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I take the following to be among the most important principles that inform and motivate conservatives. I am not giving an argument in hopes of persuading non-conservatives, just an explanation of some foundational principles.
I say “foundational” because a decent statement of conservatism might not actually contain any of them. These aren’t the principles that are conservatism, but principles that motivate conservatives. Sometimes one of them (especially one of the first two) is an unstated premise lurking behind a conservative argument that just doesn’t seem to reach non-conservatives.
It is possible to believe one or more of these things and not be a conservative. And it is possible to be a conservative and not believe all three (though I believe all three myself). I certainly don’t presume to speak for all conservatives or aim to replace the other good explanations of conservatism that are out there.
1. We believe that any kind of an island theory of human nature is mistaken. We think the Apostle Paul and Breakfast At Tiffany’s are right: People do belong to each other–husbands and wives, parents and children, friends, etc.
One consequence of this is that there is no such thing as a real but victimless crime. Every sin has a network of victims: starting with the sinner himself (as my homeboy Plato, a great enemy of island theories of human nature, understood), then moving outward to include the people close to him who hurt when he hurts, the people the sinner didn’t do good for as a result of his hurting himself, and moving further outward to include the people who had to help the sinner recover from the effects of his sin, and the other people they couldn’t help while they were busy helping him.
Now I’m not advocating anti-smoking laws with the caption in the clip above. Writing on Ricochet when kids need to be put to bed isn’t just a personal matter either, and I sure don’t want the government regulating my Ricochet!
There is a whole lot of room for common ground with libertarians even if you reject island theories (and I imagine some genuine libertarians do agree with us on this point). And I want Ricochet to succeed, just as I want the right-of-center coalition to continue, to grow, and to succeed.
Whether or not anti-smoking laws or marijuana bans are proper, conservatives will not (typically) oppose them on the grounds that smoking something is a personal choice for the individual. It’s not, and practically nothing is. (By the way, I myself don’t understand how — assuming originalism is correct — federal marijuana bans can be constitutional if federal alcohol bans aren’t.)
This is also one reason we tend not to like the “get government out of the marriage business” or the “same-sex marriage doesn’t hurt you” idea. If we happen to think that one idea of marriage is less accurate, less beneficial, or less just than another, we fear that its enactment in society will eventually affect everyone. Notably, we tend to think of marriage as an institution that involves everyone: the marriage partners themselves, any children they have, their friends, their family, their neighbors and local church, and even the government.
A few brief clarifications. We also – enthusiastically – reject the tendency (more popular on the Left) to reduce the individual to the community. And we tend to think that it’s an actual village that raises a child, not the federal government. And when we reject island theories of human nature, we’re usually not talking about economics. (But some of us might be up for combining a non-island theory of human nature with a liberty-based idea of economic cooperation; think Von Mises and the book I, Pencil. And, to be candid, many of us are comfortable with a degree of regulation and some sort of a scaled-down welfare system).
2. We believe that things have natures. And when I say “natures,” I mean the sort of “nature” in sentences like “It is the nature of the heart to pump blood” or “The natural function of the kidneys is to clean out the blood.” I don’t mean “the natural world” or “the laws of physics” or “the way things usually are.” (In the dictionary, I mean numbers 8, 10, and 18.)
In general, “the nature of X” refers to the kind of thing X is. And natures have implications for how a thing should be; it should be used in accordance with its nature, and not contrary to it. (This is the sort of ethics you get in Alasdair MacIntyre and others in the Aristotelian tradition.)
The fact that things have natures is the reason they have proper functions. The proper function of a heart is to pump blood, because its nature is that of a blood-pumping thing. The function of an eye is to see, because it is a seeing thing. The function of a leg is to walk, because it is a walking thing.
In really big stuff, the function of a human being is to do such-and-such, because the human being is a such-and-such-doing kind of thing. Such-and-such might be having reason govern bodily appetites (Plato, Aristotle, C. S. Lewis), or loving God and neighbor (various confessions of faith and, again, Lewis), or living according to moral law (Stoic philosophers or, perhaps, Kant; and maybe Confucius and, again, Lewis).
