mature adulthood—of being fit to live in a community at all—is acknowledging that it isn’t our place to decide what other people are for.

Presupposed by all this—the most primordial political fact of all—is the fact that I am not alone. I live among beings who decide for themselves.

I may feel that people can’t reasonably reject my deepest convictions about justice. But they can, and they know it.

This fact makes politics what it is, and it makes justice what it is.

Ideally, we want to co-exist in peace with all of our neighbors, not only the ideal ones nor even just the agreeable ones. Realistic idealism aims to identify what, if anything, is observably enabling people to thrive under actual conditions, not merely ideal ones.

When disagreement is inevitable, the political ideal is to make disagreement non-threatening—to make it safe to disagree.

A fully adult political animal’s ideal is not to win but to avoid needing to win. 

Moral Ideals Are Destinations. Political Ideals Are Rights of Way
Honestly taking into account the fact of diversity comes down to asking: “what terms of engagement are appropriate for people who don’t even agree on which terms of engagement are appropriate?”

The question is not cute. It is the crux of the human condition.

Rushing to treat our own intuitions about perfect justice as rationally compelling is a classic way of failing to rise to the level of seriousness that justice demands.

I work on theories, and a theory is just like a map. A theory is a map drawn with words. No map represents the only reasonable way of seeing the terrain. There is no such thing as the one compellingly correct way to draw the map.

We’d be astounded if two cartography students, working separately on mapping a terrain, and they drew identical maps. It wouldn’t happen.

If it did, we’d be sure at least one of them cheated, and theorizing is like that as well. Theorizing does not lead to consensus.

Some ideals are moral ideals, and some ideals are political ideals. We recognize that many of the people with whom we are going to live, and with whom we’d rather not be at war, are people whose moral ideals are unlike ours.

So, we make a political decision. We determine where we are not going to agree, and then work to make sure that, in those areas, we don’t need to.

Does it matter that we can’t reach consensus on destinations? In ordinary life, not much. In ordinary life what matters more is that we readily coordinate on norms of traffic management. We figure out what to expect from each another, and we figure out how to stay out of each other’s way.

We hardly ever come to a mutual understanding about who has the superior destination, and yet we have a robust history of readily reaching mutual understanding of who has right of way.

Freedom of religion is one of humanity’s greatest triumphs. You need not decide whether my choice of religion is a good choice. You need only decide whether it’s my choice.

What won the day was not a religion so much as people seeing that religion didn’t have to come up for debate.

What grew in the soil of religious freedom was more general than religious toleration. It was Western Civilization itself.

Our greatest triumphs in learning to live together stem not from agreeing on what’s correct but from agreeing to let people decide for themselves.

When discussion isn’t needed, that’s a triumph in specifying terms of engagement. We make progress by defining jurisdictions that respect people who want and need to share the road, but neither want nor need to share (or even discuss) destinations.

Above all, no one has to accept being relegated to a category of persons whose destination is second class.

Thriving communities minimize our need to justify our destination to others. Indeed, a traffic management system’s utility lies in people not needing to justify themselves.

We don’t stop at intersections to justify our destinations. We stop because its someone else’s turn.

Freedom of religion and freedom of speech are among our signature successes in learning how to live together.

Liberalism, in its classic form, is in part a confidence that the greater the range of beliefs made to feel at home in a society, the more intellectually vibrant, materially prosperous, and morally progressive a society ultimately will be.