More on the meaning of conservatism

I had been hoping to give the critique by Analytic Reactionary the reply it deserves, but I may never find time for that, so I’ll just refer readers to this promising new blog and restate, as I see it, the important issue it raises.

Recall (because, of course, everyone has read my essay The Meaning of Conservatism), to explain the distinctive conservative worldview, I divide the facts of the world into three sets.  I call them “orders of being”, which I admit has unfortunate metaphysical suggestions, but calling them, more humbly, “clusters of facts” doesn’t remove the issue.  There are 1) the material facts of the world, 2) our subjective desires and intentions, and 3) the unchosen meanings provided by natural law, tradition, and divine command.  This division serves two purposes.  First, it serves my taxonomical purposes (which is what recommended it to me) in allowing me to neatly explain the difference between liberalism and conservatism.  Liberalism draws its imperatives from the 2nd set (our desires) and denies the existence of normative unchosen meanings, regarding them as just other people’s subjective desires trying to impose themselves.  Public neutrality is liberalism’s solution to the problem of how to treat everybody’s desires equally and fairly.  Second, this division captures the idea that each cluster of facts is “closed”.  If one is only interested in material facts about the world, none of those facts will force one to consider anything else.  Similarly, one can make a consistent, internally closed view of the world from only the first two sets.  I think liberalism’s solution of public neutrality can be shown to be self-contradictory, but not the underlying worldview that motivates it.   This worldview is not inconsistent, only incomplete.  (I prefer not to exaggerate the contradictions of liberalism.  In the practical sphere, liberals never seem to be at a loss figuring out what their ideology demands.)

Saying this is an enormous concession to the modern mind, and it is well to wonder whether I make that concession too quickly.  Having accepted and even emphasized the distinction between biological facts and normative goods, I must explain how the latter are derived from the former.  This is the task of a longer essay of mine, The Audacity of Natural Law.  Because the material plus subjective sphere is closed, I can only break out by invoking acts of eidetic intuition (intuiting an intelligible essence from collections of facts) and positing axioms of practical reason.  Once I have identified putatively objective meanings, I must argue that they are not really subjective preferences and that they carry normative force (that is, that it’s not acceptable to just choose to mean something different than the objective meaning).  Thomists would probably say that, like a Cartesian dualist developing an intricate explanation for the unity of soul and body, my task is difficult only because I accepted an erroneously severe division of being at the beginning.

34 Responses

  1. Bonald:
    In the practical sphere, liberals never seem to be at a loss figuring out what their ideology demands.

    Isn’t that rather like saying “in the practical sphere, religious people never seem to be at a loss figuring out what their ideology demands”? I mean, sure, that is true of individuals. Most people seem to have a pretty good idea what they want and what they understand to be true.

    In other words, aren’t you glossing over the fact that almost all modern political conflict is intramural conflict among liberal factions who disagree with each other about what liberalism (political liberty) demands on particular issues?

    In still other words, isn’t a claim of unity among liberals (for practical purposes or otherwise) just plain wrong, much like, say, a claim of unity among the thousands of protestant denominations would be just plain wrong?

  2. Don’t know what happened to the blockquotes.

  3. Not if it’s clear who the most genuine liberals (the ones with the fewest unprincipled exceptions) are. Among those deeply educated and formed in the liberal faith, there is virtual unanimity on all matters.

    Likewise, we don’t say that Catholicism is contradictory because some theologians claim the Bible approves of homosexuality; it’s always clear who the real Catholics are.

  4. Bonald:
    Among those deeply educated and formed in the liberal faith, there is virtual unanimity on all matters.

    It is hard to know how to even respond to that. The notion of unanimity among liberals — Hell, even of unanimity within the same liberal across a decade or so of time — doesn’t pass the laugh test.

  5. I have yet to read your “Audacity” essay but I question this:

    >Liberalism draws its imperatives from the 2nd set (our desires) and denies the existence of normative unchosen meanings, regarding them as just other people’s subjective desires trying to impose themselves.

