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Strands of conservatism: a lesson in conservative thought; Conservative Ethics

Part One of Four

I appreciate the many comments and recommendations from RS readers for my first diary in this series. I seem to have set the bar rather high on the first entry; I only hope that I live up to your expectations for the remaining entries.Before delving into the various strands of conservative thought, I wanted to give a brief overview of the other side’s beliefs and how they came to those beliefs. Know your enemy is one of Sun Tzu’s key teachings and I hope that everyone benefitted from my little lesson on leftist thought. Additionally, I felt that it was important that a clear compare/contrast dynamic enter into this so that you, the reader, may better understand the differences between leftist and conservative thinkers and philosophy at a deeper level than simple policy debates.

In preparing this discussion, I was a bit troubled as to how to proceed as concerns explaining the roots of conservatism. Should I work thematically or chronologically? Deal only with American history and thinkers? In the end, I decided that a bit of a mish-mash might work best. Proceeding purely chronologically might have been too boring, too much like a lecture. Working from a thematic framework meant difficulty in cross-referencing issues. Sticking only with American thinkers would have placed Jefferson, Madison, Jay, etc. into an intellectual vacuum. So it was necessary to expand this a bit and jump from point to point as need be. I hope that this seeming lack of organization will not put any of you off. So, like Alice, I will begin at the beginning go on till I come to the end: then stop.

There are a few important concepts that you must understand before we can proceed. Paraphrasing, and slightly misquoting, Peter Kreeft, I believe that our politics comes from our ethics, our ethics comes from our metaphysics and our metaphysics comes from our anthropology. I am operating under the assumption that humanity was created in God’s image (Imago Dei) and that we enjoy a special relationship with God – a covenant for lack of a better term. This leads, naturally I think, to the acceptance of the idea of metaphysics or knowledge beyond that in the realm of the senses (e.g. the nature of being, causality, etc.). Assuming an agreement with metaphysical realism, ethical realism seems to naturally follow. Without wasting too much time on this point, let me explain very simply: I, a realist as concerns metaphysics and ethics, accept that there are objective truths that exist independently of humanity – that is, if we ceased to exist tomorrow, these truths would continue to be. I also accept that we can speak of universals – when I say “red” I mean the universally understood concept of red. I do not accept the nominalist (anti-realist) view that concepts such as “truth” or “red” are simply constructs of language or convenient fictions that the human mind creates. Allow me to note here that my position is in accord with my understanding of Aristotelian realism, not Platonic realism – I don’t believe that the Forms exist in some Platonic heaven; there is simply too much ontological baggage associated with that position for my taste.

It is important to understand that, in discussing ethics, there are three major schools of thought and I think a fair case can be made that most conservatives belong solidly within one of those three. The first of the schools is consequentialism which encompasses, among other theories, utilitarian ethics. Utilitarianism argues that you should base your decisions on outcomes (or the consequences of your actions); specifically, you should act in a way that maximizes the benefit to the most people. John Stuart Mill (the father of utilitarianism) understood humanity to be driven by two principles: pain and pleasure. Maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain was the motivation in his system of ethics. Unfortunately, this view tends to lead to “ends justify the means” arguments. Additionally, it allows no room for consideration of the nature of the person making the decision – this is one of Bernard Williams’ criticisms of utilitarianism. I believe that a great many liberals embrace this kind of thinking and I think that many libertarians also subscribe to this view. The utilitarian falls prey to moral relativism very easily in his quest to maximize the happiness of the most people. Indeed, I think that a good argument can be made that Marxism is a form of utilitarian thinking. Consider Marxist class warfare rhetoric: the eternal struggle of the proletariat (worker) and the bourgeoisie (the upper and middle class). The workers certainly outnumber the bourgeoisie; under utilitarianism, the dictatorship of the proletariat is mandatory since that is the only outcome that maximizes the happiness of the most people. Given that utilitarianism is concerned with outcomes, not procedures (or consequences, not actions), the means of violent revolution are perfectly acceptable as long as the end is sound – the ultimate happiness of the proletariat. Additionally, I find that utilitarianism seems to attract more radicals than the other schools. Peter Singer, who argues for the right to kill handicapped newborns, the acceptable nature of bestiality, and the necessity of eugenics, is an example of a radical utilitarian.

