Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Conservative arguments for Gay Marriage: Marriage is too important to be left to the prudes

It’s widely believed that conservatives are and should be opposed to gay marriage. I’d like to argue the opposite. While it is rarely either fashionable or politically correct, conservatism is a respectable political standpoint that emphasizes the importance of tradition, institution, virtue, stability, family, local ways of life, and a community’s moral fabric (see my earlier blogpost: http://hughbreakey.blogspot.com.au/2012/08/the-meanings-of-conservatism.html). But like every political theory, it can be used as a rhetorical device for people pursuing other goals entirely. I argue that gay marriage is a site where the conservative should take a principled stand against the prude. I survey what I take to be the three main arguments as to why the conservative might wish to prohibit gay marriage, and I aim to show that – far from supporting such a stance – the conservative has powerful reason to pursue the reverse course. Conservatives need to start taking marriage seriously.

What follows is a conservative argument; it takes as its basis the sorts of considerations that conservatism as a political theory takes seriously. It is not, however, a religious argument – religion will be relevant to what follows inasmuch as religion shapes the traditions and moral fabric of a society, but no further. I won’t pretend to answer questions purely of religious doctrine. (Though, since I speak to a predominantly Christian society, it is perhaps worth at least noting that I am unaware of Jesus saying anything whatsoever about homosexuality, and that no-one – at least, no-one who has a daughter – could possibly be convinced to take on board the morality relayed in the tale of Sodom.)

At the outset, the ‘liberal’ or justice-based reasons for allowing gay marriage are straightforward enough. That is, the law should treat all people equally, and a liberal society should not dictate what forms of life its citizens choose to pursue. When it comes to questions of the good life, the liberal state should be ‘neutral’ amongst all of the different lifestyle conceptions.

A conservative, it goes without saying, will hardly be impressed by such claims. Particularly in the context of marriage. In such a case we are not talking in terms of criminalization and toleration. No-one is demanding that homosexuality be outlawed, which many conservatives would acknowledge to be an unacceptable violation of individual liberty. Instead, the debate is only in terms of what should be recognized, encouraged or valued in a community. That is where the dispute lies in this question. And surely, the conservative will say, here, at least, there can be no question of liberal ‘neutrality’. If the liberal wishes to outlaw all marriage, and allow only civil union (if that?) to have legal recognition, then they may with consistency lobby for such a policy. But what the liberal cannot do is to accept the prerogative of society to uphold and value certain relationships (like those anointed with marriage) and then complain of its non-neutrality in making that valuation. Of course such a valuation is non-neutral – that is just what it means to evaluate.

Argument 1: Prizing what is going right. Gay marriage does not pay due respect to traditions (in this case marriage) that are functioning and important to the society
One of the basic conservative insights is that ‘critique’ has no privileged place in political discourse. In other words, criticism of society is not any more important than singing its praises. Thinking that the society that guides you or the authority that constrains you is doing something wrong is no remarkable intellectual feat (every two-year-old instinctually does this countless times every day when they don’t get their own way). To the contrary, understanding and respecting what a society does right is at least as important as reflecting on what it does wrong. With this in mind, the conservative may worry that gay marriage pays insufficient attention to what is going right in our society – namely, the (mostly-)functioning institution of marriage. In particular, it might be a concern that the reform wants to remake an institution – marriage – that is, for all its problems, still a profound source of meaning and security in our modern world.

I mention this point only to reject it. The proposed reform does prize what society is doing right. The argument for the reform is that marriage remains, for many, a valuable and fulfilling institution, and that the stamp of social approval on a commitment between two loving people is a desirable thing. That seems to me the best press marriage has had since divorce rates were first publicized. Indeed, one could imagine that the conservative could feel quietly vindicated about the desires of gays to be married. That gay people wish to be married is an endorsement of many deeply held conservative beliefs. Radicals for many years now have been predicting and advocating the demise of the ‘bourgeois’ institution of marriage and the family. That a group of people systematically excluded from the institution feel a desire not to spurn it, but rather to be included within it, is – it seems to me – an emphatic rejection of the radical and anti-conservative stance. It underscores that committed, stable, long-term loving relations between partners is indeed a deep need and value in many human lives, and, all the more, that the social sanction, recognition and approval of such relationships by the community is more relevant than ever. Both these points are exactly what conservatives believe and are straightforward rebuttals of radical predictions.

Argument 2: Gay Marriage is not socially valuable as it does not contribute to childbirth and child-rearing.
Marriage can be viewed as a socially valued institution because it is a necessary condition for propagating children and effective child-rearing. Both of these are legitimate concerns of the conservative, since they both carry plain implications for the survival of the society. On such a basis it might be argued that, as gay marriage does not contribute to this valuable social outcome, it is not therefore worthy of the same social and legal recognition.

Ethicist Professor Stephen Cohen (UNSW) recently responded to such arguments with a ‘shame on you’ accusation, suggesting that proponents of this view are advancing it only to cover up their real concern, which is with what they perceive as the immorality of homosexuality (which will be covered in the following section). He may well be right, but I will here take it as an argument on its face worth consideration by the conservative.

