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Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The Conservative Standpoint 13: Liberalism and Conservatism in Relation



This is Part 13/2 of the Conservative Standpoint by Cole Dutton

It seems to me that in order for the conservative to understand his relationships with the political world it is necessary to understand the chief political framework through which the modern world is understood: liberalism, an idea that has taken over the popular consciousness and sub-consciousness to such a level that all modern thought is tinctured with its substance.

Liberalism is inimical to the conservative. I contend that as a perspective the ideology of liberalism, in fact the faith, is indeed the most erroneous of the conceivable political understandings; I say this not because its aims are misguided, though they are, but because the values are misplaced, a focus on autonomy and an abandonment of moral and ethical interpretation cannot equal a cogent and practical interpretation of governance and the state. I do not propose that all elements of the liberal idea are incorrect or injurious, and I wish to take time to highlight the few points were the liberal concept intersects with the conservative concept, however, by necessity such connections will be tangential and limited not broad and thick.


So what is it that defines liberalism, that depends, for answers I will turn to conservative philosophers Roger Scruton and John Keke’s who both have written extensive critiques of the liberal project; Scruton in his The Meaning of Conservatism and Keke’s in Against Liberalism afterward the understanding can further be expanded through studying the fundamental synthetic ideas of the liberal philosophers; for this I will draw on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to provide a standard self-definition of liberalism.


Scruton defines the liberalism as either a “an attitude towards . . . the state and its functions; [or] . . . a moral outlook. . . . Its guiding principle being tolerance.” Scruton interprets the liberal idea as one, which aims to permit the largest conceivable gap between the individual and the social by limiting the extent by which the moral and political worlds may converge upon them. The liberal must make various presuppositions in order to maintain their world view: Firstly, that the individual’s freedom has an inherent and “unquestionable” value second, that such freedom is the only criteria through which it is ethical to judge the political and moral establishment. How does Keke’s interpretation align with that of Scruton? To Kekes Liberalism equates to a system of “political morality” intended to “create conditions in which people can make good lives for themselves. Its negative aim is to avoid the evils that jeopardize these conditions, and its positive aim is to identify and realize them.” The heart of this understanding is that “autonomy” is the specific condition necessary for the realization of this concept; the so called “basic values” that make these possible, as suggested by Kekes, are “freedom, equality, rights, pluralism, and distributive justice.” To Kekes liberalism becomes problematic due to its inconsistency, and to Scruton it is primarily problematic because of its over reliance upon reason as the sole arbiter of human conduct, but how do liberals ostensibly understand their political philosophy?

The Stanford Encyclopedia has this to say:

“By definition”, Maurice Cranston rightly points out, “a liberal is a man who believes in liberty” (1967: 459). In two different ways, liberals accord liberty primacy as a political value. (i) Liberals have typically maintained that humans are naturally in “a State of perfect Freedom to order their Actions…as they think fit…without asking leave, or depending on the Will of any other Man” (Locke, 1960 [1689]: 287). . . . Recent liberal thinkers such as as Joel Feinberg (1984: 9), Stanley Benn (1988: 87) and John Rawls (2001: 44, 112) agree. This might be called the Fundamental Liberal Principle (Gaus, 1996: 162-166)



So it seems that indeed the fundamental principle of liberalism is that autonomy, or alternatively liberty, is the sole end of which political affairs may be directed and both critics and liberals themselves agree on this understanding. The principle of liberty and autonomy therefore becoming a means by which each individual may realize their self-directed ends.

This recognized interpretation can be further broken down however, into what is often consider the classical or libertarian understanding, based upon a foundation of negative rights, and the more modern egalitarian strain of liberalism constructed upon theory of positive rights, and here there is much contention even among liberals themselves. Suffice to say that such arguments will not be elucidated in depth here and now, but a rudimentary exposition is necessary to place the current liberal dialogue in context as well as, I hope in so doing, further highlight just how thoroughly liberal preconceptions have infiltrated modernist thinking.


A first and brief explanation of negative liberty idea is one that conceives itself as freedom from: as in freedom from something; for example, free from arbitrary search and seizure or freedom of speech, as in speech may not be encroached upon by other people. These rights are substantive in the recognition that it is dependent upon the individual to actualize them and see exercise the pursuit of their own ends as founded on the framework provided by the limits stated. This in its perfect manifestation keeps the individual in a position of reciprocity with others, thought they may not be able to act in the freest fashion as they would in nature; as Thomas Hobbes said in the state of nature “everyone is governed by his own reason and there is nothing he can make use of that may not be a help unto him in preserving his life against his enemies . . . it followeth that every man has a right to everything, even to one another’s body.” Necessarily speaking such absolute freedom would in turn prove invasive to the counterparties of the contract and it is in such a fashion that negative liberty finds its basis.

