Thursday, April 07, 2005

Philosophical Civil War

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Although it seems that the present culture war has reached a fever pitch, this struggle for hearts and minds is a perennial one. In a recent article at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Ralph Raico reintroduces a piece that initially appeared in the New Individualist Review, Volume 3, Number 3, Fall 1964. The topic of discussion was/is a juxtaposition of traditionalist (conservative) and classic liberal (libertarian) philosophies.

At the outset, a “definition of terms” is in order:
What the libertarian (or classical liberal) has to offer, the fusionists maintain, is a good understanding of the meaning of freedom, of the dangers facing it, and especially of the connection between economic and other forms of freedom. He is mistaken, however, in disregarding "value" and the moral law, and in having no understanding of the goal and raison d'être of freedom, which is "virtue."

The traditionalist, on the other hand, is the complimentary figure to the libertarian, and brings to the synthesis a—as the phrase goes—deep commitment to moral value, to virtue and so on. Moreover, he understands the part that tradition must play in the life of society, while the libertarian typically "rejects tradition." Thus, the stage is set for the synthesis, which will consist in a political philosophy developed on the basis of "reason operating within tradition," and upholding freedom as the highest secular end of man and virtue as the highest end of man tout court.

This is a rough sketch of each to be sure, but both are examined further in the article. Nevertheless, these descriptions are more or less the way one views the other. What is at the heart of the disagreement, as I see it, are the dispirit meanings poured into the term: morality.
The idea that moral rules must be absolute in the sense that they are binding under all empirically possible conditions appears to be a sense in which conservatives often use the term. And yet it seems to me hardly a defensible position. Is it, after all, possible to cite a single moral injunction with content (not, e.g., "It is good to do the Will of God") and with application to social questions (not, e.g., "It is good to love God") which is unconditionally valid? Would it, for instance, be impermissible under all possible conditions to take the life of a man whom one knows to be innocent? It seems to me that circumstances could well be imagined in which this would be the reasonable—possibly even the moral—thing to do. Whether or not supported by classical liberals, moral absolutism in this sense appears to me to be an untenable position, the rejection of which cannot rightfully be made the grounds for censuring anyone.

Morality in general and religious ideals in particular are often touted as a great American tradition. From this premise, citizens are expected to think and act in keeping with Pax Americana.
For to defend the truth of an assertion on the basis that it has been the traditional belief of our society, presupposes that any belief that has been traditionally accepted by our society is very likely to be a true one. But contrary examples are available in too great an abundance to permit of any confidence in such a premise. Thus, recourse to tradition in abstract, speculative argument is invalid.

It should be noted that not all traditions are in a single category. Without question, individuals have the right to assemble periodically with others…or not, as they may wish. And likewise, there are extra-legal customs and protocol of government. In either case, the sanctity of individual liberty must not be casually violated.
…there are traditions that are maintained in the social sector (typically the sector of free interaction among individuals) and there are traditions pertaining to the government sector (typically the sector of force or the threat of force). An example of traditionality In the social sector would be the continuance of Christianity in its received forms as the result of the private decisions, habits, etc., of people; an example in the realm of governmental activity is (or was, 200 years ago) the continuance of the persecution of Protestant "heretics" in France, Spain, etc.— that is, a tradition involving violent interference with the peaceful actions of individuals.
Can libertarians and conservatives ever reconcile…time alone will be the judge. At this point I can but hope so, as I see the ills of collectivist ideology as oil in the vast sea of freedom.

...the development of a common conservative doctrine, comprehending both emphases (traditionalist and libertarian) cannot be achieved in a surface manner by blinking differences or blurring intellectual distinctions with grandiose phraseology. Frank S. Meyer

Acknowledgment: Democratic Freedom