Now that we have reviewed the current conservative political situation and found it wanting, we can begin reconstructing the core values of the conservatism that has been lost by the GOP. Over the next several posts, I will lay out what I see as key values that form the foundation of conservative thought, particularly for religious conservatives (of which I am one), and then we will begin exploring the implications of these foundations
Much of my thinking about core conservative values is based on the work of Russell Kirk, and especially his The Conservative Mind, written in the 1950s, which summarizes the thought of important conservatives from the French Revolution to the present day. I highly recommend his work. That said, let’s start off talking a little about morality.
It just ain’t right!
There are some actions that are beyond the pale simply because they are. There is no rhyme or reason to the judgment, but we all agree nonetheless. For instance, no one defends cannibalism (except maybe in extreme cases of survival), even if the victim died of natural causes or willingly consented to be eaten. Similarly, people from time immemorial have agreed that sexual relations between a parent and child are wrong (see one, Oedipus), even if both parties are consenting adults and use birth control.
These are extreme cases but they illustrate an important point that is often lost in liberal societies. Liberal perspectives on freedom (including libertarianism) take the stance that freedom should be maximized to the point where each individual is free to do anything they wish as long as it does not cause harm to another. But the examples above reveal that mutual consent and absence of harm are not adequate conditions for morality. That is, most people subscribe to some sort of natural law, or a body of moral principles that are inherent in the universe and not relative to the situation.
Transcendent Order in the Universe
The concession that some things are just wrong despite prevailing notions of liberty opens up two very important doors to conservative thought. First, there is a moral order in the universe that transcends humanity. Whether this is a natural law baked into the material essence of the universe, or whether this is a moral law promulgated directly by God into the material creation, humanity is not its own god. It does not make all the rules, because some rules are already there before we arrive on the scene.
If there is an existing moral order in the universe, this naturally leads to questions about the source of this order. One reason that conservatives are often religious is because religion provides a comprehensive answer to this question (among others). As a Christian, I believe moral order comes from God, and that the Bible reveals a much fuller picture of how humanity flourishes than we can infer simply from nature. This idea that religion can underpin ideas of natural law will prove important as we explore other topics.
The upside of limitation
Second, if there is a transcendent moral order, then humanity is restricted by natural limits. If humanity was intended for unfettered freedom, there would be no transcendent moral order. Maximum freedom, including the sorts of things I mention above, would be the ultimate goal. But if we recognize these sorts of moral limits, then we also recognize that all sorts of things we may want to do could also be limited. That is to say, limits can be good and are in fact necessary for our flourishing.
This makes good sense when we think about it. I have a child who is almost 2 years old. He would almost certainly not be alive today if it weren’t for limits. His natural drive for liberty would lead him to run blindly into the street, regardless of the cars speeding by. It might also lead him to throw himself down the stairs, not recognizing the pain that would ensue.
The same is true for adults. There are many things that we are inclined to do that ultimately would do us harm (whether that’s driven by our love of sugar, our love of sexuality, our love of power, or any other thing we love). But conservatives recognize that many good things in life can cause harm if not kept within certain bounds. Even liberty must be checked.
These two related principles—that there is a natural law or transcendent moral order to the universe, and that limits are necessary for human flourishing—are the backbone of much else in conservative thought. As we continue into other discussions, these principles will crop up again and again, as well as related ideas such as the reality of sin and the value of humility. But for now, we will leave it at this:
Conservative Foundation #1: There exists a transcendent moral order or natural law in the universe.
Conservative Foundation #2: Human flourishing requires limits.
In the next post we will build on these by considering the intrinsic value of each person. Check back soon!
Further reading: the first chapter of Mere Christianity by CS Lewis has a great intuitive discussion of natural law.