It is often responded to this argument that marriage is not centrally organized around propagation and child-rearing. Married couples are not required or even necessarily encouraged to have children. Marriage vows usually contain no declaration of intentions to raise children; often children are not mentioned at all. Persons who have no physical capacity to have children can be married. Persons who have no intention of having children – who are explicit in rejecting any such intention – can be married. Contraceptive methods of all types are available to married persons. Persons who have deliberately removed their capacity to have children (such as through a vasectomy) can be married. Indeed, the point here is not only that they can be married, but that there is no sense in which they are not socially perceived as being genuinely married. No one is attempting to deny them this status. It is not held, for instance, that if Amy and Bob really took their marriage seriously, they would have children, and that until they do, they are really just enacting a sort of ersatz version of marriage.

There is a conservative response to all this. The point might be made that social approval and recognition of stable, long-term, loving relationships between men and women in general is worthwhile, so that those that do go on to have children are more likely to have such relationships. In other words, it is easier to support and value the broad type of relationship in question than just to target the instances where that relationship is really socially valuable (viz. when it includes child-rearing).

Now this response is plausible enough, so far as it goes. The problem is only in thinking that this is any sort of reason not to allow gay marriage. The entire response is founded on the idea that it may be worth socially encouraging a type of relationship in general so that it can be assured in the subset of cases where it really matters for the community (when children are involved). If that is right, however, then it is obvious that gay marriage is worth approval for just the same reason that heterosexual-marriage-without-children is. Namely, in order to emphasize to everyone in society the value of the committed, long-term loving relationship between two partners.

Two further points are worth noting, in this regard. First, if marriage really is a bulwark to child-rearing, then gay marriage matters because gay couples can – of course – have children. They can adopt or foster children, and lesbian couples with access to sperm donors can also have children. A bisexual person may have had a child in a previous relationship, but now be in a gay relationship. And so on. Prohibiting gay marriage in all such instances would amount to a society deliberately prohibiting a child from being reared under the aegis of the institution which (the conservative response believes) is fundamentally designed for that purpose. A secure and stable home life suitable for rearing children does not depend upon a heterosexual couple being in residence; the crucial thing is the security and stability itself.

The second point is that it is highly doubtful that the only reason the conservative values marriage is because of its consequences for children. Marriage is often held by conservatives to be the central glue that holds a society together, and this is because it forms a strong, stabilizing part of a larger web of social relations. Similar to but more potent than friendship, marriage cements, so far as possible, parts of the social fabric together. Furthermore, it encourages socially useful traits like prudence, investment, temperance, sacrifice, loyalty, trustworthiness and productivity. So too the institution plays a role in the understanding of other social relations: aunts, uncles, sons, daughters, brothers- and sisters-in-law, and so on. Married people are for the conservative not valuable simply as breeders. And if this is right, then the conservative reasons for valuing and promoting marriage apply with equal force to gays as much as heterosexuals.

Argument 3:  Including gays into the institution of marriage will weaken the sanctity of that institution.
Granting that the desire of gays to be married is good news for the institution of marriage (as concluded in Argument 1), it may yet be argued that allowing their inclusion could weaken the power and significance of that institution. The thought here is based on the view that many people view homosexuality as immoral, disquieting and/or disgusting. Now it may be in some sense unfortunate or even bigoted that many people think this way, but that judgement does not prevent it from being a fact that they do. And if many people do indeed hold those views, then their perception of the sanctity and specialness of marriage can only be undermined when it henceforth includes gays within its compass. Some of the meaning of marriage will have been eroded, and that is a concern for the conservative.

But which of marriage’s meanings are we upholding? Doubtless there is a tradition, or part of a tradition, that celebrates a man and a women specifically committing to each other; that is, it matters that it is a man and a woman.

But there is another tradition, or another part of the marriage tradition, that holds that what is special is the love itself, the commitment itself. It holds that these elements are what are being picked out as worthy parts of a life well-lived, and an important part of the social glue that holds us all together. Now if that is right, then the question of gay marriage asks us to choose which parts of the marriage tradition are important. Because if it is the lifelong love or commitment (or at least the noble and determined attempt at pursuing these) that is worthwhile and valuable, then we cannot pretend that they are not worthwhile and valuable wherever we may find them.

Here’s an analogy: It would be like a person at a football match needing to check the skin-colour of the player who took a specky to determine whether it really was a great mark, or not. Put aside the racism of such a person; that’s not the issue here. The issue is that the person doesn’t get footy. They don’t understand – they are blind to – the values internal to the sport. They are unable to apprehend the act according to the standards of the marking contest as set down by the sport’s tradition and practice: bravery, altitude, strength, skill, quality-of-opposition, stakes and so on. And if a sporting body did believe that race mattered when it came to such questions, it would be defying the internal values of the sporting tradition. In other words, a conservative about the sport – a ‘custodian of the game’ as Don Bradman aptly expressed it in the context of cricket – would have every reason to be horrified by such a distortion of the standards of excellence of the sport, by the infection of the tradition with standards imported from outside its practice.

