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What Is ‘Ethical Conservatism’?

The modern age is an age of anarchy, an era of habitual rebellion against old ways and existing order in the name of liberty, equality, enlightenment, and progress. It began as a rebellion against religious hierarchy, burgeoned into a rebellion against political monarchy, and finally boiled over in a rebellion against social patriarchy, leaving in its wake a new civilization endlessly at war with civilization itself.

Raised to rebel, the modern, anarchistic, progressive personality is always impatient with the world as it is and ever insistent that it change to suit him. Believing himself innocent, he blames others for the suffering he sees, indicting Society, Civilization, the Church, the State, the Establishment, the System, the Corporations, or the Man for crimes against the People and the Planet. Consistent with the age’s Luciferian culture of grievance justifying rebellion, the progressive lives passionately and impulsively as the hero of his own personal revolution, in which anything that stands in his way—that limits his autonomy, inhibits his self-expression, frustrates his ambitions, convicts his conscience, offends his sensibilities, or denies him satisfaction—can be condemned as unfair, unjust, intolerant, and therefore intolerable.

This is the spirit riling the two competing passions of our age, libertine individualism and envious egalitarianism. Both deny the moral relevance of the objective other to the subjective self. Both insist on the self as the point of origin and reference for all definitions of goodness, truth, and justice, in effect replacing the First Person of the Holy Trinity with the selfish first person—the singular “I” in the case of individualism, the plural “we” in the case of egalitarianism.

Resistance to this spirit and its culture of grievance and rebellion has been hobbled from the beginning by uncertainty about what should be resisted. Defenders of old ways and existing orders have not always understood what they are up against or should be fighting for. They are also sometimes self-serving and are easily portrayed as self-serving even when they are not. They have often been obliged to adopt the language and values of revolution even while opposing it, lest their resistance to “liberty, equality, fraternity” mark them out in favor of “slavery, caste, and hatred.” They too must champion freedom, equality, democracy, and human rights. They too must promise progress toward an earthly paradise satisfying everyone’s wants and needs. They too must evoke the image of the “shining city upon a hill” exemplifying the novus ordo seculorum.

Uncertain about what they stand for, the defenders of the old and the ordered are also uncertain about what to call themselves. Many admit to being “conservative” but are quick to qualify the term, there being so many different kinds of conservatives, including some who identify strongly with a particular people or regime and others who identify strongly with progressive values and the Whig tradition of resistance to authority. Some still advocate individualism as the essence of conservatism, in opposition to the collectivism of the socialist Left, but it is not always clear what kind of individualism they mean: Is it the “rugged individualism” of Herbert Hoover, or the moral individualism of Friedrich Hayek? Others fancy themselves “classical liberals,” but are they fans of James Fitzjames Stephen, or of John Stuart Mill? Still others prefer the name “libertarian,” but, lo, there are libertarians on both sides, too—conservative libertarians who love the Church and hate the State, and progressive libertarians who love vice and hate religion.

Many Americans identify as conservatives for religious reasons but cannot advocate political conservatism except by advocating their own particular religious tradition. Some combine political conservatism with anti-traditional religion, heedless of the inconsistency between the two. Others combine traditional religion with progressive politics, never minding the Left’s consistently pejorative use of “traditional” as a tag for “tried and found wanting,” never minding also the fundamental contradiction between progressive ethics and the ethics of both classical philosophy and traditional Christianity. The philosophers and the saints both located the source of human suffering in each human heart, with its jumble of conflicting fantasies and desires that cannot possibly be fulfilled in the real world without causing conflict and pain, both internally and externally. Their solution was not to fix the world so that it catered to the crazed heart, but to tame the heart through the cultivation of virtues such as modesty, honesty, patience, and self-control, to achieve—as much as reasonably possible in the world as it always is—the peace of mind they called apatheia, a freedom from suffering.

