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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

What Is Conservatism?

Cassandra, of the ''Villainous Company' blog, writes:

A while back I was asked by a very lovely and intelligent lady to write an essay on conservatism.

I did quite a bit of research and was rather surprised by what I learned. Yes, I do have an opinion on this subject. But I hear so many people say, "He/She isn't a conservative" that I can't quite resist throwing the question back at you all: "OK. Exactly what IS a conservative? Define it for me."

So that's my challenge to you, whether you are a blogger or a reader. Define conservatism for me. Better yet, do it for yourself.

Have at it in the comments section. And if you are a blogger and want to post your reply, let me know and I'll post a roundup of responses.

Should be an interesting discussion.

My response is: "Conservativism is the mindset and act of knowing and holding to a proper and virtuous balance between the competing goods of human nature."

Certainly, I might expand upon that. But for now, I won't.


Edit [follow-up at VC]:

Cassandra: "Ilion: how do you define "proper and virtuous"? I can imagine many different notions of both adjectives that I would disagree with deeply, but my liberal friends would find very much in line with their thinking."

Why limit your question to just those words? All the words of the sentence were deliberately chosen to give "liberals" apoplexy.

But, as you ask about just those two words -- well, if your “liberal friends” use those terms non-tendentiously, then they’re about to step on a banana peel (and if they use them tendentiously, they merely expose their intellectual dishonesty). To use, --and mean -- such terms as ‘proper’ and ‘virtue’ is to acknowledge that there is an objective moral standard, which we can know and to which we can appeal, and upon which we may reason.

“Liberalism” (as libertarianism, though in a different manner) is about the denial of an objectively real moral order in favor of the assertion of will and power.

14 comments:

SE said...

I'm not sure how to define it, but I know it when I see it!

Ilíon said...

If this thread develops (I've updated it, and may again) well, perhaps you'll be able in the future to define it.

SE said...

“Liberalism” (as libertarianism, though in a different manner) is about the denial of an objectively real moral order in favor of the assertion of will and power.

I'm not sure what you think of Ayn Rand, but her views have often been classified as libertarian. She certainly believed that morality was objective, and based this on what she considered reality, and of course, she was an atheist at the same time.

As for libertarianism generally, since liberty and voluntaryism is the primary value of the philosophy, it doesn't have anything to do with "the assertion of will and power", but opposes coercion of the individual, especially state coercion.

I'm not saying you are stating the exact same thing for both liberalism and libertarianism, but maybe you could expand on your view of libertarianism.

I'd also be interested in your view of theologically conservative Christian libertarians (William Grigg comes immediately to mind, though there are many others).

Ilíon said...

SE: "I'm not sure what you think of Ayn Rand, ... she was an atheist at the same time."

I read some of her books/stories when I was a kid. I enjoyed some, thought others were boring, and saw all of them as silly (and slightly insane) atheistic propaganda. Mind you, I knew nothing about the person, I wasn't even sure "Ayn" was a woman's name (or a real name); it was strictly from the content of the stories that I knew them to be atheistic propaganda.


SE: "... her views have often been classified as libertarian."

Well, it's for certain that she wasn't conservative (or 'traditionalist,' as some have taken to calling themselves).

Similar to "liberalism" -- which may explain why the two groups are sometimes allies against conservativism -- yet in a different manner, libertarianism is an insanity; and the logic of it, being insane, leads its proponents to advocate insane positions, from which (as with the advocates of "liberalism") they can distance themselves only by making an "unprincipled exception."


SE: "She certainly believed that morality was objective, and based this on what she considered reality, and of course, she was an atheist at the same time."

She may have asserted that morality was objective -- as she asserted that traditional and/or Christian understandings of morality were false, and indeed, immoral -- but, being an atheist (*), her two key assertions ("There is no God; we are each wholly on our own" and "morality is objectively real, and discoverable, and binding upon all men") are contradictory, and on multiple levels.

I shouldn't have to explain this to you right now; by now you ought to know the argument, even if you still decline to acknowledge that it's true.

It might be an interesting discussion to explore just how Rand's Objectivism fails in light of the "Argument from Reason" (or whatever my version of it ought to be called, since it's really different, and stronger, than Reppert's argument).