So too, I submit, for marriage. For all those who value the institution’s eulogizing of steadfast love and commitment, through thick and thin, as the guiding star of its tradition, the demand that gays be excluded from marriage can only diminish their respect for the institution, and cut against the perceived grain of its tradition. For now they are being told they got it wrong, and despite everything in all their vows about love and sacrifice through thick and thin, marriage wasn’t really about such things after all. The exclusion from gays from marriage was consonant with the internal values of marriage only when society held a variety of views on homosexuality – in particular that it was a form of insanity, and rightly illegalized – that implied that gays couldn’t really love and commit in the ways sanctified by marriage. Without the support of these now widely debunked myths, the internal values of marriage apply to gay partnerships as much as they apply to heterosexual ones.

The fundamental point here is that traditions are always contested and often conflicting, and the conservative needs to be aware (as Roger Scruton himself makes clear) that for this reason it is impossible to uphold every tradition at once. The conservative stands here at a crossroads, needing to decide which tradition of marriage will be upheld. The one that is responsive to a long-standing felt immorality of, or distaste for, homosexuality? Or the one that unreservedly makes central lifelong love and steadfast commitment? I submit that, when conceived on these grounds, no conservative can opt for the former. The latter picks out exactly the values and virtues of marriage that are prized by the conservative; it foregrounds the qualities that make it contribute to the moral fabric and ongoing resilience of the community. To believe that a dislike of gays is sufficient to warrant their exclusion from the institution of marriage is not to take seriously the worth of marriage.

The same point, too, can be made with respect to religion. (Now I’m not religious myself, so I’m drawing here on Rev. Noel Preston’s illuminating thoughts on the issue here: http://www.journeyonline.com.au/showArticle.php?articleId=3368) There is an important part of the marriage tradition that values and celebrates a couple coming together with God, deciding to intertwine their lives together and with their Maker. Now if that decision and commitment is what is valuable (either in terms of a life-well-lived, or for the life of the community), then that is a reason to respect it wherever it is found. This is not to say that every religion needs to marry homosexuals; that is of course a question of religious doctrine. But the question here is the one confronting the conservative, weighing up what traditions to sustain in cases where they must choose.  As before, it is the noble and uplifting elements of marriage – love, commitment, holiness – that are on the side of the institution as it might be enlarged to include gays. And it is a quite different set of elements and traditions being invoked by those who would prohibit it. The traditions clash, and the conservative must choose which will triumph at the expense of the other.

But for the genuine conservative, there is no choice whatsoever here. A marriage tradition that downplays the values and virtues of lifelong love, companionship, stability and steadfast commitment as they rank in comparison to the gender of the participants is no marriage tradition at all. It splices from the tradition exactly the values and virtues that make it precious from a conservative standpoint.

                                                         *                      *                      *
The foregoing arguments combine to make a simple point. Conservatism – or, at least, conservatism as a political theory, with its focus on tradition, virtue, moral fabric and the survival of the society – is not the same thing as prudishness. The prude believes that what everyone else does sexually is the prude’s business. The prude wants to know what is being done by others, and wants to control what is being done by others. But there is no political theory of prudishness. No-one pretends that one person’s salacious desire for prying and intruding into other people’s sexuality constitutes any reason that society should cave in to that desire. So the prude presents their desires as if they were grounded conservative arguments. They are like the drunk who searches for his lost keys under the streetlamp, not because there is a good chance they are there, but because it is the only place he is likely to find them. The prude cannot pretend they have justice or liberty on their side; traditions of human rights don’t accept the law intruding into such private matters and lifestyles. Conservatism, however, does allow that such private acts can fall within the appropriate scope of law, and certainly of rightful public opinion and sanction. So the attempt is made by the prude to colonize the conservative stance. But to say that the conservative agrees that sexual and other ‘private’ matters are fair game for social concern is not the same as saying those matters must be constrained in whatever way the prude desires. For there are many traditions at work in any functioning society, not only prudish ones. And some of those traditions, such as the values internal to the institution of marriage – steadfast love and lifelong commitment – are not ones with which the conservative should wish to trifle.

Ultimately, the conservative throughout history has known that it is the internal enemies that are the most dangerous. If what I have argued here is right, conservatives must remember that their concerns and goals are not the same as those of the prude, and they must be ready, when necessary, to battle the enemy that seeks to infiltrate their ranks and speak in their name. This, I think, is the serious point behind the popular tweet by Morgan Freeman: ‘I hate the word homophobia. It’s not a phobia. You are not scared. You are an asshole.’ In other words, the charge here, another version of Cohen’s shame-on-you, is: ‘You’re not a conservative and you should stop pretending you are. You are not animated by genuine fears for social values and traditions. You are a prude (or maybe you just have a taste for institutionalized meanness). You are just one more person who thinks society should be structured to conform to your every prejudice, with no serious thought whatsoever of what that might do or mean for our society and its institutions.’

One final point in closing. Sometimes the ‘argument’ given for gay marriage is just given as: ‘C’mon, its 2012! Why are we still arguing about this?’ On its face, this can seem mere assertion, and can present social change as being inevitable progress against the embarrassing bigotries of history. Such a position may seem to be something the conservative will rightly want to guard against. But it is worth remembering that traditions and practices are not museum pieces. Some cultural practices are journeys; they have their own internal momentum (consider the archetype of conservative social practice: the common law).  The blithe assertion that it is 2012 is, in its way, an appeal to our society’s traditions – some of them centuries old. It says that we are still continuing on the journey our ancestors set us upon; that they bequeathed to us unfinished business that we have been lax in attending to.

