Traditional Moral Positions and the Public Square

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Freedom of Speech (painting)

Freedom of Speech (painting) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Canada, it is a crime to publicly assert that practicing homosexuality is a sin. In my ethics class, students regularly write on their essays that being a virgin until marriage is “prudish,” and they do not take seriously the traditional view that couples should refrain from sexual intercourse until marriage. In many academic settings, those who believe abortion to be morally wrong are silenced, to the point that the University Faculty for Life presents an option to its members to hide their membership in the organization so that their colleagues do not find out. The notion that there is objective right and wrong is excluded from most public schools, and moral relativism is taught as the gospel truth (and teaching it as such is, of course a contradiction).

It is true that freedom of speech does not, as the old saw goes, give anyone the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Surely being morally opposed to abortion or to practicing homosexuality or to premarital sex is not the equivalent to shouting “Fire!” Yet such opinions are being increasingly excluded from the public square, in academic institutions first, and then in the wider society.

I believe in academic freedom. If a student or faculty member wishes to defend the moral rightness of premarital sex, of practicing homosexuality, or of abortion, that student or faculty member should be allowed to have a say in the university square. But academic freedom also implies that those with the opposite views on these issues should be allowed to make their case. I am a conservative, but if a liberal student makes a strong case for his position, he will get a good grade on his test and will not be punished for his views. The situation should be the same for a conservative student who makes a good defense of his position in a class with a liberal professor. To give them credit, some liberal professors do give their students such academic freedom and believe in such for their colleagues. There is a subset of professors, however, who want to silence conservative voices, especially on controversial moral issues. Such violation of freedom of speech has taken place in some institutions of higher education, to the point that a professor in one school who presented a natural law argument against homosexual practice (and did not even claim to agree with the argument) was fired–until a court awarded him his job back. The problem is that he should not have lost his job in the first place. What is going on is that hostile rhetoric against moral conservatives is repeated so much that people begin to believe it (“they are haters,” “these people are filled with anger,” etc.). I have never understood why holding moral action A to be wrong implies hating the person who performs moral action A. I wish I could say that such an ignorant position prevails only in academia, but it is present in broader society. More and more the elites in academia, the media, and in Hollywood, are attempting to exclude traditional moral discourse from legitimate discussion and to push their views onto society as a whole. It may be just a matter of time before the United States goes the direction that Canada has gone (depending on election results, court appointees, etc.) and makes illegal conservative moral discourse on abortion and on sexual ethics. I wonder who the real narrow minded people are, the real bigots, the real haters. I would venture a guess that most of them are not moral conservatives.

Conservatives vs. Liberals: Radically Different World Views

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Liberal, MO.

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Why is there is such a deep conflict between conservatives and liberals in American society? It is not because people want to argue for argument’s sake; it has to do with radically contrasting views of the world. Below are some differences between traditional conservatives and liberals. Note that I am not saying that all people who label themselves as liberals and conservatives would accept all the positions attributed to them. I do believe that the positions below are characteristic of most conservatives and of most liberals.

Conservatives believe that society is an organic structure that develops from below; liberals believe that society is an artificial construction that can be manipulated at will.

Conservatives believe that traditional religion is an important social activity that encourages virtue; liberals believe that traditional religion is an outdated system that should be abandoned in any enlightened society.

Liberals believe in unlimited human progress; conservatives believe that while scientific and technological progress occurs, this does not change the fundamental nature of human beings as capable of both great good and great evil.

Liberals believe that “evil” is due to problems with heredity and environment; conservatives do not deny the role of heredity and environment in shaping human behavior, but they deny that these factors determine human behavior.

Conservatives (at least traditional conservatives as opposed to Classical Liberals and Neoconservatives) believe in a sense of place, of a person being located in a particular place and time and finding much of his identity there; liberals believe that in order to progress, a sense of place must go, and that a person can feel “at home” anywhere.

Conservatives believe that there is an intrinsic order to human nature that must be respected; liberals believe that human nature is malleable and can be changed at will by liberal reformers.

Conservatives believe that social change must occur in an orderly fashion, even when such change is good; liberals wish to force change on a society, using police and military power if necessary.

Liberals believe that the value of human life is a matter of achievement or reason or sentience; conservatives believe that there is something intrinsically valuable about human life.

Conservatives believe that the fundamental principles of morality do not change; liberals believe that the rules of morality progress as humans progress.

Liberals believe in abstractions such as “social justice,” or “the proposition that all men are created equal”–abstractions that can never be achieved in concrete society; conservatives believe that terms such as “social justice” and “equality” must be defined in terms of the actual concrete development and life of a particular culture.

