January 3, 2009


Reason and the Future of Conservatism (James Kalb, 12/31/08, First Principles)

“Reason” is the way we come to reliable conclusions about what is real, what is admirable, and what we should do. That is to say, reason is the way in which we come to conclusions about the true, the beautiful, and the good.

Modern thought likes conclusions that are clear, demonstrable, and to-the-point. So it is drawn toward scientific materialism, which tells us that everything worth thinking about can be understood based on simple concepts and clear demonstrations, and which is closely bound to experience and action. It’s hard to bring principles into public discussion that critically-minded participants are not willing to accept, so scientific materialism now functions as our public orthodoxy.

Scientific materialism, like any general theory of things, tells us what’s real, what we can know, and what we should do. First, it tells us that what is real is atoms and the void, or whatever the current version of that is—wave functions and space-time maybe. Second, it tells us what we can know is what we can observe and describe numerically combined with theories that enable us to make predictions. Third, it tells us that what we should do is use our theories to get what we want.

Contemporary liberalism is the political perspective that develops the ethical implications of scientific materialism. So, correspondingly, it tells us that the point of politics and morality, like the point of rational action generally, is to get what we want. According to this line of reasoning, the simple fact that something is desired makes it good, and each of us equally makes things good by his desires. It follows that all satisfactions of desire are equally good, and each one of us has equal claim to satisfaction. Thus, the standard for morality and politics must be maximum and equal preference satisfaction. Give everyone what he wants, as much and as equally as possible. That’s the rational way to treat goods in accordance with their goodness and persons in accordance with their dignity. Moreover, that standard should be applied in accordance with reason, which under the contemporary liberal understanding, means that procedures and justifications have to be explicit and demonstrable, based on the foregoing theory of what’s real, good, and just.

Such reasoning has three important consequences for contemporary liberal politics. First, experts and markets rule. They give clear and rational answers, through clear and rational procedures. In concept, expertise should trump markets, because it is more clearly rational, but in practice it is a bit of each and the balance shifts.

Second, nothing is sacred, except the ego and its desires. If the goal is getting what we want, then everything is a resource to be used to maximize satisfactions. Physical objects, social arrangements, moral understandings, even human nature and the human body have no essence that must be respected.

Third, informal, nonrationalized arrangements like historical community, particular culture, and the family, that mostly run themselves in their own way and cannot be supervised by neutral experts, cannot be allowed to affect social life. They’re irrational and at odds with the system of universal equal freedom to which liberalism aspires. They must be suppressed.

So far I’ve presented modernity as bright and hard-edged. It rejects transcendence, so it wants everything to be clear, distinct, demonstrable, and controllable.

But what about the warm and fuzzy aspects of contemporary liberal thought? The answer is that they are not what they seem.

Some of these, like the celebration of diversity, eliminate the authority of particular informal cultural standards and so make it impossible for informal institutions to function. Others, like the concentration on feelings, turn substantive goods into private valuations that public life cannot deal with. Public life, therefore, comes to deal solely with formal values such as efficiency and equality.

Still other seemingly friendly aspects of contemporary liberalism, like Gaia worship, substitute for traditional attachments and consolations, and so make the modern world more habitable. As a practical matter, though, they promote technocracy. Environmentalism provides an example. It tells us that it’s Green and organic to have global centralized bureaucratic control over everything.

In passing, one should note that that postmodern skepticism does not treat all views equally. Scientific demonstration resists this kind of skepticism better than does common sense. So its overall effect is to destroy the ability of non-experts to criticize what’s done in their name and supposedly on their behalf. The result is to make the liberal state ever more absolute. [...]

The modern outlook lacks a way of dealing with realities that we cannot fully grasp. Those realities include the moral essences I just mentioned and almost everything else we care about as human beings.

If something’s transcendent, though, how can we know enough about it to make it useful? Edmund Burke suggests traditionalism as the way to take hold of things that can’t otherwise be pinned down and made clear. In addition to what we can demonstrate right now, we can rely on the experience and perceptions of all the ages, as crystallized in the settled outlook of our own community.

Unfortunately, Burke’s suggestion taken simply is not enough. That approach depends on things being settled, and political modernity unsettles things. Taken straight, traditionalism reduces to the stand-pat view: stick with however things happen to be here and now.

We need a more definite reference point. So where do we get a reference point that’s sufficiently independent of the status quo and enables us to orient our actions toward transcendent goods, truths and essences that we can’t completely grasp?

Religion is the obvious source. You can pretty much define religion as a scheme of orientation toward goods and truths we can neither do without nor understand completely. The acceptance of such a scheme is called faith. The future of any conservatism worth bothering about must therefore have something to do with religion.

And America is Oogedy-Boogedyist, Poll: Plurality of Americans Want All or Most Abortions Illegal, Want Pro-Life Laws (Steven Ertelt, 12/30/08, LifeNews.com)
[The Harris survey] found 82 percent of Americans said abortion should either be illegal under all circumstances or would limit its legality.

More specifically, 49 percent of those polled took a pro-life position wanting all abortions made illegal (11 percent) or wanting almost all abortions illegal except for very rare cases of saving the mothers life or in rape or incest (38 percent).

“These findings are remarkable,” said Deirdre McQuade, who is the spokeswoman for the pro-life office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which sponsored the poll.

“Fewer than one in ten Americans support legal abortion for any reason at any time during pregnancy. But that is precisely the current state of abortion law under Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decisions that made abortion legal throughout the nine months of pregnancy for virtually any reason," she told LifeNews.com.

The survey also found strong majorities of Americans support all of the common types of abortion limits enacted in Congress or state legislatures.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at January 3, 2009 9:14 AM
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