It’s 2012, and it’s high time we started taking the tradition of marriage seriously. It is too important to be left to the prudes.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Meanings of Conservatism

Why is conservatism worth trying to understand?

For several reasons. First, conservatism is a genuine political force in many elections; many of the arguments that follow play a real role in many people’s thinking about politics, especially on certain issues. So too legislators and judges are always sensitive to the disruption of institutions and established expectations that can be effected by new laws and new interpretations of law. So it is worth understanding, even if only to be able to argue effectively against it.

Second, conservatism is often given a pretty short shrift in political philosophy, in the sense that is rarely engaged with seriously. For example, many lecturers in political philosophy courses don’t deal with it at all (yep, guilty as charged); and there is no entry on it in either the –otherwise excellent – Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy or the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Conservatism flies under the philosophical radar, and that’s an interesting fact in itself.

Third, while conservatism isn’t philosophically popular, communitarianism is. Like communitarianism, conservatism deals in tradition, practice, social identity, story and forms of life. But conservatism, it seems to me, is what communitarianism looks like when you’re not surveying it from the outside looking in, as if at an object in a museum, but when you’re on the inside, living it, breathing it and keeping it alive. And that is an important perspective to illuminate in political theory.

Fourth, conservatism isn’t just one particular standpoint; it brings together an array of arguments and beliefs, and it is possible to think that some, but not others, are sound. So a counter-argument to or rejection of one of the arguments offered below does not necessarily imply the defeat or irrelevance of any of the others.

A couple of preliminaries: First, from the outset I’m not dealing with the religious aspect of conservatism, though of course religion can form a major aspect of the institutions, practices and traditions that I go on to talk about. But it is the commitment to tradition and institution per se that is the focus here; and not on the role of religion (which can, of course, be as reformist as conservative).

Second, I have scant credentials as a conservative myself; I am by temper more Thomas Paine than Edmund Burke; more Amartya Sen than Roger Scruton. But I have sympathies with many of the conservative arguments that follow, even if I rarely find them decisive. My purpose here, in any case, is not to critique these arguments, but to set them forward as sensibly and reasonably as I can. Doubtless though, the arguments I tend to glean from the conservative canon are the ones I think are worth bothering with, so I make no claims of comprehensiveness. And do keep in mind that I’m not at all engaging with counterarguments here. Even though I think several of the points below are correct so far as they go, they are still vulnerable to powerful countervailing considerations.

Third, the main literary resource for what follows is Roger Scruton’s The Meaning of Conservatism (but as I think there are a multitude of arguments by and for conservatism, I have used the plural ‘conservatisms’ in my title). Edmund Burke plays a role too, of course, and I incorporate some communitarian points in what follows. But some of the following arguments are rarely made very explicit, and others are just more or less common-sense arguments for caution in policy-change from political theory generally. Finally, some (such as the brief discussion on adaptive preferences below) are probably more a product of my own thought than settled conservative doctrine.

Without further ado, eight arguments for conservatism in politics.

1. Conservatism as upholding established expectations
The most obvious point comes in first. People plan their lives and fashion their actions and choices to their expectations – especially their expectations about government policy and law. This is particularly true of long-term projects involving prudence, productivity and investment. Because such long-term planning is important for individuals, and very often desirable from a social and economic point of view, it is important to try to disrupt those expectations as little as possible. (Of course, this is not to say that no new policy is possible, and businesses have been known to try cleaving to expectations in the hope that they will then be substantiated by policy.) Disrupting expectations unsettles people’s current projects, renders pointless many actions they have taken on the basis of those expectations, and chills their enthusiasm for future long-term projects that may be similarly disrupted. In sum, ‘suddenly’ is a bad word in politics.

Expectations are also important in the context of adaptive preferences. Adaptive preferences occur when people constrain their preferences to the reality of their situation; we learn to stop wishing (really wishing, that is; fantasizing is probably fine) to be a prince, queen, rockstar, supermodel or dictator-for-life. While adaptive preferences have come under some fire in recent times, the thought that the best route to happiness and independence is to fashion your desires to no more than you can potentially achieve is an ancient and perennial one, and runs from the Stoics and Epicureans to John Stuart Mill (as I argue in the AJPAE 2010, if you’re interested in the ideas mentioned here). Happiness resides in enjoying the journey and taking pride in your decisions, not in making the world your oyster. If this is right, and adaptive preferences are indeed a key way for humans to pursue their own happiness, then establishing firm expectations for a citizenry, and then upholding those expectations against disruption and upheaval, is arguably a legitimate task for the state.

2. Conservatism as prizing what is going right
One might think that this too is an obvious enough point. Every society does at least some things right, and it is not an automatic feature of any given group of people that it gets those things (even very basic things) right. For example, if a society looks after its member’s rights adequately, tolerates minorities, or has peaceable relations with its neighbours, then those are features of its existence that are valuable. As such, they must be known and prized; without such a reckoning, ideas for reform or even revolution are reckless. In pursuing some other reform, we may in fact undermine the much more crucial and fundamental goods our society is providing.

Now I said above that one would think that this point is obvious enough – it is little more than the sensible advice that we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Understanding and appreciating what a society does right is at least as important as grasping its shortcomings. But it seems to me this point is not as widely appreciated as one might think. ‘Critique’ seems to occupy a privileged place in political and philosophical discourse; it is as if the person who judges their political environment as faulty has somehow achieved something important and remarkable as compared with the person who thinks things are going okay. But much as everyone may love to style themselves a Socratic gadfly, stinging people out of their dogmatic slumbers, the fact is that prioritizing self-critique over self-praise risks making the best the enemy of the good.

Here’s an example: a recent survey in my country, Australia, found that a little over 10% of the population harbour racist views. Which is more significant? That more than 10% of people in a society are racist, or that almost 90% are not? The conservative will worry that the blazing headlines saying ‘Australia is racist!’ misplace the achievement of a society that is reaching towards 90% non-racism (and, all the more, that such headlines give solace and support to the 10%, who are given the misleading impression they are part of a silent majority, rather than an embarrassing few).

Of course, an important factor in making these sorts of appraisals will be what the person thinks is likely to happen in the absence of society in general, and this society in particular. If outside of society, and in other different societies, people are very likely to (say) respect others’ rights, work productively, trust and be trusted, be peaceful and rational in their dealings with others, and not be racist and sexist, then if a society has (to some significant extent) all these features, then they cannot really be viewed as achievements of the society in question. If, on the other hand, the natural state of humans when bundled together in high numbers with scarce resources is not to display these felicitous qualities, then the society would indeed have features that are to be treasured and nurtured. So whether we cleave to a Lockean or Hobbesian state of nature, whether we believe in the noble savage or the Lord of the Flies, determines the touchstone we apply to our own society and its achievements.

Thus, taking again the racism survey as an example, if most societies in the contemporary context are, say, 2% racist and 98% non-racist, then it is not an achievement – it is in fact an embarrassment – to be on 10/90%. If the entire society were to be remodelled, then this would be one feature of the society we would be happy to consign to the dustbin of history. Conversely though, if the proportion elsewhere is more like 30/70% (this is the figure the survey’s authors put on comparative studies on racism in Europe, for example), then it is something to be treasured and celebrated that a society would be pushing toward 90%.

3. Conservatism as the salience of the status quo
One reason for leaving policy or a law as it lies is quite simple: to avoid the enormous social waste on squabbling, lobbying and politicking about where the boundary should be redrawn (and then redrawn again in the next election). There are all sorts of different political theories that make all sorts of different recommendations on any given policy issue. When there is genuine division within a community over the proper placement of a policy or tax, it can sometimes seem common-sense (except in cases of obvious injustice and manifest disutility) to simply leave it where it lies. The initial policy may have been arbitrary, but it can seem a more ‘neutral’, and so acceptable, position than re-figuring the policy in the favour of one side or other of the political divide.

An example where almost everyone will agree there is at least something to be said for this policy is, I think, is in the context of national boundaries. National boundaries are often poorly drawn on a variety of dimensions (especially when they are remnants of colonialist ventures, such as in Africa or the Subcontinent). But it can seem much sounder policy not to even open the question of how they could be better drawn, with all of the fractious and divisive emotions – and the ever-present threat of devastating internecine violence and ethnic cleansing – that will erupt as soon as the question is thrown open to dispute.

4. Conservatism as the social fabric determining the law
Moving into more controversial terrain, the thought here is that the law as written in statutes and legal constitutions is not enough to understand the law as it is enacted in practice. Judges and juries, and the community as a whole, interpret the law from their own lived experience of a form of life, their understanding of the history of the community, and their stance on what is and what is not appropriate behaviour. What counts as breach of contract, negligence, trespass, and harm are informed and shaped by the community stance and its history, just as much as what counts as giving offence, indecency, nuisance, and blasphemy. The social meaning given to all of these normative concepts is filled out by the community’s shared morality. Parliaments may pass whatever legislation they care to – but it will always be obeyed, interpreted and applied in a way that accords with community feelings about appropriate behaviour. And if it cannot be interpreted in that way, then the law will fail, one way or another. One cannot impose on a community laws that do not comport with its understandings about what is right and wrong, fit and unfit, and helpful and harmful to the society. The written law is simply not determinate or powerful enough to impose itself against the moral fabric. 

One can see elements of this wisdom in, for example, UN ‘community-based’ efforts to increase women’s rights. The received wisdom is now that one must use the people (including men), roles, institutions and traditions in the community in order to effect meaningful change. The point is to empower the elements within the society that wish to elevate women’s standing, and to persuade and educate the other elements, rather than to rest one’s case on state or international law, which cannot be effective without change in community mindsets.