Positive liberty on the other hand, is a concept deeply reliant on action, its impulsive and directed. It seeks to facilitate and ameliorate; positive liberty is described as “right to” or free to.” Positive liberty sees freedom as useless without the capacity to act. You may be free from having property taken from you, but is it really free if you cannot obtain property? Positive liberty says no. In the positive conception the state or the community must take affirmative steps to enable the liberty of others. Where positive liberty becomes problematic is in both its amoral nature, and the fact that it requires that the negative rights of others suffer infractions in order to realize the positive aims of the alternative conception. Therefore, these two strains of liberalist thought often occupy a space of contention.

The conservative however, does not suffer such dissonance, as the conservative necessarily acts with a natural prudence and plurality of values, and it is in this way that they can mix both positive and negative affirmations comfortably. Nevertheless, it is the negative concept, specifically in relation to the state, that is most appealing to the conservative. Independent bodies, associations, institutions, and the like are more than welcome to provide catalyst for the individual pursuit of freedom, but the power of the state monolith is just too coercive when operating in such a fashion.

In turn the conservative in a position of prudence and deference keen to recognize the necessity of obligation, is not satisfied with the principle of free from, as the only justifiable explanation of state action or coercion on behalf of outside force. To limit the individual accountability only the pursuit of autonomy or to place it in the place of highest value is where the liberal proposition becomes a disastrous notion. Yet, when we encounter the modern world we do so in a position where the majority of the population can only conceive of “their rights,” not their obligations; we routinely here talk of what is owed, my right to something, how I deserve something, or how I should have something, because its only fair. This is a necessary extension of the egalitarian world view, one that leads to power concepts as the only justifiable limits to be placed upon mankind, and sees the expression of all non-contractual relations as such. In the liberal world we are so equal as to only have equal freedoms. As Hobbes said “we each act in judgment of our own cause,” and indeed this is what is happening, and continues to happen as the cultural, philosophical, and moral norms break down. This leads to the perennial questions of the modern day, “who gets to decide,” or “why do they get to judge” these presuppositions are all encompassing.

These questions are the direct conclusion of a world view which sees itself as incapable of making moral judgments and acting in a just fashion, instead of doing so it seeks to re-conceive justice in a different fashion all together. This is the heart of Keke’s argument against liberalism and one that I find most intelligible and persuasive. The argument finds its broadest expression in the idea that liberalism cannot reconcile itself to human evil. If evil is a natural element of the human condition, as conservatives contend it is, then the liberal does not recognize this, rather the liberal asserts that evil, if they are to remain true to their presuppositions about reason, originates in the exterior conditions compelling the individual. The liberal denies that prejudice, hatred, fury, envy, decadence, avarice, etc. . . . originate within the person and may be motivating factors in the determination of our subjective ends. Kekes asserts that if the empirical reality of human evil is indisputable then the liberal must articulate an argument for why “they suppose that by increasing autonomy they will succeed in making evil . . . less prevalent.” He states. “If evil and wickedness were autonomous, then increasing autonomy would increase evil and wickedness. . . . If, on the other hand, evil and wickedness were non-autonomous, then liberals must still explain why increasing autonomy would diminish them.” Finally, if the do not hold faith in the intrinsic goodness of mankind and the innate compulsion of reason toward the good, then they must concede that increasing autonomy, as the axiomatic principal of liberalism will only lead to the proliferation of evil in the world. The only reasonable choice then becomes, that it is necessary to curtail autonomy in order to curtail evil.

But, if human evil is not innate, the liberal still must find an effective means to prevent its existence, and this becomes problematic primarily because the majority of liberals recognize the empirical existence of evil actions despite the common refusal to assign accountability to the individual when they exhibit such behaviors. Keke’s follows this reasoning into what he calls “the problem of responsibility.” This he suggests derives from the fact that liberals may agree to the existence of observable evil of human actions, but may still deny the fact that human evil exists within the soul as a substantial and defining element of the human being in question. However, in stating that evil may arise non-autonomously, circumstantially, then the liberal polity must concern itself with the circumscription of non-autonomous factors, they must by nature act in a way to adjust the variables of the political order beyond the reach of enhancing autonomy and in turn no longer act as liberals. They must bring themselves into active contact with manipulation of the political order toward a non-pluralistic good, something irreconcilable to goals of absolute autonomy.