How far we are from this ancient understanding! Today, apathy is a vice and passion is a virtue. We castigate the apathetic for their insensitivity to issues and urge dreamy youngsters to “follow your passion.” Not content with peace of mind, we seek “self-actualization,” striving to be all that we can be, “living the dream” to our fullest potential, deciding for ourselves who and what we are and daring to declare our decisions “authentic.” This anarchic obsession with freedom from the constraints of our own existence has reached such a height of absurdity that young children are now allowed to choose their own genders, to live the dream of being a boy instead of a girl or a girl instead of a boy—and our laws force adults to go along.

The contradiction at the very heart of progressive ethics is undeniable: People must be “forced to be free,” as Rousseau candidly admits. Why? Because the prideful, passionate, progressive heart cannot admit that what it wants is wrong; it must therefore insist that what others want instead is wrong and identify itself with the Promethean lawgiver, “enlightened despot,” or “revolutionary vanguard,” in sympathy with “the People” but not benighted like “the masses,” capable of divining the “general will” of the former and compelled to force that will upon the latter. This follows, perversely, from the Rousseauean conceit that man is innocent of the evil he finds in the world, which originates outside of him and is only imposed upon him. As man is forced to be evil, so must he be forced to be free of it.

The ideological externalization of evil has given us two centuries of revolutionary upheaval and illiberal liberalism, including the most murderous regimes the world has ever known. It has also provoked dubious defenses of institutions and interests threatened by revolution. Some of these defenses have developed into alternative ideologies that are either unashamedly progressive or avowedly conservative yet progressive in principle. Founded upon abstract ideals identified with the American founding as a “proposition nation,” these ideologies promise to out-do outright progressivism in satisfying our hearts’ desires.

Against such pseudo-conservatisms stands the genuine conservatism of ordered liberty, hearkening back to the humbler sense of humanity of the classical and Christian traditions, the voice of which still echoes through the works of Edmund Burke, Irving Babbitt, Russell Kirk, Claes Ryn, and many others living and dead. This conservatism leaves satisfying the heart’s desires to the only powers able to actually accomplish that task and seeks from politics not satisfaction but restraint. It recognizes that the chief challenge of civilized existence is the struggle within one’s self between the higher and lower aspects of our common human nature, agreeing with Aristotle in “count[ing] him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies, for the hardest victory is over self.” The tension within each of us between the noble and the ignoble is unequal and perpetual. Progress, individually and collectively, is therefore always limited and reversible. Evil can never be eradicated, although individuals can be taught to discipline themselves against it.

Genuine conservatism is thus both classical and traditional but also, in content, essentially ethical in its recognition and acceptance of both moral limits to personal behavior and natural limits to human existence, including limits to our potential for improvement and to our abilities of knowing and doing, all of which ethical progressivism denies and resists.

The ethical conservative believes, with Samuel Johnson, in knowledge of the commonsense kind derived from experience, including the historical experience of humanity, which Edmund Burke called “the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.” This kind of conservative sees the usefulness of humble, honest, informed reason, but he honestly concedes, with Socrates, that there is much he does not and cannot know, limited as he is by his particular experience and imperfect reason. He holds much of what he knows tentatively, admitting that he cannot prove conclusively much of what nevertheless seems certainly so. He accepts this uncertainty as an inescapable aspect of human existence and is deeply skeptical of attempts to construct elaborate systems of abstract knowledge or ambitious schemes for restructuring society, confessing with Russell Kirk that “[t]he cardinal principle of conservative thought is the conviction that new systems and structures incline dangerously toward presumption.”

The ethical conservative also knows that man’s power to destroy greatly exceeds his power to create and that his ability to imagine things to do greatly exceeds his power to accomplish what he imagines. He regards as cynical nonsense Robert F. Kennedy’s boast that while other men see things as they are and ask why, he himself dreamed things that never were and asked why not—as if the burden of proof for things that never were lies not with the dreamer but with the skeptic. The ethical conservative is most skeptical of progressive attempts to effect fundamental changes in human nature and the human condition. When he hears progressives talk of “ending” or “eradicating” evils such as racism, sexism, injustice, inequality, or hate, he thinks of the guillotine and the gulag—implements of past attempts at progressive perfection.

