9 September, 2015: Gerald Gaus on Moral Learning in Open Societies

On Wednesday 9 September 2015 from 15:00 to 17:00 Gerald Gaus, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona, will present a paper on 'Moral Learning in the Open Society: The Theory and Practice of Natural Liberty' at Leiden University's Centre for Political Philosophy. Professor Gauss will address the question whether a commitment to natural liberty, as the default in a system of rules, is somehow implicit in our moral thinking.

Venue, registration, contact information

Institute of Philosophy, Leiden University, Reuvensplaats 3-4, Leiden, room 1.01e.

Attendance of the Centre for Political Philosophy colloquia is free and there is no need to register. For questions please contact Dorota Mokrosinska.


Paper abstract

According to the principle of natural liberty, there is a general presumption in favour of freedom of action. An agent does not need a permission granted by any moral rule R, in order to perform an action, f, without moral fault. The paper focuses on the question: is a commitment to natural liberty, as the default in a system of rules, somehow implicit in our moral thinking?

The answer is mixed: there are indeed coherent systems of moral rules that are not based on a principle of natural liberty. These systems seem at least minimally viable in the sense that they can meet a basic criterion of social morality identified by Kurt Baier — they can be taught, and passed on to, all normal members of the social order. However, we report findings in a series of experiments which indicate that, in the face of ambiguity about the nature of the moral system (whether or not it accepts some idea of natural liberty as the default) moral learners are inclined suppose that their system is indeed one of natural liberty. Perhaps more importantly, we argue that systems of social morality based on a principle of natural liberty have a decisive advantage over their competitors: they are well adapted to effectively exploring the constant novel circumstances that arise in open, dynamic, societies.

The paper, co-authored with Shaun Nichols (Arizona), is available at http://www.gaus.biz/Learning.pdf.

About Gerald Gaus

Gerald Gaus is the James E. Rogers Professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona, where he directs the program in Philosophy, Politics, Economics & Law. He works in social and political philosophy, normative ethics, political economy, philosophy and economics.

Over the last years, his main focus has been on public reason and diversity. His latest books on this topic include Contemporary Theories of Liberalism: Public Reason as a Post-Enlightenment Project (London: Sage, 2003) and The Order of Public Reason (Cambridge University Press, 2011). The core of his recent writing has been the idea of a "public morality" that provides a common framework in which people pursue diverse ideals. He develops this concept in his forthcoming book The Tyranny of the Ideal (Princeton University Press).

Gaus’ papers have been published in, among others, Ethics; Social Philosophy and Policy; Politics, Philosophy and Economics; Journal of Political Philosophy, Journal of Value Inquiry, CRISPP, American Philosophical Quarterly. He has contributed to, among others, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, International Encyclopedia of Ethics, Blackwell Companion to Applied Ethics, Oxford Handbook of Distributive Justice and Research Methods in Analytic Political Theory.

Last Modified: 01-09-2015