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Kurtz, Scruton and liberal reason

The conservative liberalism of Stanley Kurtz accepts the liberal view that the good of the individual is the ability to do as he chooses. It nonetheless recognizes the need for traditional moral restraints to moderate the pursuit of self-interest, and in particular to promote the network of habits and mutual obligations that constitutes family life. A problem with the view is that it sets the good of the individual in basic opposition to the public good, and so can’t provide a motive to the individual to choose the public good over his own, except perhaps in clear cases of immediate damage to others. However, Kurtz’s own discussion of social taboos shows that immediate damage to others is not a sufficient standard for a tolerable way of life in society. It follows that his moral views make no practical sense.

So far as I can tell, the same is true of all intellectual conservatives who want to be moderate and secular and so take part in what counts as mainstream political and moral discussion. They may say intelligent and illuminating things, but taken as a whole their views are always useless. They never suggest anything practical that might be done to transform the situation in which Western society now finds itself. The most illuminating example I know of is Roger Scruton. In a recent article in The New Criterion, he goes so far as to argue explicitly that there is no good reason for the individual to do what’s good from a social standpoint, and thus no rational basis for individuals to respect traditional sexual morality:

Burke brought home to me that our most necessary beliefs may be both unjustified and unjustifiable from our own perspective, and that the attempt to justify them will lead merely to their loss … The real justification for a prejudice is the one which justifies it as a prejudice, rather than as a rational conclusion of an argument. In other words it is a justification that cannot be conducted from our own perspective, but only from outside, as it were, as an anthropologist might justify the customs and rituals of an alien tribe.

An example will illustrate the point: the prejudices surrounding sexual relations. These vary from society to society; but until recently they have had a common feature, which is that people distinguish seemly from unseemly conduct, abhor explicit sexual display, and require modesty in women and chivalry in men in the negotiations that precede sexual union. There are very good anthropological reasons for this, in terms of the long-term stability of sexual relations, and the commitment that is necessary if children are to be inducted into society. But these are not the reasons that a motivate the traditional conduct of men and women. This conduct is guided by deep and immovable prejudice, in which outrage, shame, and honor are the ultimate grounds. The sexual liberator has no difficulty in showing that those motives are irrational, in the sense of being founded on no reasoned justification available to the person whose motives they are. And he may propose sexual liberation as a rational alternative, a code of conduct that is rational from the first-person viewpoint, since it derives a complete code of practice from a transparently reasonable aim, which is sexual pleasure.

It’s really not difficult to suggest motives that are rational from the first-person viewpoint for complying with traditional Christian sexual morality. One motive would be that (as I’ve argued) Christian morality enables us to make sense of intrinsic features of sexual experience in a uniquely persuasive way. Another would be that traditional morality is required for social well-being, so our integrity as social beings requires us to accept and live by it.

The apparent reason Scruton fails to notice such possibilities is that he—like Kurtz—is wed to the liberal conception of rational action as a strict matter of human desires, formal logic, and technical feasibility. The basic problem, I think, is that both men want to participate in respectable mainstream discussion, and a discussion needs an understanding of reason to go forward. The intellectual mainstream is defined by a particular understanding of reason—that reason is a matter of desires, formal logic and technique—and that understanding encodes liberalism. As a result, it’s impossible to participate in mainstream discussion and state genuine conservative views. Conservatism in any real sense must draw on the view that there are standards knowable through tradition or revelation that transcend the liberal conception of reasonableness. What follows is that for conservatives the goal can’t be to “have a place at the table” so they can “take part in the public conversation” in respectable intellectual society. It must be to tranform the discussion and intellectual life itself.