A PDF version of this essay: TheConservativeVisionOfAuthority
I. The moralization of society
II. The network of dependencies
III. Loyalty and love: the horizontal completion
IV. Authority: the vertical completion
V. The transcendent ground of authority
VI. Contemplative and practical collective acts
For classical liberals, the problem of politics was to find a way of restraining power; for modern liberals, it is how to maximize autonomy; for socialists, how to distribute the benefits of society fairly. For conservatives, the basic problem is the moralization of society, that is, the attribution of moral significance to the relations of people in community. For the citizens of a “moralized” society, all the major aspects of existence are colored by ideas of duty, loyalty, and status. For example, being a man or a woman isn’t just a piece of biological data; it is a calling to the station of mother or father. Thus people read in their very bodies a summons to socially useful self-giving. The fact that someone is my parent or mate or child confers automatic rights and duties. Neighbors become countrymen; power becomes authority; work becomes cooperation in the divine act of creation. Moralized society secures each man’s dignity in the most profound sense of assuring him that his actions really matter. As Hegel explained, only a moral (ethical, in his terminology) society can reconcile the limited scope of man’s individual concerns with the universal scope of his reason. According to the former, the scope of the average man’s actions is necessarily small, and these primarily affect a small number of people close to him. According to the latter, man is able to formulate general moral principles. These, however, will be either global or abstract. The former, such as “pursue the overall happiness or progress of mankind”, give only a small significance to a man’s daily actions, and that in an always indirect and often unclear way. The latter, such as “love your neighbor” do grant a man’s actions direct significance, but they are too abstract to tell him what he owes to his wife as opposed to his coworkers as opposed to visiting foreigners, etc. What we need to bridge this gap is a social context which makes it clear what love of a person implies for each recognized relationship. Ethical society is the conservative, Hegelian solution to the problem of reconciling the universal and the particular sides of man, so that he achieves his full dignity.
Liberalism has sought to free man from these preset roles and duties. Everywhere we hear the cry that people should not be “restricted” by gender roles, kinship ties, or national loyalties. People must be free to choose their own meanings. But to say that a thing can have any meaning we choose to give it is to say that that thing is meaningless in itself. All of Nature, including our own bodies, has been recast as intrinsically meaningless raw material, to be exploited as we (either individually or collectively) see fit. This has undoubtedly expanded the realm of human freedom, but at the cost of alienating us from the natural and social world. We are given more choices, but at the price that our choices lose all real significance. For conservatives, this is too great a price to pay for freedom.
The most fundamental fact of life, from which all serious social relations proceed, is man’s dependence. He relies for his needs on others, and they rely on him. People have never been independent, nor can they be, nor is independence a healthy ideal. Nor are most relationships of dependency arbitrary.