Liberals (including Classical Liberals) accept the myth of “economic man“–that humans in society are primarily driven by economic forces; conservatives recognize that human motivation is complex and includes more than mere economic motivations.

Liberals believe that all stereotypes are evil; conservatives recognize that although some stereotypes are destructive, others are peaceful ways of human beings understanding differences.

Liberals interpret “diversity” only in terms of race, class, and gender; conservatives realize that “diversity” is a much richer concept that transcends the above categories.

Liberals believe that human creativity blossoms in a cosmopolitan culture; conservatives, while not denying that cultures intermingle, believe that local cultures are the most creative.

Liberals trust in big government to solve problems; Neoconservative trust in big business; Traditional Conservatives believe that problems are best solved locally.

Conservatives believe that marriage is a natural law union of a man and a woman oriented to the birth of children in stable families; liberals believe that “marriage” can be defined in any way that people wish without harming society.

Liberals despise the wisdom of the masses; conservatives believe that sometimes the masses know better than intellectuals what is best for society.

Liberals want Heaven on earth; conservatives recognize that Heaven on earth is impossible; we can do our best to love our families and improve our small communities, but a perfect society is impossible this side of Heaven.

 

If any conservatives who read this want to add some contrasts of their own, feel free to do so.

Groupthink

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Americans pride themselves on their individualism, on their belief in personal autonomy and being subject to no outside authority but the self. What has saved the country so far has been the fact that individuals do no, in fact, live their lives this way–except for self-centered (pick the bad word of your choice). What is ironic is that the more Americans pride themselves on individualism, the more conforming they become. And those who whine the most about personal autonomy are those who insist that everyone else agree with them or else.

It has always been interesting when a young woman, for example, gets a nose ring, a navel ring, and God knows what else, believing that she is asserting her individuality. However, it often turns out that everyone in her peer group has rings in the same places. What begins as a “nonconformity” becomes a fad, and then becomes semi-institutionalized in peer groups. When I lived in Athens, Georgia twenty years ago, there was a group of ladies everyone called “Townies.” They dyed their hair jet black, dressed neatly in black, and appeared Goth-like, although I do not believe they were Goth. They all looked alike. How did Americans become such conformists in the name of nonconformity?

It is at the level of ideas that American groupthink becomes dangerous. Not questioning the war party in Washington, for example, helps politicians to bring the nation into needless wars with little public opposition. Or take abortion–in academia there is some opposition to abortion, but not among the vast majority of academics. The same is true of other traditional values–academics teach students to rebel against such values, yet academia is the most conforming setting in the world, where at some schools any deviance from the politically correct (translate “left wing”) norm is severely punished. At the very least, the person who accepts traditional morality will be labeled a “hater.” However, who is the real nonconformist–the academic who follows his fellow academic lemmings into the lake of liberalism or the academic who stands against the crowd. I laugh at liberal Christian academics who talk about being “prophetic” while living in their fine houses and driving their fine cars–they are about as conforming and unprophetic as one can imagine. The true prophet may be the lone student at a liberal seminary who stands against the crowd for orthodoxy. That student can pay a steep cost for speaking up. The academic theologian merely gets congratulated by his fellow academics: “Your message is so prophetic, man.” It is a disgusting sight.

Groupthink has been taught in colleges and universities by means of “sensitivity training,” and in the past, speech codes. While the speech codes were removed under pressure from the courts, de facto, at many schools, they still exist. A conservative in academia is a true noncomformist, standing against the dominant liberal crowd, especially in the Humanities, which is the most left-wing part of academia.

Academic conformists and conformists in tacky dress or tacky rings have one thing in common: they are all lemmings, blindly following their ideological or fashion leaders over a cliff.  It will be interesting to see how many of them can swim.

The Intellectual Arrogance of the Left

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As an academic, I am often in informal gatherings with colleagues, some of whom take for granted that social democratic liberalism (as opposed to classical liberalism) is the correct political philosophy to follow. If anyone dares to deviate, few arguments are given; rather, there are accusations that the lone conservative “is not committed to critical thought.” This claim is merely asserted, not argued.

The Democratic Party in the United States is doing the same thing that academics are doing–claiming that those who support Republican candidates are intellectually vacuous. Now I would be the first to admit that there are some conservatives (just as there are some liberals and some moderates) who are intellectually vacuous. Ignorant people are found of all political persuasions. But intellectual conservatism has a long history stretching from Edmund Burke through Russell Kirk through academic conservatives today who vigorously debate the meaning of conservatism. Such debate is a sign of a healthy movement committed to intellectually weeding out views that are not helpful to a stable social order. One may disagree with such conservatives, but to call them intellectually vacuous is unfair.

