Monday, January 09, 2006

Conservatism, 1940s Style

Check out this piece from the Atlantic Monthly written by a 20-something conservative in 1940, in the middle of a notably bad stretch for conservative politicians and intellectuals. A few choice quotes for historical interest, and then a discussion of why this exposition of conservatism is enlightening:

We are witnessing strange and terrible events. It is the deluge time, the time of the breaking of nations... I write from the point of view of millions of ordinary young college graduates trying sincerely to answer two questions: What values are enduring enough to survive all these crashing panaceas? What means must we use to save these precious values?

What do I mean by 'conservative'? Conservatism must include what Thomas Mann calls humanism: the conservation of our cultural, spiritual, and individualist heritage. Common sense is notoriously the oracle of conservatism. But, at its best, common sense means no mere unimaginative shrewdness. It means the common and universal sense of mankind, the common values basic to every civilized society and creed. These human values are the traffic lights which all (even 'mass movements') must obey in order that all may be free...

The conservative's principle of principles is the necessity and supremacy of Law and of absolute standards of conduct. I capitalize 'Law,' and I mean it. Suppose it were proved that the eternal absolutes do not really exist. Instinctively we should say: So much the worse for them. But now we must learn to say: So much the worse for existence! We have learned that from sad experience of centuries. Paradoxically, we have learned that man can only maintain his material existence by guiding it by the materially nonexistent: by the absolute moral laws of the spirit.

By 'Law' I do not mean all existing laws. All are not necessarily good. By 'Law' I mean the legal way as a way to whatever goals we may seek; I mean it as a way of living. This way is necessarily freedom's prerequisite. In this sense, Law must tread pitilessly upon individuals, nations, classes. It must trample with callous and sublime indifference upon their economic interests yes, even their economic interests- and their 'healthy instincts of the race.'

You weaken the magic of all good laws every time you break a bad one, every time you allow mob lynching of even the guiltiest criminal. I said 'magic' deliberately. Social stability rests to some extent on the aura surrounding our basic institutions. Such aura-wreathed pillars of tradition in various modern nations are the United States Supreme Court, an established Church, monarchy, a nonpartisan civil service and the aristocracy trained from birth to fill it. This social cement of tradition is too essential for every well-meaning, humanitarian Tom, Dick, and Harry to tinker with. It keeps us from relapsing into the barbarism inherent in our simian nature and in all mob 'awakenings.'

As menacing as open anarchists are those who discredit traditional institutions, not by attack, but by excess exploitation. The man who uses our institutions and Law as a barrier to, instead of a vehicle for, democratic reform is the real anarchist. I don't care a hoot whether any country, including ours, decides to use capitalism or socialism or any other material-ism, so long as it is attained through the vehicle of the traditional framework; so long as it is orthodoxly baptized and knighted by the magic wand of tradition; so long as it does not live 'without the Law.' I repeat: if moral absolutes do not exist, it is not so much the worse for them, but so much the worse for existence.

While I do see the wisdom in a concern that freedom must exist in the context of culturally appropriate order, here is the problem with the heart of his thesis: if moral absolutes do not exist, it is not so much the worse for them, but so much the worse for existence.

Besides the fact that the statement reflects little more than an assertion of his strong wish that these absolutes exist, the very statement implies there is a choice we have in accepting or selecting among a menu of moral absolutes. It is precisely this ability to accept or reject individual absolutes that proves that conceiving of morality in this way is absurd.

Let us put it another way, as Sydney Hook points out, in any moral decision there is a tension between two possible moral principles. Choosing what to do is elevating one principle above the other. Therefore, any moral system with more than one principle must allow that some principles are weighted more than others. But as soon as you allow that, then the whole concept of an 'absolute moral principle' becomes absurd--there is instead a graduated hierarchy of principles, and we are each left to determine where the principles in tension fall on the hierarchy. This situation is functionally the same as moral relativism.

I am not a moral relativist (I favor something like John Dewey's ethics) but I recognize the logical absurdity of moral systems that purport to exclusive claims to truth. There can be a conservativism that aligns itself with the roots of wisdom in our civilization's institutions without falling into dogmatism, if it renounces the claim to metaphysical grounding.

That is to say, one can believe in marriage as an institution but still realize the needs of gay couples need to be met by our societal institutions in some way; marriage is a tool to create families and protect interpersonal love, not an end in itself. One can revere the Christmas holiday as a national and cultural festival while remaining mindful that the themes of its root metaphors--hope, light--are incompatible with the idea of their competing with other festivals celebrating the same things.

Those of us who would follow a moderate way, cherishing our roots in American culture and institutions with the same intensity that we use them to claim the future as our own, need to articulate this vision better, or the loudest voices will be the extremes--of those who cannot see the possibilities of human agency acting upon tradition, or of those who would shed the accumulated wisdom of the years in a self-defeating quest for ungrounded abstractions.


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