5. Conservatism as the social fabric that holds the society together.
The argument here is that the fact that a society’s people are bound by legality is not enough to have a functioning, secure society, capable of sustaining itself against threats, pressures and the ravages of time. A society in the full sense of the world requires a level of shared values, shared ideas about justice and desert, and perhaps even about politeness, recognition, neighbourliness, respect, offensiveness, toleration, selfishness, treatment of children, marriage and courting, bribery and nepotism, and so on. These shared ideas are what make social life run smoothly, with less enmity and clashes between factions. A society abiding by the law only through the threat of the law’s force, and not a commitment to the values at work in those laws and to the legitimacy of the reigning legal authority, is no society at all. Likewise a ‘society’ where each part believes the other to be acting wrongfully and offensively, violating their proper rights, unable to be trusted in business, politics, religion or friendship, and awaiting only a growth in raw power to seize control of the state is no society at all. It is at best an unstable modus vivendi; at worst a bastard patchwork of disparate parts waiting only a flashpoint to spark the fires of hatred. Mere law and its force, in sum, do not constitute and cannot sustain a community; at least some level of shared moral perspective is required.

5a. Conservatism as Moralism
Because law is not enough to hold a society together in peace and mutual tolerance, there is a strong reason for law and political institutions being used to promote – or at least to facilitate –virtue. Law and institutions should be moralistic on this account; they should be shaped so that they help create virtuous persons. Institutions dealing with children are crucial in this regard; the next generation needs to be socialized into the sense of justice and respect for others that are required for the society (and the law in that society) to survive and flourish.

One particular aspect of this line of thought is to consider, when faced with a policy, not the question, ‘What good will this law create?’ but rather, ‘How will this law shift people’s motivations? What relationships will this law motivate and make possible? Will this law encourage people to be good, hardworking and trustworthy (say), or the reverse?’

6. Conservatism as the wisdom of practice, not ideas
Perhaps the most interesting contribution of conservatism, from a political-philosophic perspective, is the idea that wisdom can be found in action and practice that is not visible (and, perhaps, cannot even be made visible) by theory, discourse, or written law. The thought here is that sometimes people manage to work out solutions to problems without any over-arching policy discussion, theorizing, or determined implementation. Over time, people’s actions that were initially, perhaps, disruptive of others’ projects come to be integrated into the local way of life; implicitly and with no top-down ordering, people manage to get along, and work out ways of getting things done with others and alongside others.

A popular example might be the development of the common law. A more concrete example (and one with which I am more familiar) is in property arrangements, where local groups can over time develop highly sophisticated systems for managing commons and open-pool resources that are often disrupted (with bad results for both the local communities and the environment) when central governments try to take over running such resources with their rules, police and top-down policy. On this footing, too much theorizing, justifying and rationalizing over politics can be a very bad thing; it can struggle to notice, understand or bring to light the vast complexities of social relations that have been workably harmonized by - on the one hand - practice, trial-and-error and perhaps an instinctual, decentralized sense of justice and non-interference, and - on the other - by spontaneous, unplanned action. Unable to comprehend such myriad and involute complexities and relations, and their fittingness for local circumstances, political theory tramples straight over them. It derives its policy from a logical application of a laughably tiny handful of moral axioms, and is perplexed when its legal instantiation falters or elicits disastrous consequences.

Sometimes too, a decent result can arise from a balance of two separate powers, either of which on its own would be harmful. In such a case, ‘reform’ (and so constraint) of one side can be catastrophic, as it hands victory to the opposing force.

The image of society as an organism is often put forward by conservatives, but perhaps a better figure is one of ecology. In many respects, a human society behaves a lot like an ecosystem, with thousands of tiny inter-connections and relations, and a balance of powers creating equilibrium. (In this respect, it is worth noting that Aldo Leopold, the father of modern conservationism, argued for respect for ecologies by analogy to the features they shared with societies. Despotism and instrumental control, Leopold argued, are wrong and unworkable for the same reason in application to the environment as they are in application to human communities.) In ecology, policy-makers are now largely aware how difficult it is to do ‘just one thing’. Making one change in a complex and chaotic environment might achieve the desired end, but it may do so at the cost of disrupting countless other crucial symbioses, equilibriums and food chains. Just as in an ecosystem, in society one law that is intended to have a single, simple, determinate benefit can wind up shifting motivations, payoffs, balance-of-powers and myriad other factors to create serious problems elsewhere. Aid economies are a startling and pressing example of this point.

Ultimately – and it is a challenge to a very basic tenet of much political philosophy – the worry is that political theory is just too darn uncomplicated, too reductive and simplistic, to make sense of the historic and lived reality of the gloriously messy and complicated human animal and the types of social interactions they can construct.

7. Conservatism as patriotism
Conservatism supports the creation of a community to which a person can feel they belong, and which shapes what they understand as their identity. One cannot understand the ‘I’ a given person conceives without reference to the society in which they form (and see themselves as forming) one proper part. Equally, the society is a means allowing members to express their shared identity. Its laws, shared practices and institutions announce the presence of the member’s identity in the community to itself and the world.