With these natural limits in mind, the ethical conservative concedes the necessity of self-restraint on the part of all citizens, expressed politically in limits to government, limits to commerce, and limits to conduct, but first of all, in limits to change. The ethical conservative is cautious about efforts to improve upon existing arrangements, knowing that reform is often risky, shortsighted, and self-serving. He allots the benefit of doubt to the safety of stability, accepting that our first responsibility is to preserve the peace and prosperity we already enjoy. He therefore counsels patience when living in an imperfect order rather than risk pitting interest against interest in a contest for quick change. With Burke, he esteems the “wisdom of our ancestors” distilled through the ages into customs guiding each new generation in the business of living together in peace. He recognizes the importance of custom in maintaining the rule of law, understanding law itself as necessarily traditional, deriving much of its value from its continuity with the past: The more law changes, the less it is law, and the more it is will or even whim. The same can be said of language, which is also necessarily traditional, useful in communication precisely because it is handed down from one person to another. The conservative is not a pedant in matters of language, law, and custom; he recognizes that some change is inevitable and beneficial. He nevertheless also recognizes the value of most things staying as they are and therefore resists efforts to change things to suit the progressive’s limited understanding and prideful preferences.

Limits to Government

The ethical conservative also advocates limits to the size and scope of government. He looks to government to restrain evil, not eradicate it. He strives for justice but does not always expect or demand it, seeing that those who demand justice never put away the sword. He sees the state’s primary purpose as secondary responsibility for the maintenance of public order, assigning primary responsibility for the maintenance of public order—the tasks of defining what is good and instilling it in the people—to family, community, and church. The state exists to assist these other independently existing institutions in the maintenance of public order by enforcing necessary limits to liberty, without which no liberty is safe. The state is thus to be both a bulwark against external threats and a backstop against internal disorder, to keep things from getting out of hand.

The ethical conservative does not rule out all other uses of government to promote the general welfare, but he is wary of the difficulty of truly serving the common good when assuming duties beyond what is necessary. The imagination of politicians and policymakers is naturally both nearsighted and shortsighted, unable to comprehend the many unintended consequences of coercive policy, especially in the form of unpredictable distortions in economic behavior. The ethical conservative takes seriously the moral hazards incurred when the state attempts to insulate people from misfortune, especially as a consequence of their own irresponsibility. He knows that people in government are often uncomprehending of complexity and just as often cavalier about promising aid without regard to its effects. He knows also that many of their attempts to alleviate suffering tend in practice to subvert the natural social order that alone is able to civilize the young. He therefore inclines toward leaving most if not all forms of welfare and investment to private agencies and individuals.

The ethical conservative is wary of state involvement in education, since education is unavoidably moral in that it communicates both vision and values to the young. The danger is that state involvement will politicize learning, turning education into mere indoctrination. This danger is greatest when state control of education is farthest from the people and therefore less accountable to them, less attuned to their values, and more vulnerable to manipulation by narrow interests alien to the families with children to be educated. But on this and many other questions of state involvement, the ethical conservative declines to specify a hard and fast rule on what the state may and may not do, regarding such specification according fixed ideological principles as naively simplistic and indicative of an adolescent need for easy answers.

The ethical conservative knows that even good government is onerous and inefficient, that people are always less careful with public money than with their own, and that Lord Acton was right that “power tends to corrupt.” He is therefore wary of investing too much power in any individual, committee, assembly, or system. As the natural tendency is for government to grow in size and scope and to make itself the measure of all things, replacing the common good with the government’s good, resisting government growth is an inherent responsibility of citizenship, just as thrift is an inherent responsibility of adulthood. The ethical conservative therefore prefers to keep government local as much as possible, so that citizens can keep a close watch on it.