(*) Or, she was a so-called atheist, as most who call themselves atheists really are. As I've pointed out before, a *real* atheist, one who really understands and really accepts what atheism entails, will be a nihilist.

Ilíon said...

Ilíon: "“Liberalism” (as libertarianism, though in a different manner) is about the denial of an objectively real moral order in favor of the assertion of will and power. "

SE: "As for libertarianism generally, since liberty and voluntaryism is the primary value of the philosophy, it doesn't have anything to do with "the assertion of will and power", but opposes coercion of the individual, especially state coercion.

I'm not saying you are stating the exact same thing for both liberalism and libertarianism, but maybe you could expand on your view of libertarianism.
"

Well, no, I explicitly said they're different. I just didn't expand upon what I meant in saying that both are "about the denial of an objectively real moral order in favor of the assertion of will and power."

Morality is relational and interpersonal (I touched on this truth in this post, and I'm fairly sure I explored the idea in more depth at some time on Reppert's DI blog, though I don't expect that you've necessarily read or even remembered reading either) -- one does not, cannot, have moral obligations nor expectations with objects or non-persons (say, a rock or a carved statue, or an idea, or even a mere animal), but only with other subjects/agents/persons; and, one does not, cannot, have moral obligations nor expectations with subjects with whom one has no sort of relationship at all; and, what moral obligations and expectations one has with subjects are relative to the relation. Your moral obligations and expectations relative to me are different from yours relative to someone in China, and different again from those relative to someone in the Alpha Centauri solar system (with whom you probably have none).

What I've just said is not moral relativism, not by a long shot, though we may be certain that some will insist upon misconstruing it as such.


Now: morality is interpersonal -- there can be no morality unless there are persons, for only persons/agents may have moral obligations and only persons/agents may have moral expectations (and, as implied, only of other persons).

But, if morality begins with, or depends upon, the existence of human beings, then it isn't *really* real, it isn't objective -- in this case, it becomes nothing more that an assertion of power by some humans or other. And, if (what we call) 'morality' is only an assertion of power by some group of humans, then some other group of humans have as much "right" (the term becomes void, and must be put in scare-quotes) to assert a contradictory 'morality.' For, both 'moralites' are just as real, that is, not real at all.

But we *all* know that morality is real -- generally, even those who explicitly deny that morality is real show by their subsequent behavior that they do not even believe the denial: for they are always quick to object -- by pointing to a real and objective standard -- when someone "wrongs" them.

[continued]

Ilíon said...

[continued]

Now: as moral obligations and expectations are objectively real -- they do not, and cannot, begin with or depend upon or follow from the existence of contingent beings, such as humans -- they are not definable by any individual human or by any human society. Morality may be discoverable by humans (and it must be, else we cannot know any of its content, short of some divine revelation), but it is not, and cannot be, defined by us.

Both "liberalism" and libertarianism assert either (and, frequently both) that:
1) while morality may be real and objective, we cannot *really* know that we have indeed discovered any of its content; that is, for all intents and purposes, we ought to live and act as though morality is not real and objective -- this is to make morality utterly meaningless;
2) 'morality' is whatever we say it is; that is, it is not real and objective.


The libertarian approach to all moral questions follows from these two, especially the first, assertions (the "liberal" approach is similar, but with emphasis on the second).

Take prostitution (or pornography), for instance.

While a conservative might debate the extent to which we, acting as a society, ought to suppress these vices, no conservative will (or can) deny that they are vices, that they are immoral, that if they are allowed in society it is only as a moral evil tolerated to some degree because the cost (moral and otherwise) of total suppression is more than anyone is willing, or able, to bear.

On the other hand, the libertarian position denies that prostitution (or pornography) are real moral evils. Or, if it grudgingly admits that they might be moral evils, denies that we, acting as a society, have any moral right or standing to suppress them. Yet, at the same time, most individual libertarians will also assert that public prostitution can and ought to be suppressed in their own neighborhoods (a NIMBY "unprincipled exception").

Ilíon said...

Ilíon: "“Liberalism” (as libertarianism, though in a different manner) is about the denial of an objectively real moral order in favor of the assertion of will and power. "

SE: "As for libertarianism generally, since liberty and voluntaryism is the primary value of the philosophy, it doesn't have anything to do with "the assertion of will and power", but opposes coercion of the individual, especially state coercion.