This type of community acquires loyalty and patriotic feeling, which is a key fillip to moral action regarding one’s neighbours and compatriots (though, of course, moral action towards foreigners is a separate question). Self-love is expanded out by this feeling of community, as members increasingly identify with their compatriots, and – indeed – with their community as a whole, taking pride in its successes and feeling harms against it as harms against their own persons. In this way the member starts to consider and care for those practices and institutions that preserve and empower the life of the society. A healthy community is a viable entity; it contains resources, traditions, powers, practices and processes that ensure its preservation over time, and it is these that are the focus of the patriot’s care. (Of course, not everything that falls under the banner of ‘patriotism’ counts here. For example, as well as having the type of patriotism valued by the conservative, in my country of Australia there is also a rival brand of ‘patriotism’ that, so far as I can perceive, celebrates quasi-lawless, quasi-violent, anti-authoritarianism. It goes without saying that this is almost opposite to the type of committed loyalty envisaged by the conservative.)

8. Conservatism as tradition
There are a variety of ways of formulating the idea of tradition. Indeed, ‘tradition’ may be difficult to fully capture in words because there is a sense in which it transcends thought and language. One way is in terms of (what Macintyre calls) the internal goods of a practice. Communities over time develop practices that have their own internal pleasures, joys and standards, and have their own types of excellences to be pursued. Chess, sports, dances, intellectual pursuits, music, art and even politics itself can all offer profound gifts to those who become part of these traditions. On this footing, the valuable and attractive parts of a tradition are the internal pleasures and excellences that it affords those within it, who are thus motivated to protect it as a valuable and worthwhile form of life.

Another (sometimes inter-related) way of speaking of tradition focuses on the importance of the past practices that have a long local history. A child is born into such practices, coming to play a role perceived as being time-honoured, incorporating them to a past-but-still-living community and its way of being, and giving them a way of carrying on the journey and projects of their ancestors. Unlike a (Macintyrean) practice, there may be no internal goods in the sense of excellences and standards in these activities. In this case the history alone makes the activity worthwhile and meaningful – the history alone is what makes the act transcend its own limitations and become part of a story that began long before the actor was alive, and will continue long after the actor is dead. To take part in that story by carrying on the community's traditions, is to take part in the larger journey and form of life.

                                    *                                    *                             *

Those are, as I see it, the premier eight reasons for being conservative. (Recall again that we have not considered objections or countervailing arguments, so nothing said here is intended to be taken as proven or decisive, though I hope that I have managed to suggest there is some wisdom and sense, at least, in each of the arguments.)

In the next few weeks, I hope to consider a few topics from the standpoint of conservatism, including gay marriage and immigration.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Excuses Excuses. Does moral philosophy answer the wrong question?

At a recent conference, a colleague and friend of mine from the AAPAE – Dr Peter Bowden –questioned the importance of moral philosophy to applied ethics. As the editor of a new book on professional and applied ethics, Bowden reflected that most of the chapters on professional ethics, all written by professionals, practitioners and teachers in the field, didn’t talk much about moral philosophy. To be sure, all the authors of course appealed to a variety of principles, values and virtues. But most of these norms arose more or less out of the practice and nature of the profession itself, rather than the edicts of philosophies. Moreover, most of the chapters considered the ways in which ethical practices in institutions and professions could be strengthened – discussing the varying merits of codes of conduct, moral leadership, whistle-blowing protection and so on. All this was done without any appeal to moral philosophy, and such topics are, all the more, not subjects with which moral philosophy tends to concern itself. 

As such, Bowden suggested, moral philosophy appeared somewhat irrelevant to applied ethics.
As a moral philosopher, I of course leapt to the defence my profession. I pointed out that moral philosophy was needed when the answers to moral questions were not clear or held by consensus, and when people demanded to know why they should, in fact, act morally. These problems for the most part were not the focus of Bowden’s book. When it comes to professional ethics, there is usually an adequate consensus on what should be done – what is required are measures to ensure that it does in fact happen. In cases where there is controversy we do indeed see a substantial input from moral philosophy, and this was reflected - for example - in the book’s chapter on bioethics.

But Bowden’s argument did make me reflect in a number of ways on the relevance of moral philosophy and its impact on making the world a better place. I’ll get to some of my other worries in later posts, but for today I want to reflect on the possibility that moral philosophy isn’t much use in making people live better lives, or treat others more decently, because it focuses, from a practical standpoint, on the wrong questions.

My speculative hypothesis (and I have no evidence for it beyond anecdote and (ahem) personal introspection) is this: People aren’t bad because they don’t feel they have reasons to do the right thing. Rather, they are bad because they feel they have countervailing reasons entitling them to do the wrong thing in this case. Moreover, those countervailing reasons are not on their face narrowly egoistic or selfish.

To explain. Moral philosophy (and religion too, for that matter) tends to provide reasons for why people should, generally speaking, be decent to each other. But outside philosophical disputations, I speculate that ordinary people (non-sociopaths) don’t harbour any real doubts about this matter. They are well aware in some fuzzy non-theorized way that they should be decent to each other – whether motivated by sympathy or empathy, a sense of fairness, reciprocity and equality, tradition and community, or a vague sense of the taboo, I think ordinary people believe they do, in fact, have good reasons to be civil. When moral philosophy comes along and gives a metaphysical account of why people should be moral, they are answering a question most people rarely ask or lose sleep over.