    It may be that you have a narrower conception of “liberal” in mind than the “liberal worldview vs. conservative worldview” dichotomy suggests, or maybe you are focusing in a particular way on the perspective of “the man in the street” rather than on more abstract ideology his preconceptions are based on – but *in general* I think the left doesn’t have any problem with “normative unchosen meanings”, so much as they have an skewed take on what “normative” and “unchosen” mean in this context — specifically, they take third-set “normative” to be totally different from second-set “imperative”, and they see the norms as “unchosen” only in the short-run, but basically plastic in the long-run.

    If anything, I would say that the left is *more likely* to acknowledge the reality of the third order, and use it as conceptual jujitsu on conservatives who want to distribute the contents of the third order between the first two orders.

  6. Thomists would probably say that, like a Cartesian dualist developing an intricate explanation for the unity of soul and body, my task is difficult only because I accepted an erroneously severe division of being at the beginning.

    Correct. Sort of like trying to explain the phenomenon of colour through the experience of sound.

  7. zippy, I think Bonald’s perception of unanimity among liberals comes from the observation that institutions which widely accept the label of “liberal” tend to move in lockstep ideologically. Ex: the New York Times never substantially disagrees with Harvard or NPR. And all of those institutions are well-known to be liberal.

    Of course Zippy’s point that practically all modern institutions and individuals are deeply committed to liberalism is also true.

    Leaving us with the conclusion that Bonald is apparently only referring to the “left-liberals” instead of the “right-liberals” who normal people refer to as “conservatives”

  8. “right-liberals” are the ones who haven’t thought their liberalism through yet.

  9. Nobody who still has liberal commitments has thought them through.

    And narrowing “liberalism” to mean just the New York Times and its ideological fellow travelers in the Current Year – excluding the Communists and the Nazis for example, not to mention the NYT itself a few decades ago – is just begging the question.

    If we count the bodies of people murdered by liberals in the name of liberalism, almost all of them are other liberals (or, including abortion, the dependent offspring of liberals).

    The very notion of liberal unanimity is (much like the case of protestantism) ludicrous unless we embrace an extremely narrow, question begging idea of liberalism.

  10. What does unify liberals is certainly not practical consensus on what practical policies to pursue. Liberals have been killing each other for centuries in violent disputation over what authoritative policies do and do not “authentically” liberate, who is and is not the oppressor, etc.

    What unifies liberals is commitment to liberalism: to the idea that the exercise of political authority is justified inasmuch as it pursues liberty, and (concomitantly) equality of rights among the liberated.

    I understand Bonald’s reluctance to assert (or appear to assert) a straw man. But it is no straw man to observe that in fact liberalism is rationally incoherent, all the way down — with all that that incoherence implies (e.g. weaponized principle of explosion) as a political ideology situated in particular, real, social contexts.

  11. Funny how liberalism always explodes in such predictable directions.

    In an age of liberal hegemony, even those with non-liberal commitments will put their arguments in liberal terms. And they always lose, because while they use the slogans of liberalism, they do not embody its logic. That it does have a logic is obvious both because we all recognize it when we see it and because on any issue related to the recognition of unchosen meanings, liberalism always pushes in the same direction. That at any given time liberal political parties may compromise their liberalism for the sake of expediency should not fool us. That liberals entertain secondary disagreements over what type of genderless, disenchanted world they would like to construct is irrelevant to the fact that they agree that it must be genderless and disenchanted.

  12. Actually, I think my explanation of liberalism from “The meaning of conservatism” holds up pretty well, explaining to what extent there is and is not diversity within liberalism:

    “The dispute between liberals and conservatives can now be put simply: what public authority should these un-chosen meanings have qua objective values? The liberal grants them no authority. Of course, the liberal does not consider himself to be hostile to family, or religion, or particular culture per se. His sincere goal is to maximize the freedom of each individual to pursue these goods as that individual sees fit. However, he demands that the state and civil society be organized to recognize only subjective beliefs and desires. This is required by the supreme liberal virtue of tolerance. Tolerance, as liberals use the term, means a willingness to abstain from favoring one’s own values or “comprehensive account of the good” over other peoples’ in one’s dealings with them. It means an ability to hold one’s own beliefs “at arm’s length” when judging others. Applied to the individual, tolerance requires “open-mindedness”, lack of favoritism towards those who share one’s account of the good, and a radical privatization of one’s religion and culture. Applied to the state, tolerance requires neutrality towards competing comprehensive accounts of the good. The state is a machine designed to enable the satisfaction of preferences which it never presumes to judge. There are various algorithms for deciding how preference satisfactions should be distributed among the populace, e.g. the utilitarian system which maximizes total satisfaction, or the communist system which demands equal satisfaction to each. They are all liberal systems, so long as the algorithm does not discriminate between good and bad desires or correct and incorrect accounts of the good. A desire is only thwarted if it interferes with someone else’s desires. The only recognized concerns are to maximize freedom and ensure equality.
    There are two grave sins against the virtue of tolerance, both inspired by Hegel’s account of consciousness. The first sin is called alienation, dogmatism, false consciousness, bad faith, or reification. This means imagining that preferences, values, etc. which are products of your will have some objective validity independent of you. Liberal and Marxist theorists claim that private property, organized religion, and sexual morality are examples of alienation. We made these things, they say, and we have the authority replace them with something better, if only we stop kidding ourselves that they are acts of God or nature. The second sin is called discrimination, hatred, prejudice, or “othering”. Any morally significant division of the world into “us” versus “them” will likely be regarded by liberals as discriminatory. Every powerful intra-group loyalty is essentially connected, they believe, with an at least implicit hostility to outsiders and a devaluation of the outsiders’ preferences and beliefs. “Racism”, “sexism”, “nationalism”, and “homophobia” are commonly castigated forms of discrimination.”

  13. Bonald:

    …on any issue related to the recognition of unchosen meanings, liberalism always pushes in the same direction.

    How does this understanding of things account for all the liberals taking dirt naps at the hands of other liberals in the name of liberation from the oppressor? How does this account for subsequent generations of liberals always seeing previous generations of liberals as oppressive tyrants?

    We agree on so much that it is hard to understand that you don’t see the nonsense of your contention. Again consider protestantism: it is as if, in response to a claim that protestantism is incoherent, you replied that all the episcopalians in 2017 seem to agree what it means in practical terms.

    If you squint hard enough and confine your scrutiny to narrow slices of time you can always find points of agreement. But so what? Liberalism is the intersection of agreement about political philosophy among Jefferson, Hitler, Marx, Bill Clinton, and pick a random Current Year SJW.

    And that intersection certainly isn’t concrete policies.

  14. People can be in fundamental agreement and still fight each other to the death. Take your example of Protestantism. Arguing as you do with respect to liberalism, one could equally claim that Christianity is incoherent because its adherents fight so much. However, from a view outside Christianity, all the sides during the Reformation agreed on everything important. Today, there are fundamental disagreements among nominal Christians, but that’s because many of them are not real Christians but are taking their beliefs from a rival system, just like the imperfect liberals of the past.
    Among liberals, there is no dispute about the need to privatize religion, about the need to loosen gender roles and sexual morality, about the illegitimacy of personal rule and hereditary aristocracy, and many other things. This is a unity across space and time. What French Jacobins two centuries ago wanted is what American Democrats want today. The commonality is just obvious, and it’s becoming ever clearer as nonliberal influences are removed.

  15. I think the problem here is the definition of “liberalism” under zippy’s canonical definition, zippy is right.

    However pretty much no one uses the word “liberalism” in the precise way Zippy means it. Usually it is used in vague, relative terms to distinguish particular portions of the liberal tribal map.

    Used in the more colloquial sense I think there is something to Bonald’s idea that you can pretty much always tell who is the more liberal of any given set of liberals. (Jefferson -> Hitler -> Stalin -> random SJW) Whether this is due to any principle they follow more clearly, or is merely a tribal affiliation formed through repeated interactions I do not know.

  16. Bonald:

    Arguing as you do with respect to liberalism, one could equally claim that Christianity is incoherent because its adherents fight so much.

    That isn’t my argument at all. Not even close.

    I argue that liberalism is incoherent by describing what it is, describing why it is incoherent, and what further implications this has.

    The fact that liberals are always mass murdering each other over policy doesn’t (at least in itself) show that liberalism is incoherent.

    It merely demonstrates that your contention that liberals enjoy unanimity on practical policy questions is just flat wrong. If there were practical unanimity among liberals about what policies are demanded by liberalism, liberals wouldn’t mass murder each other.

  17. djz,

    I am not using “liberalism” in a colloquial sense. I am using it in the way that I defined it quoting myself above, a definition consistent with those given by liberal political philosophers.

