A Message from our Director

December 10, 2016

To Undergraduate Fellows of the James Madison Program:

If I may intrude on your time for a moment, I would like to share with you some thoughts and advice. You are at Princeton to learn—from the faculty, from visiting speakers, from each other. It is a precious opportunity, and I urge you to make the most of it.

Making the most of it requires the cultivation and practice of certain virtues, including dispassion, intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth. These virtues will manifest themselves and be strengthened by your willingness to listen attentively and respectfully to intelligent people who challenge your beliefs and represent causes you disagree with and points of view you do not share. That is why I hope you will take courses from professors who will challenge the views you hold, whatever they are, and attend lectures by visiting scholars and others who advance ideas you find uncongenial—or worse. After all, you may—as any of us may—be wrong; and even if you are right, seriously and respectfully engaging thinkers who disagree will deepen your understanding of, and strengthen your ability rationally to defend, truths you hold.

A few weeks ago, I was pleased to be Peter Singer’s conversation partner at a forum at Labyrinth Books about his new book Ethics in the Real World. In that work and others, Professor Singer defends certain ideas and practices that I find abominable. And yet, I welcomed the opportunity to read his book, listen to him, and talk with him because I knew I would learn from engaging an intelligent and well-informed scholar whose convictions on many issues of morality, justice, and human rights are diametrically opposed to my own. And indeed I did learn from that experience, as I have always learned from such experiences.

All of us should be willing—no, eager—to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of intellectual discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence, and making arguments. The more important the subject under discussion, the more eager we should be to listen and engage—especially if the person with whom we are to engage will challenge our deeply held beliefs, even our most cherished, identify-forming beliefs. We should do this for our own sake, and also for the sake of the community of learners of which we are privileged to be members.

Let me conclude with a thought about that.

Our willingness to listen to and respectfully engage those with whom we disagree (especially about matters of profound importance) contributes vitally to the maintenance of a milieu in which people feel free to speak their minds, consider unpopular positions, and explore lines of argument that may undercut established ways of thinking. Such a milieu—or, better, ethos—protects us against tendencies to dogmatism and groupthink that are toxic to the health of any intellectual community. And the maintenance of such an ethos is the shared responsibility of every member of our community—faculty, administration, and students. So by our conduct and the example we set, let’s all do our part.

Robert P. George
McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence
Director, James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions