On Liberty, And Other Abstractions
'We all declare for liberty," Abraham Lincoln once told a crowd in Baltimore, "but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing." Delivered just months after his Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln's point was that our founding fathers' idea of liberty -- a concept prominently featured in their declaration of independence from England -- should never have been interpreted to mean Southern landowners had the "liberty" to enslave others. Lincoln acknowledged that many in Maryland didn't share this view. Nevertheless, he said, justice demanded that the practice of human bondage be called by its true name: tyranny.
Today there is near-universal agreement that slavery is repugnant. Yet in other ways America's high-stakes struggle to define our founding principles is ongoing. Since the attacks of September 11, the battle has become particularly intense. Among other vexing questions: Just how does a free nation at war balance citizens' civil rights and liberties against legitimate security needs?
Peter Vallentyne, author, editor, professor and first holder of MU's Florence G. Kline Chair of Philosophy, has long wrestled with such questions, though in a manner Abe Lincoln would not have recognized. Like most professional philosophers in North America, Vallentyne subscribes to the "analytic" method of philosophical inquiry -- a process by which the logical underpinnings of concepts such as liberty, justice and morality are rigorously analyzed and then invoked in detailed argumentation. The goal, Vallentyne says, is to tease out ambiguities in order to pin down meaning.
"Some philosophers do specialize in applied issues, and that's important. But I'm interested in questions at the more general, abstract level: What, in general, are the principles that determine whether something is morally permissible? How do you test them? How do you argue that one is more correct or superior to another one?"
Analytic philosophy owes more to math, linguistics and formal logic than to genteel disputations in academia's sylvan groves. This suits the 52-year-old Vallentyne, a writer and thinker whose interests always tended toward the empirical. "When I started doing philosophy I was mainly concerned with philosophy of mathematics, logic, philosophy of science," Vallentyne says, adding that these pursuits fit neatly into a pattern dating back to his childhood. "As a kid I was interested in math and languages. I really had no idea what philosophy was. Later, after I dropped out of university and was working, I would go to the library and be drawn to the philosophy section. I didn't know what it was but there was something that interested me."
Vallentyne hails from a long line of scholars: His father was a professor of biology, his grandfather and great-grandfather both classics professors. Vallentyne himself certainly never fit the stereotype of the "college dropout." During his hiatus from study, for example, he not only worked crunching numbers for an insurance firm, but also immersed himself in the work of philosopher John Rawls, passed a set of demanding actuarial exams, and traveled to Paris to improve his French language skills.
Little wonder that Vallentyne soon returned to formal studies. At Montreal's prestigious McGill University, he completed degrees in math and philosophy, then headed south to earn a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. After a brief stint teaching at the University of Western Ontario, he settled into a faculty position at Virginia Commonwealth University. There he quickly established himself as a tireless scholar and administrator, publishing dozens of papers, speaking at conferences around the world, and serving for 11 years as department chair.
The Kline Chair brought Vallentyne to MU last year. He says the focus of his research and teaching here will reflect his more recent concern with contemporary libertarian and egalitarian thought, "theories of what a just society would be, what kinds of laws it should have and so on."
For his students, this focus will mean a rigorous journey through the thickets of contemporary thought, including exhaustive examinations of the aforementioned concepts of liberty, justice and morality. "The big thing we can do," Vallentyne says, "is to get them thinking carefully and systematically about the ideas. ... There is still going to be disagreement; it's not a panacea, not a cure-all. But we really do make progress: We get rid of confusion; we get rid of false assumptions; we point out unanticipated implications."
As for the rest of us, Vallentyne says his exacting form of inquiry offers a different set of consolations. "Think of my research as you would mathematics. A lot of what you do is never going to be useful. Some of it will have enormous influence. You just don't know what it will be. It takes time. It has to trickle down, to get picked up by someone else. That's the kind of impact theoretical political philosophers have."