    Every political philosophy is incoherent if reduced to slogans. Just crying “liberty” or “equality” doesn’t make one a liberal. If Zippy were right, than liberalism would not be the formidable foe it has always been these past two centuries. If it could equally mean anything, it could be our best friend tomorrow for all we know!

  18. Bonald:

    If it could equally mean anything, it could be our best friend tomorrow for all we know!

    You haven’t even attempted to grasp the point.

    Lies, falsehoods, and incoherent assertions can never be a Catholic’s best friend. By definition they are opposed to the truth and to reality.

    Active political doctrines to not exist in an abstracted Platonic mathematical space. They exist in and interact with reality, and are distinguishable from actual persons (and factions of persons) with commitments to them.

    So no, liberalism can’t just become our best friend tomorrow. That is a really bad strawman quite unworthy of the usual level of your writing.

    And the suggestion that my large quantity of writing on the subject reduces liberalism to slogans and is therefore just a big strawman itself is ridiculous.

  19. Sorry about that last link, I posted it in the wrong combox.

  20. > the suggestion… reduces liberalism to slogans

    Sorry. I didn’t mean to suggest that.

  21. Zippy has clearly demonstrated why liberalism is incoherent as a political ideology. But is it also morally and philosophically incoherent? Or just wrong?

  22. Thanks for the shout-out. It’s much appreciated.

    I am concerned with avoiding two things. Firstly, something like Moorean ethical intuitionism, according to which moral truths sort of just “float” atop the empirical facts. There are enormous difficulties for that view in my opinion. And it turned out that Moorean intuitionism just ended up expressing the particular tastes of educated, upper class Englishmen. I believe MacIntyre argued something along these lines in After Virtue.

    I also want to avoid reducing morality to natural facts as they are conceived of in post-Enlightenment thought, since there seems to be no way of getting genuine oughts out of that.

    A broadly Aristotelian view seems to me to provide that crucial middle way. Actually, I think Aristotelianism offers a middle way for a lot of different issues. That’s the kind of thinker Aristotle was. There is a kind of conservatism in his very approach to philosophical questions.

  23. Zippy, I don’t understand why you consider National Socialism to be a form of liberalism. I think it’s pretty clear Hitler’s main concerns weren’t liberty, equality, tolerance, neutrality between different conceptions of the good, maximal satisfaction of subjective preferences or anything like that. Could you perhaps explain your thinking?

  24. @ David K

    This comment he made might point you in the right direction.

    But I’d summarize it as: Nazis are liberal because they justified their actions on liberal principles, just the same way the DPRK does, the USSR did, and the USA does.

  25. Nazism is certainly a form of modernism, but I agree that trying to rope it under the term liberalism stretches that term to the point of ridiculousness.

  26. I must agree with what Thursday says, above. Often, when reading Zippy’s work, I have thought, “If he had ‘modern’ here, instead of ‘liberal,’ then I could affirm the identity that he asserts.” To equate the limitless wealth and leisure promised to the collectivist state led by the vanguard beyond all law, with the limitless dominance promised to the master race obeying the leader who is above all morality, with the limitless gratification promised to the atomized individuals who pursue their various whims as synchronized by the rationalist managerial elite, is not exactly wrong, but to call all these promised goods “liberty,” and all these ideologies “liberalism,” is too idiosyncratic. I grant that Zippy may define and use them this way throughout his work, but it often seems to cause needless misunderstanding. Yes, modernity degrades man while deifying the degraded will that it portrays, but are there *no* important differences between the politics advocated by different forms of modern thought? *Nothing* worthy of recognition with different specific terms, even while admitting the general essence?

  27. wikipedia refers to modernism as a vague “philosophical movement” with no clear specific principles.

    it refers to liberalism as “a political philosophy or worldview founded on ideas of liberty and equality” which is very very near to the definition zippy gives:

    > Liberalism is the political doctrine that securing individual freedom and equal rights is the primary legitimate purpose of government.

    so at least according to wikipedia, Zippy’s usage of the word is more clear and specific than if he picked some other word to describe the phenomenon.