Keke’s offers other accounts of what constitutes the flaws of liberalism, but key flaw of any liberal political order, as the conservative conceives it is the absence of moral judgment, in this case as applied through the instruments of justice. The liberal conceiving justice as equality and distributive, as opposed to a moral claim about the nature of the individual and the assignment of his due. The liberal conceives of justice as a method through which the inequalities of society may be remedied (as an expression of the positive liberty or right principle). The intension being that the those who receive and adequate portion of the distribution of society, because they are worst off, will therefore have an increased potential to exercise the liberty available too them in a useful and beneficial fashion; such a notion necessarily fails to ask, what exactly, was the original cause of the hardship that the individual experiences, what is it that brought them to a position of impotence? This only raises further questions as Keke’s notes: “what is the guarantee that if resources are redistributed without regard to moral merit, then wicked people will not use the resources given to them in evil ways? What is the justification for depriving people with moral merit of resources they have acquired legitimately? Why would reasonable people produce the resources necessary for redistribution. . . . [etc] How could a system that is designed to ignore what people deserve be a system of justice?”

This necessitates thinking of evils as symptomatic of injustice and only the reconciliation of injustice can conceivably rectify the actions of the evil to society. This brings us back to the fundamental error of “liberal faith” that, “[t]he assumption is that people are naturally good, and if they are not subject to unjust social arrangements, then they will live good rather than evil lives.”

Roger Scruton engages in a much more esoteric, yet still useful, critique of the liberal concept, he does this not through a critique in of the liberal presuppositions about human nature in relation to good and evil, but rather he critiques the very existence of pure autonomy as propelled by reason as any form of reasonable criteria for decision making in a political and social world. Scruton presents, an in some ways more detailed version, of Aristotle’s contention that the community precedes the individual.

Starting with the position that in order for freedom to be absolute as an end it requires a Kantian understanding of humans as complex value driven creatures who rationalize and prioritize value based on reason, not appetite and hunger; we are autonomous with such autonomy originating as an element of the “self.” This necessitates an understanding of man, a philosophical anthropology, that understands man as a rational and reasoning animal. To liberals then, the exercise of autonomy is elemental to man, and to impede upon his rights is an existential act denying the very existence of a being. To Scruton the “liberal view” consistent of a network of justifications for why the actor should consent and act in conformity with the mandates of society, and this “first-person view is sovereign.”

Scruton argues that the liberal must focus on the first person viewpoint and in so doing ignores the impetuous for his. He fails to consider the things that are responsible for the existence of his first person viewpoint and therefore engages in a contradiction. To be truly rational, thought must be divorced from circumstance, and therefore can have no impetuous beyond the abstract and hypothetical, and to live an political and social world Scruton suggests we must pay our respects dutifully to the order that proceeds us and our existence as individual beings. If we fail to do so and follow the reasoning of liberalism to its logical conclusions we are left without motivation, we become nihilistic and divorced for the causes of our actions. If we ask why one should act into infinity, we preclude any action at all. We become, in terms I have chosen, engaged in an exercise of narcissistic nihilism.

The dependence on human reason cannot, in essence existence in a vacuum, and considerations are necessary and obligatory, because each individual finds their sub-conscious reason governed by unconscious impulsions originating in the considerations and implications of the community which gave birth to their identity. To consider our decisions as exercises in untainted reason leaves only abstraction and the breakdown of communal and social order.

Key to liberalism is the neutrality of the state in what is conceived of as good, or what is understood as a value in relation to others. The liberal effectively contends that no normative judgment beyond liberty should be advocated and that any affirmation of values is beyond that of the state; instead they conceive of a structure that shelters the individual or group without affecting or dictating the actions which take place in such a structure so long as all are free to the same prerogatives within it: liberalism does not presuppose an ethical, metaphysical, or value based judgment as worthy of advocacy from the state.

This is assumed to be a guarantor of peace because it does not place the values of one group, in a pluralistic society, above or beyond another; we can see not only is such a position illogical, but also fails to concede two powerful reality’s of the human condition, firstly, that human evil exits and must be reckoned with; secondly, that political life must make moral considerations and value determinations in order to be just and therefore legitimate; thirdly, that there is no functional pure reason in human conduct to suggest there is, is a denial of formation of human identity as an extension of heritable group experience, or in the absence of an ideal term culture. Therefore, as one can see, liberalism cannot reconcile itself to the conservative view of the world, and in its absence of moral consideration and communal sentiment by extension it fails to see a need to preserve to maintain the community that itself was the antecedent of liberal polity, and in this way it is self-defeating.