The Meaning of Conservatism

What liberalism is

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.

Why liberalism is wrong

Liberalism has won the complete allegiance of the world’s intelligentsia. Nevertheless, the claim of the liberal state to be a neutral arbiter between different theories of the objectively good is an obvious sham. Its pretence to abstain from deciding whether something or other is an objective good is almost always practically equivalent to deciding that it isn’t. Neutrality between ethical systems turns out to mean always coming down on the side of one particular system, namely utilitarianism, which is erected into an uncompromising public orthodoxy. This can be seen for any controversial issue. For example, the state is actively at war with some moral views, such as belief in ethnic loyalty or gender role differentiation, to the point that it criminalizes any public action based on them as discrimination and indoctrinates school children against them. Nor can a regime which funds abortions be agnostic as to the moral status of prenatal humans.

It should not be thought that conservatives wish to replace liberals’ defective system for neutral decision making with a better one. We deny that there can be any such system. The alleged virtue of tolerance is incoherent. I cannot set aside my conception of the good and then, from an “original position”, decide a fair arbitration between my beliefs and someone else’s. Without my full morality, I have no way of deciding what a fair decision would be. Therefore, for the liberal to reach any conclusions at all, he has to sneak some comprehensive moral suppositions into the original position. John Rawls himself, the liberal who first explicitly formulated this thought experiment, realized this when he noted that men in the original position operate on a “thin” theory of the good, a theory which basically turns out to be utilitarianism.

Since neutrality is impossible, the state must take stands on matters of moral good and evil, so it might as well be honest about it. Of course, simply making the state’s implicit utilitarianism explicit would be one choice, but before making it one must ask oneself whether utilitarianism is a true—rather than neutral—system of morality. It is pretty clear that it is not; no moral theory could be true which ignores the things which give human life seriousness and nobility. These relate to the un-chosen goods and meanings we discussed above: filial piety, patriotism, codes of chivalry, chastity, devotion to God, loyalty to particular communities, tradition, communal moral consensus, reverence for ancestors, and so on. These goods are not reducible to the liberal principles of freedom, equality, and happiness. Sometimes their requirements clash with one or more liberal principle. This is because many of these goods can only be pursued in common.

6 Responses

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