Friday, December 08, 2006

The New Fusionism

Although Timothy Sandefur generally praises Darwinian Conservatism, he criticizes me for "absurdly suggesting that libertarianism is a variety of conservatism, which it emphatically is not." He claims that my Darwinian account of human nature supports libertarianism but not traditionalist conservatism. (His review can be found here.)

Sandefur correctly surmises that I assume a "fusionist" view of conservatism as combining libertarianism and traditionalism, a view most clearly stated in the 1960s by Frank Meyer. In April, I will be speaking at the national meeting of the Philadelphia Society as part of a debate with John West. For that occasion, I will be writing a paper on "Darwinian Conservatism as the New Fusionism." Here I will only briefly indicate a few of the ideas that I will elaborate in that paper.

Darwinian science supports the conservative understanding of ordered liberty as conforming to a realist view of human nature as imperfectible, which is the common ground between libertarian conservatism and traditionalist conservatism.

In Darwinian Conservatism, I identify the core ideas of conservatism as manifested in the political thought of five conservative thinkers--Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek, Russell Kirk, and James Q. Wilson. While libertarians look to Smith, and traditionalists look to Burke, Burke's praise for Smith's two books--The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations--shows their fundamental agreement. Although Hayek and Kirk often criticized one another, their points of agreement were deeper than they were willing to admit. After all, both praised Burke and stressed the importance of cultural tradition in sustaining social order. Wilson might be seen as a traditionalist conservative insofar as he emphasizes the importance of moral character for social order. But he might also be seen as a libertarian conservative insofar as he shows how moral character is best nurtured through the spontaneous order of civil society. Moreover, Wilson indicates how the very possibility of moral order rests on the natural propensity of the human animal for developing a moral sense--a natural propensity that manifests human biological nature as shaped by Darwinian evolution.

In contrast to the utopian vision of human perfectibility that runs through the tradition of leftist thought, conservatives see human beings as naturally imperfect in their knowledge and their virtue. And yet conservatives believe that human beings do have a natural moral sense that supports ordered liberty as secured by the social order of family life, the economic order of private property, and the political order of limited government. A Darwinian science of human nature shows how these conditions for ordered liberty conform to the natural desires of the human species as shaped by evolutionary history. This broad vision of ordered liberty is shared by libertarians and traditionists, and it is sustained by Darwinian science.

Traditionalist conservatives sometimes criticize libertarians for promoting an atomistic individualism that is morally corrupting in dissolving any sense of communal order. But libertarians actually recognize the natural sociality of human beings and the need for character formation through social life in civil society. As David Boaz indicates (in chap. 7 of Libertarianism: A Primer), libertarians see that human beings have natural desires "for connectedness, for love and friendship and community," and those social desires are best satisfied in the natural and voluntary associations of civil society--in families, in churches, in schools, in fraternal societies, and in various commercial associations. Moral character formation is achieved better through such natural and voluntary associations than through the coercive association of the state. The coercive power of the state can secure the conditions for ordered liberty by enforcing the rule of law, securing domestic peace, protecting against foreign attack, and providing some of the institutional structures necessary for a free society. But when the state exercises unlimited power in coercively managing the daily affairs of life, it "undermines the moral character necessary to both civil society and liberty under law."

Like Boaz, Hayek agreed with Burke in stressing the importance of morality and character formation for a free society. "It is indeed a truth, which all the great apostles of freedom outside the rationalistic school have never tired of emphasizing, that freedom has never worked without deeply ingrained moral beliefs and that coercion can be reduced to a minimum only where individuals can be expected as a rule to conform voluntarily to certain principles" (Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, 62, 435-36).

Darwin explains how such moral order and character formation arises from the complex interaction of moral sentiments, moral traditions, and moral judgments that manifest the evolved desires of the human animal.

And yet traditionalist conservatives often charge that libertarians subvert morality by failing to promote the religious beliefs that are essential to moral life. Sandefur seems to confirm that charge by claiming that libertarians affirm reason rather than faith--that they deny "the assumption that we need a special magic spark to give us moral significance." Moreover, he insists that Darwinian science is on the side of reason against faith, and so he criticizes me for "seeming to appease religion."

But as I argue in Darwinian Conservatism, I don't believe that Darwinian science is on the side of reason against faith. When we ask for the ultimate explanation for why nature is the way it is, we cannot by reason alone either deny or affirm the existence of some supernatural ground of explanation.

Religious conservatives like Kirk look to God's eternal order as providing a transcendent purpose for morality and politics. Skeptical conservatives like Hayek look to the natural order of life as providing a purely natural purpose for morality and politics. Skeptical conservatives will be satisfied with Hayek's thought that "life has no purpose but itself."

Darwinian conservatism cannot resolve such transcendent questions of ultimate explanation. But at least it can provide a scientific account of the moral and political nature of human beings that sustains the conservative commitments to private property, family life, traditional morality, and limited government. And in a free society, individuals will be free to associate with one another in social groups--in families, in religious communities, and other natural and voluntary associations--in which people can freely explore the ultimate questions of human existence and organize their lives around religious or philosophical answers to those questions.

Libertarians like Sandefur accuse traditionalist conservatives like Kirk of being "theocratic." But if "theocratic" means using the coercive power of a centralized state to enforce theological doctrines contrary to the social order of civil society, then I cannot see that those like Kirk were "theocratic." Even the most fervent of the religious conservatives in the United States respect the Western tradition of religious liberty.

And in this they follow the New Testament teaching of Christianity about rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's. After all, the Christians in the New Testament formed churches as voluntary associations of believers, and they never sought the coercive power of the state to enforce their religion. Paul stated a libertarian principle by which the Christians should enforce their religious norms on those who belong to their churches, but should not act coercively against those outside the church. "For what is it to me to judge those outside? Is it not for you to judge those inside? But God is to judge those outside" (I Corinthians 5:12-13).

On this point, conservatives--both libertarians and traditionists--follow a tradition of religious liberty that stretches from the early Christians to Roger Williams to Adam Smith to James Madison. The need for religious liberty follows from the conservative realist view of the imperfectibility of human nature. No human being can be trusted with the power to coercively enforce religious doctrine, because no one has sufficient knowledge or virtue to rightly claim to interpret God's will.

Here conservatives follow Lord Acton's famous maxim: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." In fact, the context of this quotation from Acton's correspondence with Mandell Creighton indicates that it has a special application to theocratic, papal authority: "I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historical responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority."

Darwinian science can confirm the importance of religious belief as satisfying a natural desire for religious understanding. It can also confirm the social utility of religious communities in enforcing cooperative norms. And yet it also supports the need for religious liberty and the danger of theocratic power, because Darwinism recognizes that no human being can be trusted to exercise a presumed divine authority over other human beings.

But while judging such practical truths of religious belief and religious authority, Darwinian science can neither confirm nor deny the theological truth of religious doctrines.

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