Ideology, natural law, and the violinist

Let’s return again to our question, “What is the fundamental difference between liberal morality on the one hand and conservative/Christian morality on the other?”  A famous example will be helpful.  Judith Thompson, in her Defense of Abortion, argues that abortion is morally acceptable even if one grants that the fetus is a rights-bearing human person.  She tries to establish this astounding claim by a series of thought experiments.  In the most famous

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. [If he is unplugged from you now, he will die; but] in nine months he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.

                         –(quote taken from the Wikipedia article)

Thompson claims that the kidnapped person has every right to disconnect himself from the violinist, even though doing so will directly result in the latter’s death.  The argument is that the violinist has no right to the use to the kidnappee’s body, so there can be no wrong in depriving him of it.  Thompson similarly believes that a baby has no right to his mother’s body, from which her ultimate conclusion follows.

On first reading this argument, I was appalled that anyone wold find it convincing.  Surely if a person’s life rests in your hands, that establishes some sort of duty to him?  The idea that we have duties toward those who rely on us seems to me one of the most elementary points of morality.  I will here not even broach the issue that a mother and her unborn child are hardly strangers and their connection hardly grotesque.  Nevertheless, I think it would be wrong for us to paint Dr. Thompson as some kind of moral monster.  In fact, we should be grateful to her, because her paper is an important contribution toward understanding the most fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives.  From my point of view, her moral sense is lacking, because she doesn’t fully appreciate the duties that come from relationships of dependency.  From her point of view, my moral sense is lacking, because I do not sufficiently appreciate the injustice of the relationship of dependence itself.

These are two very different ways of thinking.  The liberal starts from the ideas of freedom and equality.  These are abstract principles, standing outside the social order and judging it.  By these principles, people should be as unburdened by the claims of others as possible, and what burdens are left should be distributed equally.  The most natural way to accomplish this would be to make people’s claims on their fellows into claims on the government rather than on particular individuals.  When the liberal turns to the actual world, he sees that the network of duties and dependencies is not ordered like this at all.  He therefore declares the current order to be unjust and must be corrected, even if doing so involves killing people.

The natural law conservative, however, does not pose an outside standard for judging the network of duties and dependencies.  The network of dependencies between persons and groups is given; it is the bare fact from which our ideas of justice grow.  Our duties to each other are a sort of prolongation of the dependency-network onto the moral sphere.  A baby needs its mother to survive.  This is not a freak occurance (as is the violinist thought experiment), but something entirely natural.  It would take an enormous, intrusive effort to make children not rely on their parents.  In other words, the dependency relationship is not something we could just ignore–we must either embrace it or wage perpetual war against it.  The conservative will see no need to fight it, since he has no cause to think it unjust.  Indeed, he will embrace this relationship, because he sees dependency relationships as spurs to virtue and keys to social integration.  Therefore, he embraces the logic of the relationship and moralizes it:  mothers have a duty to their children.  He never asks himself if it’s fair that this woman should have such duties while that (childless) woman doesn’t.  Without given relationships, there is no standard of fairness.

We can now understand what Russell Kirk meant when he accused liberals of being “ideological” and boasted that conservatives have no ideology.  He obviously didn’t mean that conservatives have no ideas.  He did mean that our ideas emerge organically from the social order in which we are embedded; they are not  independent ideas we use to criticize the social order itself.

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