Thursday, September 10, 2009

Conservatives vs. Idealism

Despite the vaguely united opposition to Obama, important fundamental differences remain between the various different groups. For a reminder that Objectivists have a lot less in common with Conservatives than it sometimes seems look no further than Bill Whittle's latest video essay:
A Tale of Two Revolutions: The War of Ideas & the Tragedy of the Unconstrained Vision
or shorter URL:
I disagree with his analysis of the essential difference between the American and French revolutions, as well as his implicit claim that the Founding Fathers were really "Conservative" thinkers who did not think very highly of human nature. Whittle relies on Thomas Sowell but this is also Dennis Prager's favorite topic: Liberals think people are basically good and Conservatives do not.

It's not that there's not some truth in the criticism of Rousseau and his followers. Certainly they had a corrupt concept of human nature as changeable and that ultimately lead to attempts to make a new man through indoctrination and mass terror. More importantly they were less individualistic than the Americans who relied on Locke. And most importantly, Rousseau was the beginning of the reaction to the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. He explicitly rejected much of those periods stood for.

However, my main problem with Whittle's argument is that he's saying that human beings are basically low, corrupt, and miserable people who deserve no better than freedom. I completely agree with Ayn Rand that that is a completely immoral and uninspiring argument that will continue to drive anybody with an ounce of self esteem into the left. Man may have chosen to do much evil at various points in history but human nature is not defined by statistics but by its essence, namely by the fact that man survives by the use of reason, a faculty that he can choose to use or not. It is because throughout much of history people have not thought nor acted rationally (despite much recent rhetoric to the contrary) that numerous disasters have been imposed on men throughout history. But there were many times when men did act rationally and morally and laid the foundation for a much better future, personal or global. It is those men that ought to be regarded, not as supermen or isolated aberrations, but man at his best, the potential that is available for anybody to achieve, through his own efforts, as long as he commits to think and act accordingly.

It is this ideal that ought to be promoted by lovers of liberty if they hope to inspire people to fight for their freedom. It is profoundly uninspiring to fight, as apparently Bill Whittle and Thomas Sowell do, with Hobbes' view of human nature as the most that can be achieved and freedom as the condition we have to settle for because we are no good. Freedom is the condition of the proud rational individualist who esteems himself and expects others to do the same. Whatever the condition appropriate for those who regard themselves as imperfect, flawed beings, who dare not aspire to any ideals, it is not freedom.


Burgess Laughlin said...

What is your definition of conservatism?

Mine is that conservatism is the ideology that holds four values as guiding: God, Tradition, Nation, and Family.

None of those provides a foundation for capitalism. More fundamentally, all those values repudiate the only foundation the idea of individual rights has: one natural world, reason alone as a source of knowledge, rational egoism, and capitalism as the system dedicated solely to the protection of individual rights.

Conservatism, in this sense, has nothing in common with Objectivism.

Of course, as always, there are mixed-case individuals: syncretists, eclectics, and the just plain confused. But when push comes to shove, such individuals are nearly worthless as allies, except on the narrowest of "practical" efforts.

You are a thoughtful person. I look forward to hearing your views, now or in the future.

Gideon said...

Thanks for your comments.

Some would argue, and I think I agree, that Conservatives hold to the four values you mention precisely because of their view of human nature as flawed. According to Conservatives, Human beings are imperfect, irrational beings subject to temptation and emotionalism therefore they need to believe in a God (so that they believe are always being watched), stick to Tradition (so as to avoid their emotional temptations and because they are too irrational to develop something new and good), to Family (because nothing is more basic than Family -- the great upholder of tradition) and of course Nation (which is really an extended family).

On the issue of valuing nation, however, here I'm not so sure that they are completely wrong. Without turning into a collectivist, shouldn't there be some unifying principle(s) for a group of individuals in a country that would warrant calling them a nation and would warrant individuals to want to be part of that nation? Isn't it proper to value being American as long as America and its people stand for the right ideas?

Lately I've been struggling with trying to answer these and related questions.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

With respect to the founders, I have always thought that John Adams had a rather dour view of human nature. However, Thomas Jefferson's writings do not indicate the same. Conservatives tend to tar them all with the same brush, as it were. I think some of the more profound thinkers among the founders did not have this rather dark view of human beings.

madmax said...