... but maybe you could expand on your view of libertarianism.
"

What we these days call "liberalism" follows, generally speaking, from a positive assertion of will and power, and the denial of real and objective morality and of a real human nature. Whereas, libertarianism follows, generally speaking, from a negative assertion of will and power, and the denial of real and objective morality and of a real human nature.

In contrast to both, what we these days call "conservativism" follows, generally speaking, from the desire and attempt to know the objective truth of a really existing morality and a really existing human nature, and then to conform one's social/political views to this knowledge.

Conservativism denies that "man is the measure of all things;" both "liberalism" and libertarianism, though in different ways, affirm that.

Libertarianism follows from a negative assertion of will and power -- libertarianism (generally) asserts that the individual's "right" (again, the term is void absent a really existing morality) to reject any constraints is paramount.


OR, ignore what I've written -- look at just what you've written: "As for libertarianism generally, since liberty and voluntaryism is the primary value of the philosophy ...." Can you not see that to assert that the taking up of moral obligations is voluntary is to assert that morality is not *real,* that it is not objectively binding on us regardless of whether we accept its requirements?

If you (or I) cause a child to be conceived, is it really the case that your (or my) relationship and moral duties to that child are voluntary? Or, do the duties exist no mater what we may wish? Do you (or I) deserve some special high-five pat on the back if we "always take care of our kids," as though we've gone "above and beyond" (this is a reference to a Chris Rock rant), or is that what we're supposed to do?


SE: "I'd also be interested in your view of theologically conservative Christian libertarians (William Grigg comes immediately to mind, though there are many others)."

Or "Vox Day."

Libertarianism cannot be consistently lived; it is destructive of society; it may even be insane. From a Christian perspective, it is ultimately destructive of indviduals, which in the end is worse than destructive of society.

Ilíon said...

"I'm not sure what you think of Ayn Rand, but her views have often been classified as libertarian."

Apparently, the libertarians don't want her

SE said...

Ilíon, thanks for the extensive response. I'll try to reply in detail when I have time.

Apparently, the libertarians don't want her

Well, I said that she's often been classified (though perhaps wrongly) as libertarian, even though Objectivists despise libertarians.

Ilíon said...

"... even though Objectivists despise libertarians."

Perhaps that explains this reaction to that piece by Rothbard.


====
Isn't it an odd coincidence (which I, for one, notice from time to time)? You ask me about my opinion about Ayn Rand; a few hours later, I'm reading an essay on a blog I just discovered via another I read regularly, and the guy's piece supplied a link to the Rothbard piece about Rand and Objectivism; then, on John Wright's LiveJournal, an Objectivist objects to my statement about atheism by pointing to an atheist (Rand), as though his objection doesn't miss the point.

Ilíon said...

SE: "IIlíon, thanks for the extensive response."

You may perhaps be noticing that I'm not at all as certain persons claim that I am.

AWA said...

Had never thought about libertarianism as simply liberalism in dad's clothes. But it makes sense - it's political post-modernism for the jet set.

Ilíon said...

AWA,
Welcome to my little blog.

"Had never thought about libertarianism as simply liberalism in dad's clothes."

I like that! How you got that from our discussion, I don't know, but I'm glad you shared it.

"But it makes sense - it's political post-modernism for the jet set."

Certainly, I think libertarianism is an expression of post-modernism, but I think the jet-set -- the sort of folk who need to think themselves more sophisticated than everyone else -- will tend toward straight-up "liberalism" (I put that word in quote-marks because the term 'liberal' was hi-jacked (*) a century ago by the socialists).


(*) Coincidentally, just earlier today I noticed an article on NRO which touches upon how the old/proper meaning of the term 'liberal' was displaced, such that in America 'liberal' is used as a synonym for 'socialist:' John Dewey and the Philosophical Refounding of America

SE said...

will tend toward straight-up "liberalism" (I put that word in quote-marks because the term 'liberal' was hi-jacked (*) a century ago by the socialists).

Yes, I usually put the word liberal in quotes myself for that reason. Keep in mind, though, that the original liberals were essentially libertarians, not conservatives (though modern American "conservatism" has some elements of it, primarily in economics, though you wouldn't know it by the actions of the supposedly conservative Republican party when it's in power.)

That's why today libertarians are sometimes called (or call themselves) classical liberals.