    You, of course are free to muddy the water and use whatever words to describe things that you wish, but you should be careful to give definitions to them which are not invented wholesale, but at least have some backing in common parlance. At least, if you want anyone to understand you.

    There are as many different forms of liberalism as there are liberals. You can group them up into different categories in many different ways. You can talk about the specific differences between left-liberals and right-liberals, or communists and fascists, or republicans and democrats, etc. However, they all share a common essence. And if that essence itself is nonsense, then, well… “Here there be dragons”

  28. Ironically, one of the most common reasons I take flak for my writing on liberalism isn’t because I don’t let liberals say what constitutes their core values. Quite the opposite. It is precisely because I do take those who profess liberalism seriously — all of them, not just this group or that – when it comes to describing the object of their loyalty.

    Large groups of people may express uniform commitment to insane doctrines, but they can’t really (qua large group) lie about what constitutes that commitment. You just have to take what they say seriously rather than dismissing the insanity offhand.

    (I also do have some benefit of hindsight, having been cured of my own liberal commitments by Jim Kalb some time in the early 90’s).

    The fireworks get going when I flesh out the commonality of all liberals (those explicitly committed to liberal principles) and explain the whats and whys of the further implications.

    Sure, there are tactical disagreements – radical and important tactical disagreements – among different sorts of liberals (factions of people expressing commitment to political liberalism). This is actually guaranteed to occur by the nature of liberalism itself.

    Nevertheless, like a white noise generator dropped into a real circuit, there are also common features, and explanations of why things go the way they go. Mathematicians, STEM sorts, and philosophers tend to think that there isn’t anything much interesting about incoherent doctrines (e.g. liberalism).

    But that is because they are doing the math/STEM/philosopher thing and thinking of those incoherent doctrines in isolation from the rest of reality.

  29. I apologize to djz242013 for my lack of clarity. My argument is as follows. I am thinking of quotes from Zippy along these lines:

    “Liberalism is the political doctrine that securing individual freedom and equal rights is the primary legitimate purpose of government.”

    “Lets define a liberal regime to be a regime which explicitly professes liberal principles as its governing political doctrine.”

    Neither the NSDAP government in Germany nor the Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist government in Russia satisfied these criteria. Neither professed that its *primary purpose* was to secure individual freedom or equal rights, as these phrases have been defined and employed in historical liberal discourse.

    In pointing this out, I am not arguing that liberal government is good government, nor that liberalism and communism share zero important general principles in common. Hence my reference to the modern, meant specifically to refer to “modernity,” rather than “modernism.” Since we seem to acknowledge Kalb, I will note that, in the second chapter of his work “The Tyranny of Liberalism,” in the section titled “Power,” he puts liberalism in the context of modernity as follows: “Liberalism is thus part of the modern attempt to put nature and the social order in the service of human will. As such it culminates the centuries-old attempt to replace custom and religion by human will and this-worldly reason as the basis for life and thought, other expressions of modernity such as Bolshevism and Nazism having destroyed themselves…” This is Kalb’s understanding of philosophical modernity; there are certainly others.

    To make a perhaps incendiary analogy, to me, the strident insistence that all political modernity *just is* “liberalism” is like saying that all non-Roman-Catholic Western Christianity *just is* “Calvinism.” And when someone points out that “Protestantism” might be a better term, not being so historically specific as Calvinism, the concept of “Protestantism” is criticized because people have defined it in various justifiable ways (historical origins in the Reformation, any sect based in the sort of principles that noted the original protesters, etc.).

  30. Paul:

    Neither professed that its *primary purpose* was to secure individual freedom or equal rights, as these phrases have been defined and employed in historical liberal discourse.

    They certainly professed it as an element of their political philosophy, unless we want to just ignore all sorts of things they actually said. And it has been shown elsewhere why liberalism (and self contradictory doctrines more generally) cannot be confined in some Pandora’s Box or “balanced” as one intelligible priority among many.

  31. Also, I’ve many times expressed ambivalence as to whether (e.g.) Stalinism and Nazism are forms of liberalism itself or direct products of liberalism crashing into the realities it denies. I am sure the vast numbers of massacred victims don’t much care about the semantic quibbling, and it seems to me akin to counting Nazis dancing on the head of a pin.

  32. […] Bonald has a technical but nevertheless interesting note: More on the meaning of conservatism. […]

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