ON-Lion Letter

What is the relationship among law, culture, and human freedom?  Is freedom to be found primarily where law is kept to a minimum and culture is therefore mostly the spontaneous reflection of the choices of largely autonomous individuals?  Or does true freedom require law to provide a kind of moral discipline, a habituation in the virtues, with a view to promoting a culture in which freedom is directed toward the flourishing of our nature, and not just toward whatever may appear desirable to the individual?  To what extent can law shape culture in this way, and to what extent is it rather shaped by a culture that already exists?

In order to foster reflection on these issues, the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University and the Association for the Study of Free Institutions held a two-day conference at Princeton in May on "Law and the Culture of Liberty."  The program included scholars from a variety of disciplines in the social sciences and humanities.

The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee supports the James Madison Program, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year.

The conference sought to address a number of questions.  Among them: 

What is the proper relationship between law and liberty in the natural-law jurisprudence of John Finnis and his colleagues?  To what extent does our flourishing according to nature require freedom from legal constraint, and to what extent does it require the discipline of legal sanctions? 

How does contemporary American popular culture shape our understanding of law and liberty?  Is pop culture a powerful force for freedom, or does it undermine the virtues of character and mind necessary for the preservation of the free society?

What is the role of marriage in fostering a culture of liberty?  To what extent does a healthy marriage culture require the support of law?

What is the role of freedom of thought and speech in maintaining a free and decent culture?  Should law permit an untrammeled right of self-expression, or must it rather set limits on what may be said in order to protect civility and other important social values?

Most fundamentally, can we attain rational knowledge of the true character of law, of culture, and of liberty, and of their proper relation to one another?

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