In really controversial stuff, the function of marriage – if marriage also has a nature — might be sexual companionship and reproduction, which can perhaps be reducible to one term: heterosexual companionship). And the function of sex might be the same. With that in context, we can ask:
- Are things contrary to nature sinful, or merely unhealthy?
- Should anything contrary to nature be subject to government restriction? And which things?
- Is occasional use of birth control to delay pregnancy an act against nature, or just a refusal to live up to the full ideal of nature (just as I – quite innocently – refuse to live up the full ideal of my body’s nature when I don’t keep constantly in fit condition for running marathons)?
Now, here is one sort of thing that is sometimes said in opposition to the idea that things have natures: “How can natures exist if all is matter, and hasn’t science proved that all is matter?” This is really two questions; the first one is a good one, and probably the best answer is they can’t. But the answer to the second question is no, and for at least two reasons. One reason is that science — while it does a good job studying things made of matter — doesn’t show that there is nothing that isn’t made of matter: that is not the business of science, but of metaphysics.
The other reason is that, as Thomas Nagel says, “the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False” (more on this topic here and here on Ricochet). Another challenge is: “Explain these natures! What are they, and where are they? Why should anyone believe in such mysterious entities?” There are two ways to respond to this challenge.
One is the direct response, and that is to explain natures. I won’t attempt that here! (I’m not entirely sure I can, but maybe I can; at any rate, if I can I would need a new post to do it in.) A second response would challenge the premise behind the challenge: that you can’t rationally believe in something you can’t explain. This premise is false: We all rationally believe in the existence of time and believe that we are in it and moving through it, but few if any of us can explain time.
Note that sentences SoCon Ricochetti sometimes use such as “heterosexual sex is by nature fertile” entail the reality of natures, which we might as well admit are a bit hard to explain. However, sentences like “It’s 6:35 AM” entail the existence of time, which is just as hard to explain!
Everyday reality is almost infinitely mysterious. It’s best if we learn to live with the mysteries, or learn to explain them. But let us not explain them away or ignore them. And let us not accept some mysteries we like while rejecting others on the grounds that they are mysterious!
3. We think that religion can be a source of knowledge. This isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned this topic. We conservatives commonly think it is possible to know something from God, or from the Bible – or perhaps another sacred text — or from the Church or even from the (uncapitalized) church.
Every item of knowledge, as philosophers have known at least since Plato, is a true belief, and also has some other characteristic: it is justified, or warranted, or believed on good evidence, or believed due to the operation of cognitive faculties aimed at truth and functioning properly in the right environment, or whatever.
Naturally, the beliefs we’re talking about include the material of our own internal theological and ethical squabbles. And, of course, the big controversial political ones often include beliefs like “Marriage is a man-woman thing” and “All human beings, being made in the image of God, have human rights.”
Now, since we think it is possible to have knowledge from religious sources, we think that such a belief is true. And since it is true it is not just a matter of personal opinion. So we can’t go along with the popular postmodern ideas that relegate all truth-claims to mere personal perspectives. And, since we think it is possible to have knowledge from religious sources, we don’t generally think that such a belief is something we are just lucky enough to have. We may be lucky (or, more properly, blessed or graced) to have such a belief, but such a belief will also stand to reason. So we aren’t obligated to just keep it to ourselves and pretend that our knowledge is a private matter.
Whether — and in what manner — to require others to act like they have the same knowledge is a separate question, and again, there is considerable room for agreement here with our libertarian friends. In fact, a lot of us think we have knowledge from religious sources that religious liberty is best! (See here, for example; scroll down to section XVII on religious liberty and note that the principles are justified by appeal to theology and Scripture.)
And since we think it is possible to have knowledge from religious sources, we are unusually invulnerable to fallacies of the appeal to the people variety – at least when it’s not our own people that are being appealed to! God overrules any popular view that history is heading in this way or that way. We prefer not to betray God just to side with history. If history really is going that way, we’d rather be with God on what looks, for the short term, like the losing side. And we know that history won’t go that way forever because God is never on the losing side.