December 12, 2007


The Heart of Conservatism (Michael Gerson, December 12, 2007, Washington Post)

For many conservatives, the birthday of the movement is Nov. 1, 1790 -- the publication date of Edmund Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France." [...]

Both Wilberforce and Shaftesbury considered themselves Burkean conservatives; Wilberforce was a friend of Burke's and a fellow opponent of the French revolution's wild-eyed utopianism. Wilberforce and Shaftesbury were gradualists, not radicals. They hated socialism and rejected the perfectibility of man.

But both were also evangelical Christians who believed that all human beings are created in God's image -- and they were deeply offended when that image was degraded or violated. Long before compassionate conservatism got its name, the ideas of compassion and benevolence were central to their political and moral philosophy.

Other conservatives dismissed these reformers as "saints," prone to "fits of philanthropy." But according to historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, these saints and others like them achieved "something like a 'conservative revolution' -- a reformist revolution, so to speak -- that permitted Britain to adapt to industrialism, liberalism and democracy without the violence and upheavals that convulsed the Continent."

And Burke himself had a foot in this tradition. He was an early opponent of slavery, supported reforms to help debtors and opposed discrimination against Irish Catholics. He accused reactionary conservatives of defending "their errors as if they were defending their inheritance." He was deeply critical of those who refused to act because they thought nothing could be accomplished. Burke has been quoted as saying, "Nobody makes a greater mistake than he who does nothing because he could only do a little." In many ways, Burke was a bridge between conservatives of tradition and conservatives of moral passion.

This history is directly relevant to modern debates. In some conservative quarters we are seeing the return of Burkeanism -- or at least a narrow version of it. These supposed Burkeans dismiss the promotion of democracy and human rights as "ideological," the protection of human life and dignity as "theological," and compassionate conservatism as a modern heresy.

But the compassionate conservatism of Wilberforce and Shaftesbury is just as old as Burke, and more suited to an American setting. American conservatives, after all, are called upon to conserve a liberal ideal -- that all men are created equal. A conservatism that does not accommodate the "ideology" of the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. will seem foreign to most Americans.

The Value-Centered
Historicism of Edmund Burke
(Joseph Baldacchino, Spring 1983, Modern Age)
Burke believed strongly that political constitutions and the details of government should differ in accordance with the "character and circumstances" of various peoples. But he also affirmed that the "principles of true politics are those of morality enlarged" and that these principles are the same throughout the world. When the defense in the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings, governor-general of Bengal, argued that "the exercise of arbitrary power" was the historical norm in India and that the moral imperative did not hold with the same force there, Burke thundered in reply:

This geographical morality we do protest against. . . . We think it necessary . . . to declare that the laws of morality are the same everywhere, and that there is no action which would pass for an act of extortion, of peculation, of bribery, and of oppression in England, that is not an act of extortion, of peculation, of bribery, and oppression in Europe, Asia, Africa, and all the world over. This I contend for not in the technical form of it, but I contend for it in the substance.

As he opposed the notion of a "geographical" morality, so, too, did Burke denounce the idea that man's moral duty changes with the passage of time. "We know that we have made no discoveries," he writes, "and we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality; nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty, which were understood long before we were born, altogether as well as they will be after the grave has heaped its mould upon our presumption, and the silent tomb shall have imposed its law on our pert loquacity."

For Burke, the moral obligation is "eternal"; it provides the basis of all community; and it has its source in the will of God. Hence, all "persons possessing any portion of power ought to be strongly and awefully impressed with an idea that they act in trust; and that they are to account for their conduct in that trust to the one great master, author and founder of society."

Such examples could be multiplied almost endlessly. A deep awareness of a universal moral order having its source in God's will pervades Burke's writings. Whatever the issue at hand, Burke constantly repairs in one way or another to the theme that all "human laws are, properly speaking, only declaratory; they may alter the mode and application, but have no power over the substance of original justice."

...that perhaps Wilberforce is more right about his own Burkean conservatism than Mr. Gerson about an imagined tension between the two?

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 12, 2007 10:47 AM

I wonder if these folks who say that Burke was unconcerned with moral laws as ideals (this means you, David Brooks) have ever stopped to read his speech against Warren Hastings?

Burke thought that there was a "muddle" (his word) between moral rights in theory and their practical application. He didn't seek ideological answers, only balance. A lot of conservatives totally miss this.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at December 13, 2007 1:27 AM