We live in a sound-bite age. Rhetoric often replaces reason. Considered judgments often yield to the pressure for quick reactions. Serious moral reasoning often gets short shrift in our public discussions. Public Discourse seeks to fill this vacuum. We make use of the new forums for communication that modern technology provides, but we don’t let them undermine the quality of our thinking. We draw on some of the academy’s best scholars, making their years of study and expertise available and accessible to a broader community, but we don’t get bogged down in technicalities and academic jargon. We can do this, because at the Witherspoon Institute we have created a community of distinguished scholars from diverse backgrounds and fields of study. Public Discourse brings these voices to the public. And we don’t shy away from the most controversial of questions, convinced that careful reasoning can settle many of the challenges before us.
We are not a Journal. We are not a Blog. Our aim is to provide a venue where readers can find out what our associated scholars are thinking about or working on—whether in their own academic scholarship or in informed commentary on contemporary events. Our hope is that by benefiting from these scholars’ perspectives, readers will be better equipped to form their own.
We call it Public Discourse: Ethics, Law and the Common Good for three simple reasons. First, the topics we cover all center on public life. Second, we approach these topics using methods of discourse that are inherently public, open and accessible to all fellow citizens. Third, we contend that at the heart of our public debates are ethical questions—questions about good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust. As to our approach, we rely on neither revelation, emotivism, nor majoritarianism. Rather we aim to address these questions rationally through critical reflection on man’s nature, his personal and communal flourishing, and the ethical principles that should guide his conduct.
Aristotle taught that the central question of political life is how we ought to order our lives together. This is an inherently ethical question. Whatever the pressing question of the day may be—debates surrounding economic policy, biotechnology, international relations, marriage and the family, constitutional law and religious liberty—they all entail ethical positions. Any judgment, for example, about which taxation policies work best assumes an answer to the question: best for what end? Does this end contribute to human well-being? Do the means detract from our well-being? The same is true of any new biotechnology. Evaluating its desirability necessarily involves a consideration of the ends it will serve as well as the means it will require. Will they promote authentic human flourishing? Do they respect the dignity of the person? When you stop to think about it, these same questions can—and should—be asked about most any contested question of our public life today. Certainly, these issues also entail technical questions: questions about empirical facts and the expected outcomes of each proposal. But at its core, the question of whether the effects of competing proposals are desirable is a moral one: Which among competing courses of action best serve the common good—the flourishing of individuals and the communities they form? These are the questions that Public Discourse aims to address.
Public Discourse is well-equipped to this task because of the depth and breadth of intellectual expertise at the Witherspoon Institute. Leading professors at some of the top universities in the United States and the United Kingdom, these scholars find themselves uniquely positioned to provide carefully reasoned arguments that are well researched, firmly grounded in the academic literature, and well suited to our national discussions. The Fellows of the Witherspoon Institute include experts in the fields of economics, history, law, medicine, social science, political theory and moral philosophy. Our goal is to get their research to you, and in a way that is useful to you.
To best serve these ends, Public Discourse publishes several different types of pieces. We’ll run short essays by Witherspoon scholars reflecting on the burning issues of the day. We’ll also run short essay-length abstracts of their scholarly articles—making the key arguments of these papers available to expert and layman alike, and providing access to the full—length article for those who wish to wrestle with the argument in its entirety. From time to time, we will also highlight the research of outside scholars as it relates to the vision of Public Discourse and the Witherspoon Institute.
Matthew Schmitz, a recent graduate of Princeton University, will serve as our managing editor. Our Editorial Board consists of:
Hadley Arkes – Political Science, Amherst College
Gerard V. Bradley – Law, University of Notre Dame Law School
Jean Bethke Elshtain – Government, Georgetown University; Divinity, University of Chicago
Thomas D’Andrea – Philosophy, Cambridge University
Robert P. George – Politics, Princeton University
John Haldane – Philosophy, University of Saint Andrews
Kevin Jackson – Business, Fordham University Business School
Harold James – Economic History, Princeton University
Byron Johnson – Sociology, Baylor University
Robert Koons – Philosophy, University of Texas
John Londregan – Politics, Princeton University
Daniel N. Robinson – Philosophy, Oxford University
James R. Stoner – Political Science, Louisiana State University
Christopher O. Tollefsen – Philosophy, University of South Carolina
W. Bradford Wilcox – Sociology, University of Virginia
We plan to publish new material every Tuesday and Friday, but as events dictate we’ll publish more frequently, so check back often. Enjoy.
Ryan T. Anderson is the editor of Public Discourse.