What about conservative voters? Are some of them ignorant? Of course, but there are also ignorant moderate and liberal voters. When Democrats insult voters for shifting their loyalty to Republicans, this is a foolish move that alienates most voters. Adlai Stevenson discovered this the hard way, and did not learn his lesson in 1952 when he lost again to Eisenhower in 1956. When the left shows its intellectual snobbery, it fails in politics. To win, it must hide its superiority complex behind a veil of populism.

Conservatism at its best values practical reason and recognizes that behind traditions there often lies deep wisdom gathered over time. Intellectual experiments in social order invariably fail, as the failure of the Great Society programs has shown to most individuals who are not blinded by intellectual dogmatism. It is this wisdom that many conservative voters recognize. Most may not be among the academic elite, but they have a common sense and practical wisdom (phronesis, to use Aristotle’s term) that liberals lack. The left can be intellectually arrogant all it wants, but behind its theories lies the true complexity of real life, a complexity that is lived by real people living in real communities rather than by academics hiding in their ivory towers.

The French Revolution, Rationalism, and the Left

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Since the time of Rene Descartes (1596-1650), French philosophy has been characterized by rationalism, the view that our knowledge comes through reason rather than through sense experience. Descartes began a trend toward rationalism in philosophy on the European continent as a whole (with the exception of the British Isles, and in the 20th and 21st centuries, with the exception of Scandinavia). In politics, it is dangerous to apply a rationalist approach, since that approach is often used by idealistic thinkers to set up an ideal political state arising from thought alone rather than from concrete human experience. In the ancient world, Plato is a good example; in his ideal state, babies are taken from their parents at birth and whisked off to state-run nurseries. There, children attain their “natural state” of being artisans or soldiers; later, from among the soldiers are chosen philosopher kings who rule with dictatorial power hidden by “noble lies” they tell the people. Aristotle rightly countered that government should start from below with the actual historical development of a people rather than being imposed via some idealistic rationalist framework.

The practical results of such a rationalist approach are seen in the tragedy of the French Revolution. What began as a series of grievances against King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, quickly degenerated into a rationalist framework being imposed on the French people. A new “age of reason” was proclaimed, tradition trashed, and the king and queen executed. Later, after Robespierre’s rise to power, the new modern apparatus of the police state was used to round up those who opposed those in power, or simply opposed the attempt to eliminate Catholicism and replace it with a cult of reason. As a result, tens of thousands of heads rolled from the guillotine. The attempt to oppose a government run by the “reasonable elite” led to tyranny. Since then, that threat became even more dangerous with Rousseau’s notion of the “general will,” which can be used as an excuse to label the most brutal tyranny “the will of the people.” The proper question to ask is “which people”? The answer is almost always in terms of the elites who run the state according to their rationalistic plan no matter how many people are killed. The cause becomes higher than the individual.

This scenario was repeated by the followers of Karl Marx. Lenin murdered hundreds of thousands of those who “opposed the people.” Stalin, though more of a psychopath and thug than an ideological Marxist, murdered millions in the gulags and his forced relocation of millions of people.

Those who wield political power in the United States are more benign–people are generally not killed or imprisoned for their beliefs that oppose the position of the state. But top-down management by elites takes place to the point that the United States often seems to have the form of a democratic republic without the content. Federal judges make mandates and force them onto the people against their will–not because those mandates are really constitutional, but because the judge has a rationalistic vision of society he or she wishes to impose on the rest of society. Government bureaucrats do similar things, with their arrogant “we know best” attitude. This arrogance is supported by media elites who despise Middle America as a group of ignorant hicks, and who believe that if their vision of society prevails, we will live in a utopia, a secularized heaven on earth. The American left eagerly supports their goals with an almost missionary zeal. When Middle America opposed the left’s goals, as in the Tea Party movement, the left does not resort to rational argument, but to name-calling. This is ironic–if the left really believed that, say, redistribution of wealth, unlimited access to abortion, affirmative action, etc., were rational, they would present arguments to support their position. But for the most part they do not do so–and no empirical evidence against their methods, no matter how persuasive, will phase them–after all, if their form of government is so clearly proven by reason, their position, they hold, cannot be touched by the evidence of our senses.

The alternative is to realizes that governments should arise from the bottom-up, not from the top-down. A government, as Aristotle recognized, reflects the geography, history, and traditions of a people. This does not mean that “anything goes;” in fact, Aristotle strongly condemns tyranny. As traditional conservatives such as Russell Kirk argued, it is best to respect a people’s traditions and not impose an artificial, rationalist ideology to remake society, including political governance, in its image.