Limits to International Engagement

Rivalry between nations is often unavoidable, but war is rarely necessary and always unfortunate, and so peace is a noble goal of statesmanship. This truism has fallen out of favor in recent years. The idea has taken hold in some pseudo-conservative circles that war is man’s natural state and so the normal way to relate to one’s rivals is to bully them. The excuses offered for bullying are often ethically progressive: Our rivals are undemocratic; they do not allow dissent; they do not tolerate diversity; they do not respect human rights, particularly the rights of women and minorities; they are not “open societies,” meaning they resist our efforts to subvert them politically, economically, and culturally; in short, they are not like us and do not do our bidding.

The ethical conservative rejects such bullying as backward, bigoted, hypocritical, unethical, un-Christian, and uncivilized. He recognizes that other nations have learned other habits of behavior and thought and live by other customs suited to other conditions and deeply ingrained in their imaginations and institutions. They cannot be expected to share our interests and live our way. This is especially true of nations with no history of self-rule and thus no political experience supporting a culture of trust necessary for a democratic process to produce tolerable results. The lack of our accustomed freedoms and procedures does not make these nations our enemies. It is therefore the height of hubris to embark upon a policy of “nation-building” in support of “global democratic revolution,” whether for cynical or ideological motives.

The ethical conservative is not fooled. He knows that wars are often sold to the people as great crusades when they are actually driven by undeclared interests benefiting the few. He also knows that wars almost always cost much more than projected and that they often oblige us to surrender some of our freedom, sometimes permanently. He is not a pacifist; he concedes the occasional necessity of war and endorses the duty of citizens to defend their country; he does not disdain the military but rather admires it for its virtues of discipline, courage, service, and sacrifice; yet he is deeply suspicious of the reasons for which war is advocated and dead set against ambitious efforts to reshape large regions of the world by military means. He believes in both peace through strength and strength through peace, knowing that the quickest way to weakness is to waste one’s wealth on war.

We have enemies—including declared enemies motivated by a hostile religion, whom we nevertheless allow to infiltrate, colonize, subvert, and attack us—but we have not the power to defeat all of our enemies and therefore must manage the threat in other ways, principally by disengagement. With George Washington, the ethical conservative would ordinarily steer clear of “entangling alliances”; with John Quincy Adams, he would not “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy”; with George W. Bush before he became president, he would practice a “humble” foreign policy, letting other countries manage their own affairs without interference, as long as they do not directly threaten the legitimate interests of his own country, and reserving his censure of foreign countries for real atrocities, not the jailing of obscene, anarchistic, narcissistic provocateurs.

Limits to Commerce

The ethical conservative is generally a European “liberal” on economics, trusting the market much more than the state to supply the material needs of the people. He does not begrudge the rich their riches, taking material and political inequality for granted and seeing the need to reward those who create wealth with more wealth. He opposes progressive policies to redistribute wealth for the sake of equality. He favors allowing economic actors to operate and associate freely, without undue interference from governments or labor unions. It hardly makes sense for cooperative endeavors to be managed on an oppositional basis, and our most cherished freedoms—of speech, expression, conscience, and religion—all depend upon the freedom of association, for when forced into mixed company people must watch what they say.

On the other hand, the ethical conservative is not such a fan of economic freedom and efficiency that he would trust the market to put a price on everything. He knows that bankers and businessmen are sinners like the rest of us and therefore warrant restraint. He knows that unrestrained capitalism is often unsparing of traditional values and institutions and that market efficiency and economic growth can impoverish the many even as they enrich the few. He recognizes that a vast and deepening gulf between rich and poor is a threat to social harmony and political stability, but the extent to which regulation and taxation are needed to moderate this danger cannot be decided in the abstract and must be adapted to particular historical circumstances. When it comes to national economies, bigger is not always better. The ethical conservative prefers, with Wilhelm Roepke, a “humane economy” respectful of non-economic values and human bonds over a mercilessly individualistic market maximizing the money of major players by monetizing everything from childcare to sexual intimacy.

