Can Libertarianism and Conservatism Be Reconciled? A Footnote

Near the end of Sir Roger Scruton’s On Human Nature, I came upon a discussion that bears directly on my post, “Can Libertarianism and Conservatism Be Reconciled?“. Scruton’s point is essential and merits a spotlight. Further, it applies not only to libertarianism (i.e., classical liberalism) but also to its offshoot — modern “liberalism” — neither of which, as rationalistic philosophies, bear any resemblance to conservatism, properly understood.

Here is the essential difference between conservatism and the varieties of liberalism, in Scruton’s words:

[W]e find near-universal agreement among American moral philosophers that individual autonomy and respect for rights are the root conceptions of moral order, with the state conceived either as an instrument for safeguarding autonomy or — if given a larger role — as an instrument for rectifying disadvantage in the name of “social justice.” The arguments given for these positions are invariably secular, egalitarian, and founded in an abstract idea of rational choice. And they are attractive arguments, since they justify both a public morality and a shared political order in ways that allow for the peaceful coexistence of people with different faiths, different commitments, and deep metaphysical disagreements. The picture of the moral life that I have presented is largely compatible with these arguments. But it also points to two important criticisms that might be made of them.

The first criticism is that the contractarian position fails to take our situation as organisms seriously. We are embodied beings, and our relations are mediated by our bodily presence. All of our most important emotions are bound up with this: erotic love, the love of children and parents, the attachment to home, the fear of death and suffering, the sympathy for others in their pain or fear — none of these things would make sense if it were not for our situation as organisms…. If we were disembodied rational agents — “noumenal selves“… — then our moral burdens would be lightly worn and would amount only to the side constraints required to reconcile the freedom of each of us with the equal freedom of our neighbors. But we are embodied beings, who are drawn to each other as such, trapped into erotic and familial emotions that create radical distinctions, unequal claims, fatal attachments, and territorial needs, and much of moral life is concerned with the negotiation of these dark regions of the psyche.

The second criticism is that our obligations are not and cannot be reduced to those that guarantee our mutual freedom. Noumenal selves come into a world unencumbered by ties and attachments for the very reason that they do not come into the world at all…. For us humans, who enter a world marked by the joys and sufferings of those who are making room for us, who enjoy protection in our early years and opportunities in our maturity, the field of obligation is wider than the field of choice.  We are bound by ties that we never chose, and our world contains values and challenges that intrude from beyond the comfortable arena of our agreements. In the attempt to encompass these values and challenges, human beings ahve developed concepts that have little or no place in liberal theories of the social contract — concepts of the sacred and the sublime, of evil and redemption, that suggest a completely different orientation to the world than that assumed by modern moral philosophy.

(See also “The Shallowness of Secular Ethical Systems” and “Rawls vs. Reality“.)