I think that there could be a rational approach to Tradition, Family and Nation. But for the Conservative, reason is limited and it is only a "liberal" delusion that rational man through the use of his "unaided reason" can build a perfect society. This is the essence of Burkean Conservatism.

So, since reason is imperfect it must be supplemented with faith and traditions and it is out of these traditions which freedom is achieved. Since family is the central tradition it must not be undermined so therefore homosexual marriage and sexual liberationism (to name just a few things) are dangerous threats to a free people. You see where tradition worship unanchored to an individualist philosophy can lead.

Conservatism, while it has its strain of rationalism through religion, has a strong strain of Humean empiricism to it as well. Consistent Conservatives don't believe in induction and they accept Hume's Is/Ought dichotomy. For them, there are no absolute principles outside of religion and politics should be based on the time-tested empiricism of "organically" developed traditions and institutions; family, church, nation (and for some conservatives Race is also something which society should revolve around - there is a growing white nationalism on the perimeter of the conservative movement). True Burkean Conservatives hate Ayn Rand. They consider her a "utopian liberal" precisely because she rejected Original Sin and believed in unlimited reason. Of course Rand also rejected original virtue which many classical liberals did believe in (I think Jefferson is one of these) but Burkean Conservatives still consider Rand a misguided liberal.

So this post is on the money. Obectivism is as far removed from Conservatism's ideological core premises as it is from the Left's core premises.

Gideon said...

Based on reading C. Bradley Thompson's book on Adams, I think his "dour view of human nature" may be somewhat exaggerated since he rejected substantial elements of his Puritan faith on which it depended. The Founders were certainly rightly concerned with the temptations of power that any individual politicians might encounter and that's why they designed "a government of laws, not of men," but this view applied to people in the government, not individuals in general, who could be trusted to be left free as long as they respected the rights of others to do the same. I can't see how that can be based on a particularly dour view of human nature. Of course, in the end, my point stands regardless of the views of the Founders.

Good points about Conservatives as Humean and their rejection of Rand. Though many Conservatives have recently said nicer things about Ayn Rand, nothing of their basic ideas has really changed.

Kyle Haight said...

I think it is rational to value America -- but not as a nationalist. Rand was very precise when she said in her West Point speech that America was "in its original founding principles... the only moral nation in history." I value America because it is the nation of individual rights. If it should cease to be so, I will stop valuing it.

Burgess Laughlin said...

It is not rational to value God or gods.

It is not rational to value Tradition, as an unquestionable (arbitrary) authority, though one may value particular traditions where the issues are optional (e.g., where to place a fork on a dinner mat).

It is not rational to value Nation, but one may rationally value a particular government if it is doing its job of protecting one's individual rights and there are no superior alternatives available.

It is not rational to value Family, but one may rationally value one's own or another person's particular family if its members are virtuous and have values to offer in trade.

Conservatives are wrong to value God, Tradition, Nation, and Family. All are nonobjective values --floating abstractions -- used as justifications for violating individual rights.

Andrew Dalton said...

"he's saying that human beings are basically low, corrupt, and miserable people who deserve no better than freedom."

I've always found this conservative argument to be peculiar, because the premise could just as easily be used to justify controlling the sinful impulses of the masses through some kind of Dictatorship of the Elect (probably religious).

In fact, I doubt that one can make any normative statements about politics if one assumes a "corrupt" human nature, because by that premise you could never trust that anyone would follow whatever rules you laid out. (Separation of powers? Surely they'd just collude to satisfy their innate lust for absolute control. And so on.)

At most, it would amount to a prediction that no society on Earth could be more advanced than, say, Haiti. And we know that such a prediction is spectacularly false.

Gideon said...

Good points, Andrew! It's not at all clear that a corrupt human nature means that we should be left free. In fact, liberals have no problem arguing that precisely because people are so "selfish," they need to be forced to do "good," i.e., be selfless. This whole approach is not only an insulting distortion of the actual facts of human nature but a thoroughly illogical mess of non-sequiturs.