The ethical conservative’s concern to limit commerce is threefold: The first concern is to curb commercial irresponsibility threatening the general welfare in various ways, from environmental pollution to reckless investment; the second concern is to discourage the trafficking in vices inherently destructive to individuals, families, and communities; the third concern is to prevent the worst among us from amassing such power that the rest will be at their mercy. As wealth is a chief source of political power, a chief challenge of politics through the ages has been to prevent the accumulation of wealth in the wrong hands—the hands of pimps, pornographers, drug dealers, loan sharks, gamblers, shysters, slave drivers, and others whose regard for their fellow man is principally predatory. Such threats to the common good must be contained through regulation, taxation, and, when prudent, prohibition.

The ethical conservative is also concerned to counter the influence of industries profiting from policies inimical to the national interest such as unlimited immigration, military interventionism, and fiscal profligacy. He therefore supports policies favoring small, privately owned banks and businesses over large, publicly owned banks and businesses on the grounds that smaller banks and businesses are politically, economically, and morally safer. Their owners have local and personal ties and interests that counterbalance concern for the bottom line; they are therefore not only less able but also less inclined to collude with politicians and bureaucrats to rig the system against their smaller competitors without regard for the impact of their profiteering on the community, the nation, and the world.

Limits to Conduct

It is a fundamental fact of life that civilized living, in contrast to savage survival, depends upon the daily exercise of self-restraint by members of society. It is equally obvious that the habit of controlling one’s appetites and passions so as to live at peace with others is best learned very early, as a child in the care of patient, loving parents. For that reason, civilized societies have always left the responsibility of raising children to their parents. They have bound fathers and mothers together in marriage, allowed them extraordinary authority over their minor children, held them accountable for their minor children’s misbehavior, and supported their parenting efforts in various ways.

No better means has been found for civilizing the wild child, yet progressives have done their best to subvert it out of Rousseauean sympathy for the child who does not want to grow up, the woman who does not want to stay home, and the husband who does not want to stay married. They have promoted permissive parenting, undermined parental authority, lured women out of the home, forced children into school and daycare, deposed fathers as heads of households, and made divorce an easy out. By such means, they have achieved a plainly stated objective of the Communist Manifesto—the destruction of “bourgeois marriage” and its replacement with “free love,” serving the interest of childish adults at the expense of helpless children. The results are predictable and increasingly evident in the outright savagery of much of today’s youth, particularly in those communities where “love” is freest, traditional marriage is rarest, and the progressive culture of grievance and rebellion has the strongest hold.

The savagery of today’s youth is abetted by a “libertarian” social ethic hostile to authority, contemptuous of conformity, and dismissive of the very notion of normality. Society’s elders themselves assume they have no right to tell the young how to live, nihilistically and also selfishly believing that there is no truly right way to live. The young therefore revel in perverse forms of self-expression and feel justified in arrogantly abusing anyone who “judges” them for their anti-social behavior. Anything goes in terms of speech, dress, demeanor, and sexuality—as long as it does not offend one of the growing number of officially aggrieved groups.

Yet conflict between savage individuals and officially aggrieved groups is an unavoidable consequence of the contradiction at the heart of the culture of grievance and rebellion, which has spawned the competing passions of libertine individualism and envious egalitarianism. These passions vie against each other to decide progressive prescriptions of freedom and force. On one hand, the progressive society indulges in intrinsic evils such as profanity, pornography, prostitution, and abortion, ignoring the harm these do to individuals and groups; on the other hand, it forces people to ignore obvious facts of life, like the difference of male and female, and puts sexual freedom before religious freedom when it forces people to pay for and even assist in abortion, contraception, and homosexual marriage.

Recovering our social sanity would require the reversal of many progressive policies aggravating social anarchy. The ethical conservative would free parents and churches to do their job of civilizing the young; free corporations and organizations to set and enforce their own rules of behavior, standards of performance, and requirements for employment or membership; balance praise of individual liberty with praise of personal responsibility and self-restraint; encourage the cultivation of what Irving Babbitt called the “inner check” of personal conscience; and use the outer check of law to keep vice at bay.