But to say that people accept that they have good reasons to be moral is not to say that those reasons are always – or even often – decisive. Quite the contrary. One can fully believe – as a general matter – that one should be nice to other people, but at the same time believe in this specific instance that one is justified in not being so.

In other words, it is not large-scale doubt about the demands of morality that is operative when ordinary people do the wrong thing, but is instead the perceived presence of defeating considerations that morally justify not doing the right thing in the specific case.

What might those defeating considerations look like? Well, the pithy pocket-card above is the facetious version. Here’s a (only somewhat) more sober list:

·         Victim 1: ‘I (or the identity group to which I belong) have been historically wronged. To find fault with me is to blame the victim and mistake the real culprit.’

·         Victim 2: ‘I’m fighting against the oppression of the identity group to which I belong. You are probably complicit in my oppression.’

·         Crusade: ‘I’m on an artistic/aesthetic/environmental/humanitarian crusade. If I don’t fulfil my role, civilization as we know it will collapse. (Or, if civilization is a bad thing, then if I don’t fulfil my role, civilization as we know it won’t collapse.) The good I do makes up for the toes I step on.’

·         Resistance 1: ‘You’re all part of the dominant, patriarchal, hegemonic, capitalist, conformist, politically correct, elitist (etc) paradigm.’

·         Resistance 2: ‘There is a worldwide conspiracy that I know about but you don’t. On my shoulders falls the responsibility to act (or the fatalistic reason for inaction) that accompanies my privileged knowledge.’

·         Exigency: ‘There are exigent circumstances due to a stressful personal emergency. Again.’

·         Reciprocity: ‘Everyone else does it, so I have in response. I’m just pre-empting your ultimate betrayal.’

·         Casualty: ‘I’m just an honest person trapped in an immoral system, doing what I need to get by and do my job.’

·         Sneering: ‘Nobody else lives up to my high moral standards, or subscribes to my particular political ideology, so I am justified in my treating them in this way.’

(Unfortunately for my argument, it will perhaps only persuade if it is at least a little offensive. That is, unless the reader feels they themselves flirt with the above excuses when they are setting about doing the wrong thing, they will likely not think that these types of excuses are the problem I contend them to be. If it is any consolation, since I fashioned the list, the reader is entitled to presume they are at least somewhat a recognizable part of my own moral psychology.)

The point here is that when we encounter someone being mean, callous, power-hungry, destructive, self-aggrandizing, insensitive and dominating it is probably not the case that they have decided, ‘God is dead; anything is permitted,’ nor even, ‘Kant is dead; everything is relative’. They have no dispute whatsoever with the moral law in general, they just have located a convenient reason to set it to one side in this case. 

And in the next case as well, usually.

Note two points, (a) I think all of these excuses are in some sense workable. That is, I can imagine being in a situation where one or other of these excuses applied, and it really did constitute a reason for behaving what (in less extraordinary situations) would be shoddy or downright wrong.

(b) None of the excuses are strictly selfish. That is, none of them imply that one’s selfish desires are entitled to trump moral considerations. To the contrary, the excuses are positively dripping with moral unction. What makes them selfish is that they are (I posit) believed in order to excuse selfish and uncivil behaviour; they are the moral patina in which we clothe our vices, jealousies and asocial tendencies.

Now it is true, to be sure, that moral philosophies in principle have the resources to deal with these excuses. Indeed, the very nub of Kant’s moral system and his Categorical Imperative is, roughly speaking, not to make a special rule in your own case. And (for another example) Bernard Gert’s Common Morality only allows exceptions to rules to be made when the practice of the exception for the reason given in the particular case could be publically accepted – and I take it most of the excuses above would fail this test in the situations they are invoked.


More often than not, moral philosophies do not in fact speak to these types of rule-breakers. They envisage the signature problem as being naked self-interest, and morality as the cure. But in the foregoing excuses, it is precisely morality that is the problem, precisely morality that is the weapon wielded against human decency. So too, philosophy is as likely to fuel as to prohibit these excuses. Moral philosophy has always been a breeding ground for radical political ideologies and ‘speaking truth to power’.  And since Socrates stumbled out of Plato’s cave, philosophy has distinguished the behaviour of those-who-know-the-inner-truth from the dupes seduced by appearances. It has more than a little in common with conspiracy theory.

Ultimately, if what I have said here is right, the key moral problem facing us a lot of the time is not egoism, but exceptionalism – a belief in a profound personal specialness that justifies – morally justifies – the waiver of the rules. And it’s a problem for applied ethics because any person could enthusiastically nod their heads in agreement throughout any number of moral philosophy and applied ethics courses and books without ever having to confront the central reasons they behave badly.

None of this, of course, is to impugn moral philosophy as a practice, pursuit, study, reflection or profession (which would put me out of a job, after all). But if the reader thinks there is at least something to what I have speculated here, then it should give us pause in thinking that the best way to run courses in applied and professional ethics (such as are increasingly incorporated into science, law, medical and other degrees, for instance) is to introduce students to moral philosophy. For in doing so we may not be answering the questions that need confronting. 

The danger is not, or not only, the rational egoist. 

It is the self-righteous exceptionalist.