Socrates, The Crito, and Me: On being a Ute

In Plato’s dialogue Crito, Socrates tells his friend Crito that he cannot flee his death sentence and impose upon himself exile. He is an Athenian and everything he has become, all the things that make him Socrates, are the result of Athenian culture and Athenian institutions.

I sometimes feel similarly towards the University of Utah.

My time at the University of Utah was a struggle. Long commutes. Financial struggles. I was not a favorite of the faculty. By having kids and a wife who worked, my commitment to the scholarly pursuit was often questioned.

I am a Ute officially because I got two degrees there, my BA and MA. Both are in political science. I actually never lived on campus or even in Salt Lake County, but I spent about 5 years there as a student. It was there as a junior that I fell in love with political theory. It was during my senior year that I took a class focusing on John Rawls.

My understanding of Rawls was greatly expanded while taking graduate seminars in the philosophy department. It was while listening to a public lecture by Utah philosopher Bruce Landesman on John Rawls that I decided to focus my studies on Rawls. That lecture was 11 years ago.

This last school year, I had the privilege of teaching political philosophy and American Heritage at BYU (after teaching similar courses for three years at BYU-Idaho). In addition to my teaching during this last year, I had a number of opportunities to participate in conferences dealing with Mormonism, Religion, and public affairs.

While these meetings and discussions at BYU have been a lot of fun, they have also reinforced two things. First…boy am I a liberal. This was my first heavy dose of conservative academia. Having been trained in the liberal egalitarian school, I was for the first time surrounded by Straussians and religious conservatives. While I expect this in most LDS settings, my department in Rexburg was quite moderate in terms of politics. This moderation was also found in the political science department at BYU, but these conferences had a considerable conservative, though still very intellectual, bent. Second, I am a secular thinker when it comes to politics. My attempt to form a religious argument for egalitarianism has become a secular critique of religious themes.

In April, BYU and UVU hosted a conference on religion and human rights. The speakers and panelists heavily favored the idea that human rights relied on religion. Whether it was grounded in natural rights or religious society the relationship between religion and human rights was a positive one. I found much of this to be odd.

Then came one of the last sessions of the multi-day gathering. Bruce Landesman, my long-time hero from the philosophy department at the University of Utah, was the lone speaker arguing that human rights did not need a religious foundation. He was speaking my language, heavily drawing on the Kantian constructivist tradition; though he did throw in a cool quote from Bentham (both Landesman and I have a growing appreciation for the contributions of Utilitarianism, despite deep reservations).

I realized, while listening to Landesman, that I did not fit in a BYU for a reason: I was a liberal without apology. I think that Rousseau put Hobbes and Locke to rest. I think Aristotle is brilliant, but of limited use in the 21st century…even those that use him now, do so in light of Kant and modern conceptions of liberty. I have no problem with the secular public square…

I am a Ute…

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