An Ethically Conservative Society

What would an ethically conservative society look like, hemmed in by all these limits? Not radically different from the society we live in today. All of the ills we suffer now would still be with us. People would still lie, cheat, steal, rape, and murder. They would still eat too much, spend too much, waste too much, and work too much or work too little. They would still fear and hate others. They would still say and do things that offend others. They would still hurt those they love. They would still have their hearts broken, their dreams dashed, their desires unsatisfied, their needs unmet, and their choices limited. They would still get sick, suffer painful trauma, live with disabilities, and lose their jobs, homes, and families. Some would still be poor, and some would still be rich. Some would rule, and others would be ruled. Such is life.

But an ethically conservative society would have far fewer of these ills and enjoy many more benefits. More men and women would satisfy their basic human desires for companionship and sex by falling in love and marrying. More adults would know the joy of raising children and the comfort of having family to care for them when they are old or infirm. More children would know the happiness of growing up in a stable, loving family; more would learn the lesson that living together requires compromise, self-restraint, and self-giving; more would conceive realistic expectations of life, set achievable goals, experience the satisfaction of achieving them, develop the strength of character to endure failure and adversity, learn the humility and patience to bear offenses for the sake of peace, and make themselves useful to society through education and hard work.

Fewer men and women would be sent abroad to fight discretionary wars; fewer would come back maimed, dispirited, and dead. Fewer would commit crimes or be victims of crime. Fewer would suffer debilitating addictions, waste their income on vanities, live in poverty, and require public assistance. Fewer would fear to speak the truth in public or be forced to go along with words they believe to be untrue or actions they believe to be immoral. Fewer would sue to force their will on others. Fewer would know the pain of divorce. Fewer would suffer loneliness and depression. Fewer would commit suicide or suffer the loss of a loved one to suicide.

Such benefits the ethical conservative can actually guarantee. Unlike the progressive who promises a world that never was except in his dreams, the ethical conservative promises a world that not only has been but still is, the world of families and communities he knows and loves, which respect limits, practice virtues, teach truth, insist on honesty, and aspire to goodness. Such families and communities can be shown empirically to live better, safer, happier lives on average than people gripped by progressive grievance, liberated from the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood, enticed into indulgence, insured against the consequences of their own actions, protected from the influence of religion, and emboldened to rebel against goodness itself because it is not of their own making.

The contrast between ethically conservative and ethically progressive communities is there for all who care to compare the relevant statistics, but such comparisons are rarely made without excuses offered for the misery of the latter and doubts raised about the happiness of the former. Without much real-life experience of ethical conservatives, the progressive cannot imagine that conservatives can be as good and happy as they are. He imagines them instead to be oppressive, inhibited, hateful, and hypocritical folk. He even attempts to prove this with pseudo-scientific caricatures of patriarchal tyrants indicative of a supposed “authoritarian personality.” Instead of the good effects of conservative values on home life, the progressive sees only threats to the satisfaction of his many desires—for sexual freedom, sybaritic indulgence, care-free living, cultural diversity, ethnic advantage, material wealth, political power, personal fame, and global dominance.

The passionate pursuit of such things has made the world what it is today. The ethical conservative does not expect to remake it. Much less would he want to destroy it; that is a progressive impulse and ambition. The ethical conservative takes the world’s bad with its good, not expecting to set all aright. Aware that he cannot bend the world to his will, he nevertheless does his duty, in which is his victory. He need not rule to govern; he need only bear witness. He himself is the inner check on public passion, the conscience of his country, the voice of reverent reason speaking up for the better half of human nature, taking the part of the responsible adult against the spoiled child of the Age of Anarchy.

Brian Patrick Mitchell is the author of several books on politics and religion, including Eight Ways to Run the Country (Praeger, 2006) and A Crown of Life: A Novel of the Great Persecution(Pontic Press, 2014).

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