10 Conservative principles: a reaction
1. The conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent. ...Hmm. First of all, a liberal wouldn't use sexist language when trying to articulate truths about an enduring moral order, but we'll let that slide for now. I do believe that human nature has been constant, but that may change now that we finally have the tools to actually mess with it: genetic engineering, psycho pharmacology, cybernetic brain enhancement, etc. are either here or just around the corner. These offer the possibility of messing with our "source code" so-to-speak, and for the first time we really will be able to shape our natures, or at least those of our descendants. I share the conservative conviction that such drastic alterations are likely to produce some very negative effects as we blunder through that new space. But I believe that technology does in the end tend to make us better off. Humans make dumb mistakes, but after a whole bunch of people die horribly because of stupidity and selfishness, 50.0001% of the time things get a little better. And thus over the long term, things slowly improve, leaving piles of mangled corpses behind. This is my optimistic view of human progress.
"Moral truths are permanent." I sort of agree with this, but looking around the world, there do seem to be enormous gulfs between people's moral systems. I don't believe in a God-given transcendent, permanent morality. Actually, now that I think about it, I don't agree that moral truths are permanent. People's notions of the "moral" and the "good" have changed and evolved over time, as any course in the history of ethics or philosophy will tell you. I do believe certain broad moral principles tend to emerge from our common human nature and from the requirements for creating a functional society, but as those natures and societies change, our morality changes along with it. I guess I take a Nietzschean view of this: our morality has a genealogy, a history, it is influenced by contingencies of time and place, it is critiquable and improvable. Therefore it isn't permanent.
On the other hand, I am conservative enough that there are moral principles I am willing to impose on others, by force if necessary, despite differences of culture. I don't think that complete "throw your hands up in the air" relativism is the proper alternative to a permanent, transcendent, God-imposed morality.
[1. continued]...A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society—whatever political machinery it may utilize; while a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society—no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be.Um, this is something I completely disagree with. The world is full of people with very intense notions of justice and honor, right and wrong, but whose notions about these things are pretty destructive. I'm sure the people who engage in "honor killings" or fly planes into buildings or who cavalierly dismiss killing innocent people as "collateral damage" are filled with "convictions about justice and honor", but they are the wrong convictions. I think it is a ridiculous mistake to admire the strength of someone's moral convictions without examining the content of someone's moral convictions. I think that when someone says they are willing to die for something, our first reaction should be suspicion, not admiration. Even if what they are willing to die for is something we ourselves believe in. Certainly, there are some things that are worth dying for. But I suspect my list is a lot shorter than most people's. I don't think someone's moral stature is proportional to the length of the list of things they are willing to die for.
I think what is good about the American political and economic systems is the fact that they require less virtue on the part of the participants than other systems. That's what checks and balances, separation of powers, competition, etc. are all designed to do: take selfish behavior and channel it into constructive social behavior.
There seems to be a contradiction in the worldview outlined in these principles: on the one hand, it says that human nature is constant, and efforts to shape that nature are utopian, futile, and counter-productive. On the other hand it says that society is entirely dependent on having good people, rather than bad people, in order to succeed. The principle quoted above explicitly dismisses the importance of the form of political organization, and singles out the moral character of the people involved. The obvious question then becomes: how do we make sure people are good? The liberal answer to this is that we must ensure that people have adequate opportunities, education, freedom, dignity, etc.; i.e. we must ensure that social, political, and economic circumstances are conducive to the production of good people. What is the conservative answer? What is the conservative program? And isn't any such program (an emphasis on traditional family structures, religious beliefs, authorities, customs, etc.) as much an attempt at social engineering, an attempt to change our natures, as liberal projects that emphasize other priorities? Do not conservatives fall prey to unrealistic utopianism as often as liberals with their temperance movements, decency crusades, and puritanical attacks on sex, music, and fun?
To be continued...