The second major school of ethics is deontology. While deontology encompasses many different views, the most widely accepted is that of Immanuel Kant. Kant attempted to reduce all moral decisions to a consideration of duty – a person must act according to the categorical imperative. At the risk of offending Kantians, this all boils down to the idea that you cannot take an action that you would not want every other person in your situation to take (whatever decision you make must be one that you would universalize). So, for example, if you are a starving peasant in 19th century France, the deontologist would argue that you would be acting immorally if you were to steal bread to survive, since if you steal bread, you must will that everyone steal bread. Since everyone will be stealing bread, there will be no bread left for you to steal; therefore your decision could not be universalized. Another example would be that of a German helping to shelter Jews during the Holocaust. If the Gestapo were to come around and ask the German if he knew where there were Jews hiding, then, if he were a Kantian, he would have to tell the truth and expose the Jews. Kant insisted that we could not consider the consequences of our decisions; their morality depended entirely on our motivations. This, among other things, led Kant to believe that it is ALWAYS unacceptable to lie. Many have criticized Kantian ethics as merely a system of enslaving human beings to reason. Rather than allowing for real world considerations and individuality, the Kantian sees humans as nothing more than rational, autonomous robots that must always make the exact same decision given identical data. While I find this position more compatible with conservatism than utilitarianism, I still feel that most conservatives do not naturally belong to this school.

The final school of ethics, and the one that I think most conservatives belong to, is virtue ethics or aretaic ethics. Virtue ethics emphasizes the character of human beings (or moral agents to use ethics terminology). It is a tradition that dates back to Socrates, Plato, and, above all, Aristotle. Aristotle defended the idea that humanity is striving toward the ultimate goal of eudaimonia – the happy life. This can only be achieved by living life according to the principles of virtue. Does this sound familiar? It should, as this exact formula is accepted by the Abrahamic faiths in one form or another. For Orthodox Jews, the principles of virtue are found in the Torah, Talmud, and Halakha. For Christians, they are found in the Ten Commandments, the Gospels, and the letters of the Early Church fathers. For Muslims, Qur’an, Hadiths, and Sharia discuss virtues at length. Mohammed did not teach people to consider their actions in light of their rational autonomous natures. Jesus did not say to his disciples, “Go and do that which makes the most people happy.” Finally, consider the American Founders, the ultimate radical conservatives. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, among others, write, ad nauseam, about republican ideals (virtues). What are the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights if not exemplars of republican virtues? The Constitution does not begin, “We, the rational autonomous beings of the United States.” Instead the first sentence of the Constitution mentions three virtues: liberty, domestic tranquility, and justice. The Declaration of Independence is also loaded with such language: equality, liberty, and honor. One of the most quoted selections in the Declaration reads like it was written by Aristotle himself: “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Sound like a familiar idea? Substitute the Greeks’ understanding of the pursuit of Happiness – eudaimonia – and you achieve perfect symmetry.

So now we have seen that conservatism has a long, healthy tradition of adherence to virtue and the values that have sustained Western Civilization for 2,500 years. We have shown that to be a conservative means accepting that there are real, objective moral truths that exist independent of mankind and that we can, through virtue and reason, strive to discover these truths. And we have seen the dangers that crass utilitarian ethics and moral relativism present. Take heart, then, for we now have a solid foundation upon which to build an unshakeable conservative philosophy that has weathered the lashings of liberals for 2,500 years (remember the skeptics and sophists? They might be history’s first lefties). In closing part one of my series, then, let me leave you with this quote from Ignatius of Anticoh to Polycarp of Smyrna who were radical conservatives (they were Christian bishops and, ultimately, martyrs) fighting against leftists (Roman fascist pagans):

“You must not let yourself be upset by those who put forward their perverse teachings so plausibly. Stand your ground with firmness, like an anvil under the hammer…It is our duty, particularly when it is in God’s cause, to accept trials of all kinds, if we ourselves are to be accepted by Him.” [The Epistle to Polycarp, Maxwell Stanforth (translator)]

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