A Post-Liberal World? Conference report

On 31 May and 1 June 2018, the Centre for the Study of Global Ethics at the University of Birmingham hosted its fourth annual conference, on the theme of A Post-Liberal World? 

Arguably, political and public discourse is increasingly characterised by the re-emergence of nationalist narratives, a lack of support for (and misuse of) the idea of human rights, and growing sentiments of anti-intellectualism. Do these tendencies undermine the liberal consensus on the values of democracy and human rights (if, indeed, there ever was one)? To what extent have dominant conceptions of liberalism fuelled disillusionment of a growing number of people? How should those committed to the idea of a world governed by the ideals of democracy and human rights react to these tendencies? 

This theme is highly topical, given recent events such as the election of Donald Trump, the electoral success of nationalist parties in Germany and other European countries, the discourse about the war in Syria, a decreasing commitment to diversity and gender justice, anti-democratic political developments in Poland and Hungary, the Brexit-referendum, and in public debates about free trade and globalisation. However, while these social and political shifts are highly relevant for global ethics and political philosophy, scholars in these fields often work in a rather isolated way on abstract and theoretical issues. The aim of our conference was therefore to stimulate and explore a more integrated, interdisciplinary, and applied approach to the normative ideals of democracy and human rights, and to the factors undermining their achievement.

Keynote talk by Alison Jaggar

In our first keynote session, Alison Jaggar (University of Colorado at Boulder and University of Birmingham) gave a highly interesting talk with the provocative title You Will Not Replace Us! Decolonizing liberalism and feminism in search of immigration justice. She explored the relations between nationalism, liberalism and feminism in the context of philosophers’ debates about immigration. Liberalism and feminism are opposed in principle to discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, and gender, including in contexts of immigration. Professor Jaggar however suggests that, in practice, claims by some liberals and feminists, including some philosophers, have helped rationalize ethnocentric and racist exclusions of potential migrants. To assess more fairly migrants’ moral claims for admission, Western political philosophers must decolonize liberalism and feminism. Professor Jaggar proposed that one methodological tool for doing this is developing less essentialised conceptions of states.

Structural Injustice - Public lecture by Jonathan Wolff

Jonathan Wolff (Oxford University) closed the first day of the conference with a public lecture on Structural Injustice. He argued that Iris Marion Young’s concept of structural injustice has proved enormously helpful in thinking about how it is possible for structures as a whole to generate and sustain injustice in a way that cannot be reduced to the unjust actions of particular individuals. However, since this concept has remained underdeveloped, Professor Wolff provided a way of adding more detail to the concept, particularly by exploring parallels between the concept of structural injustice and a structural problem in engineering. In this way, he argued, different types of remedies to address different types of injustice become more apparent. 

Keynote talk by Ryoa Chung

Ryoa Chung speaking at the 2018 Global Ethics conference - A Post-Liberal World?

The second day of the conference was kicked off by Ryoa Chung (Université de Montréal), who delivered a stimulating keynote talk on Political Philosophy in Social Context: Political Philosophy as Resistance in the Post-Liberal World. Drawing on work by Alison Jaggar, Professor Chung highlighted that the traditional focus in liberal political philosophy (for example of John Rawls) on ideal theorising abstracts away from people’s individual perspectives and motivations. The work of Iris Marion Young and other recent work in political philosophy, in contrast, focuses on non-ideal theory – addressing real-world deprivation, exploitation and marginalisation. Professor Chung concluded that rather than polarising the debate, both views should be integrated in order to further the debate in political philosophy in a more constructive way.

Jason Stanley speaking at the 2018 Global Ethics conference - A Post-Liberal World?Keynote talk by Jason Stanley

In his engaging keynote talk, Jason Stanley gave an overview of his forthcoming book How fascism works: The politics of us and them (Penguin Random House, September 2018). Fascist politics seeks to divide a population along ethnic, racial, or religious lines, and is on the rise in the USA and spreading around the world. Drawing on history, philosophy, sociology, critical race theory, and examples from around the world, Professor Stanley identified the ten pillars of fascist politics that leaders use to hold onto power by dividing populations into an us and a them: the mythic past, propaganda, anti-intellectualism, unreality, hierarchy, victimhood, law and order, sexual anxiety, appeals to the heartland, and a dismantling of public welfare and unity. In his talk, he focussed particularly on the themes of unreality and hierarchy: at the core of fascist politics is the destruction of the information space required for a shared reality to guide formal and informal discussions of public policy, and creating a hierarchy of worth between groups plays into this process. He argued that by recognizing these and the other pillars of fascism, we might begin to resist their most harmful effects.

Panels

Over the two days, we had 15 panels on a wide range of topics, including, but not limited to, global warming and democracy; populism; political and ethical implications of Brexit and Trump; moral issues in international trade; migration; liberty and democracy in crisis; public discourse and free speech; and liberalism, nationalism and cosmopolitanism. Speakers on these panels included young as well as established and academic as well as non-academic scholars in philosophy and global ethics, political theory, law, public policy, political science, international relations and cognate fields inter alia, from the UK, USA, Germany, Israel, China, Belgium, Spain, and Croatia. Their presentations provided highly relevant perspectives on topics related to the conference theme as well as other topics in global ethics, and resulted in interesting discussions. 

Book launch for Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal by Heather Widdows

We were pleased to be able to couple the book launch and wine reception for Heather’s (University of Birmingham) new book with the conference. Short talks by Alison Jaggar (University of Colorado at Boulder and University of Birmingham) and Clare Chambers (University of Cambridge) praised Heather’s work in Perfect Me and highlighted the significance of the book for the debate on social norms regarding beauty and our self-perception. Please read a full report of the book launch here.

Conclusion and acknowledgements

We at the Centre for the Study of Global Ethics agree with the feedback of many of the participants that the conference was a success. The conference, the public lecture and the book launch were well-attended by a wide range of people from different countries, and academic and non-academic countries.

We are extremely grateful to the keynote speakers and panel speakers for their valuable contributions. Our gratitude also extends to the following sponsors for generously funding our conference: 

Please visit the conference website for more information on the theme of the conference, keynote speakers, public lecture, and a list of panel speakers and their abstracts.

Next year’s conference on the theme of Bodies and Embodiment will take place 30-31 May 2019. Please visit the conference’s website  for updates and the call for papers. 

For a complete overview of the events in the Centre for the Study of Global Ethics, please visit the Centre’s events webpage.