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Sunday, November 09, 2003

Deontological Conservativism

Matthew Yglesias argues that deontological conservativism is not just wrong but absurd. I am neither a conservative nor a philosopher and I am not even sure what deontological means. However, I can’t resist the challenge.

I am going to assume that deontological roughly means contractarian. I remember Rawls saying that there are roughly two views of justice one consequentialist and the other contractarian.

So the story must begin in a state of nature or original position or some such thing in which moral agents decide on what terms they choose to give up some of their natural freedom. From this thought experiment Rawls, Locke (and followers like Hayek and Nozick) and Hobbes have drawn rather different conclusions. None was conservative.

The problem with contractarian conservativism is that a conservative has to conserve something in particular – some tradition or some institutions. In contrast deontology starts from the abstract. It must be difficult to defend a particular tradition with a general argument. I think this is Yglesias’ insight. He argues that the strongest case for conservativism is Burke’s argument that we should not trust arguments that seem reasonable. That is Burke’s argument against political philosophy as such. I am sure that both Burke and Yglesias have good solid points. I am just pretending I am not convinced.

In particular some American social conservatives defend and ask the state to help promote (or impose) the moral dictates of a particular religion. They try very hard to avoid sectarianism, but it is clearly a challenge for them. Even without religion the tradition to maintain is certainly national – the ideal is roughly an idealised image of the USA in the 1950s. Not entirely the USA in the 1950s itself. they are not so thrilled about extremely powerful trade unions and don’t care as much as liberals about the rapid reduction in income inequality. The problem is that it is hard to find an abstract philosophical argument for particular traditions.

So to whom may I appeal in my effort to counter both Burke and Yglesias ? I hope someone believes I am not joking when I type Fred Barnes. Barnes may not have lived up to the highest standards of deontologia giornalistica (journalists’ professional ethics in Italian) but he did say something that struck me once. He claimed that the key division in the USA was not between classes or regions or whatever but between conservative parents and liberal non parents. This does not quite explain why conservatives don’t win all elections but it is interesting.

I think that liberal and libertarian theories have some difficulty considering babies and children. This was a delicate point for Locke. The existence of children seems sometimes to be almost overlooked (often they are assumed away by economists the ultimate consequentialists). I would argue against freedom that, if we are free, we are free to make a mess of our children’s lives. I don’t think anyone believes that adults should generally be free to ignore childrens’ needs. The argument comes down to whether how completely this responsibility is born by the childrens’ parents.

I think defence of the traditional family is central to social conservativism (no shocker there). I would argue that other aspects like respect for the flag or the bible are related to a general belief that respect for authority is a good thing. So I will pretend that social conservativism is the argument that the traditional nuclear family (USA aobut 1960) is a very good thing, an excellent thing, so precious that every policy should be judged on the basis of its effects on this institution. This is, more or less, what social conservatives claim.

How can such a view be the social contract ? I think first of all, one has to believe that virtue is the highest good. That, while people living their daily lives might want this and that (right now I want a cushion) in the original position they choose the social contract that will make them good. Then one must add the assumption that traditional families are by far the best, perhaps the the only, way to make good people.

Hmmm well the empirical assertion is absurdly strong and besides the argument appears to be consequentialist. It is contractarian because of the assumption that people in the original position want virtue not pleasure or freedom. Still freedom or freedom correctly construed or negative and positive rights or whatever are consequences.

To claim that conservatives have a point, I argue that the standard stories leave babies and children out of the picture entirely. Hobbes and Locke clearly considered a contract between adults. Rawls consider agents in the original position who are ageless but certainly not 2 years old. I am not sure exactly what Ayn Rand would have proposed to do with a baby abandoned on a church door step. I doubt she would have advocated selfishness or condemned charity in such a case. I don’t plan to read anything she wrote, so I will assume she dodged the question. Liberals defending no fault divorce tend to get vague (and resistant to the evidence) if asked if it is good for the kids.

If a mom dad and the kids family is really crucial to promoting the virtue or the happiness of the kids, then much of social conservatives’ advocacy of conformism (to all norms and therefore to that norm) makes some sense. Even the argument that the social safety net is bad because it promotes risk taking makes some sense if the risk is unwanted pregnancy. Even the argument that consenting adults should not (perhaps should not be allowed) have sex except when married and intending to bear and raise children makes a tiny bit of sense, if marrying and bearing and raising children is so urgently demanded by the unborn in limbo who have the same rights as the living. In this context, respect for say couples that choose not to bear children or celibate single adults must be seen as a compromise, inconsistent with true principals but required to avoid seeming too extreme.

I don’t think the argument is convincing. I wonder if it is deontological.

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