Scruton’s Godless conservatism

In the past day I’ve run twice into Roger Scruton’s 1996 Wall Street Jounal piece on “Godless Conservatism”, from which it appears that many people who are uncomfortable with liberalism find it speaks to them.

Basically, Scruton proposes a traditionalism that refers to nothing beyond itself, one that treats human goods as purely human things that arise over time out of the life and experience of men living together. To preserve such goods, he says, all that is needed is an attitude of natural piety toward those who have come before and their ways, in particular the ordinary decencies that make possible the continuity of generations and a tolerable life in community with others.

To support that natural piety, he says, no transcendent reference is needed, only the circumstances that it works and it corresponds to the untutored prejudices of ordinary people, and so has a presumptive claim to acceptance. In a postmodern age, sceptical objections to it can then be dissolved by the same scepticism they try to employ themselves, leaving piety and tradition in possession of the field.

Or such is the theory. In support of its practicality he mentions the Romans, the Chinese, and the Jews, whose religions he says had far more to do with respect for ancestral ways and rituals and the ordinary duties of daily life than anything that metaphysically transcends the quotidian. To the extent he’s right about those peoples the examples are not encouraging. Neither the formalistic Roman rituals nor imperial Chinese Confucianism—which was indeed sometimes atheistic—sustained the social order. They were specialized affairs mainly of interest to a small official class that served an imperial despot ruling by divine right over a grossly superstitious populace. As to Judaism, it may not be metaphysical but extraordinary events on Mount Sinai and I AM THAT I AM play an important role in it. In any case, Jewish emphasis on law seems esssentially related to Jewish separatenesss and thus to the circumstance that rabbbinical Jews, like the Chinese literati and the Roman senatorial class, did not have to sustain a social order on their own but could assume that one already existed for reasons having nothing to do with their religious and ethical outlook.

And Scruton’s view does depend on something else to provide the real basis of social order. An insuperable problem with trying to make ordinary life self-sufficient ethically is that it is not self-sufficient as a practical matter. Our daily habits and concerns are defenseless against any determined agressor unless they are part of something larger capable of motivating ultimate sacrifice in its defense. Comfort and security are precarious if they are our highest goal. And they do seem to be Scruton’s highest goal. His basic objection to religion, apart from his belief in its falsity, is that it might make uncomfortable demands. When he hears “religion” he thinks of the Taliban and of the black legend of the Inquisition and Crusades. Whatever the historical and intellectual justification of that view—and I think it’s very slight—its emotional import is obvious.

Scruton is nonetheless an intelligent man, and he does make a good point. Religion is useless if it’s understood as fundamentally a fix for something else, like preserving a social state of affairs that makes us happy. First things must come first. He thus provides an effective rejoinder to the common neoconservative view that religion, within limits set by the neoconservatives, is a good thing for other people. Apart from that, the most noteworthy feature of the piece is his claim that Enlightenment reason, while it can demonstrate nothing whatever about ethics, provides decisive arguments in ontology that prove Christianity false. The claim is surprising, if only because ontology involves arguments as to what one should believe, but at least in this short and popular piece he doesn’t develop or explain it.
Posted by Jim Kalb at July 19, 2002 02:22 PM | Send


I think both Scruton and Mr. Kalb err when they suppose that Confucianism was not strongly grounded in the transcendent. Although Confucianism, to my meagre knowledge, is not specifically theistic, it is still grounded in the idea that the norms it proclaims are earthly reflections of heavenly ones; “On earth as it is in Heaven”.

And the fact that Chinese civilization is the longest unbroken civilization in this world’s history speaks something of Confucianism’s social efficacy, as it was a major player in that civilization for the past 2500 years.

On the idea of a “Godless Conservatism”, I don’t think it holds as truly conservative, as it rejects what almost all the ancients and pre-moderns accepted, that there was such a thing as Truth, with a capital “T”.

Posted by: Rory Dickson on July 19, 2002 3:44 PM

I agree with Mr. Dickson as to the Confucius of the Analects (see for more discussion than he can have any reason to want). Later Confucianism was different though. I agree it contributed to the social order and moderated it. The question is whether it could have sustained it without the aid of other things Scruton would not like and would be hard to reproduce today.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on July 19, 2002 4:07 PM

Scruton seems to belong to a common category among the English, conservatives for whom conservatism essentially means liking what we have. Such conservatives (correctly) look askance at American “conservatives” who think conservatism means “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” What’s needed is a synthesis between the English conservatism, with its attachment to an historically established culture, peoplehood and way of life, and the American conservatism, with its attachment to the transcendent. Each of these types of conservatism, in and of itself, is radically incomplete.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on July 19, 2002 5:07 PM

I found Scruton’s article a little wayward. I don’t think he really wants to prove the viability of godless conservatism. What he seems to be looking for is an alternative to modern liberal secularism that doesn’t impinge on religious free space. He doesn’t want any institutional authority for a church, and he doesn’t want to be governed by any formal religious authority. He approves instead, of the performance of religious ritual, of an instinctively sacred attitude to love and sex, and of what he calls a vague metaphysics.

Nor do I think that Scruton adequately answers the question of what will be done to counter those intellectuals who need to formally work out a meaning for their life, and, if one seems to be lacking, become rancorous, nihilistic and destructive.

I have read so many biographies of intellectuals (the latest one about Germaine Greer) in which there is a confession of a loss of faith leading on to an amoralism and radical forms of individualism.

Unlike Scruton, I think we need communities tied more closely to a single authoritative church (it is exactly this conclusion that Scruton is trying to avoid).

Posted by: Mark Richardson on July 19, 2002 7:55 PM

Dear Mr. Kalb,

While I disagree with Mr. Scruton’s atheism, I find the issue he raises no easy one: just what is the relation, or are the relations, between religion and morals?

Here is a contribution to a discussion of this point.

Part of the relation lies in the idea of God as lawgiver. But this can be taken in many ways, of which there are 2 principle competitors. There have been conservatives on both sides of this dispute.

First, there is the view of theological voluntarism, for which there is nothing to morality at all but compliance with the will of God. On this view, the divine legislative will is not guided by God’s own prior infallible moral wisdom, His divine knowledge of objective right and wrong, because there are no such things to guide the divine law. In a manner of speaking, for this view, the divine law is what there is instead of an objective and real moral law. This view existed, and was opposed, as long ago as Plato’s Euthyphro.

Opposed to this is the view (which I share) that holds the moral law to be objective and written in the nature of things, along with all other values. True enough, God chose to create some things rather than other things, or even no things. But not even the omnipotent God could make (say) wanton slaughter of children intrinsically right by commanding it (nor would he command it, of course), or marital love intrinsically wrong by forbidding it (ditto). Nor, for that matter, could he have made inanimate objects inherently nobler than plants, plants thus nobler than animals, or animals thus nobler than rational creatures. On this view, God’s legislative will is that we do the right and love the good, avoiding wrong and evil. His law is tailored to his perfect moral wisdom: his perfect knowledge of what is already in fact right or wrong, anterior to His addressing commands to creatures.

Again, there is the further idea that God enforces the moral law - that He rewards right action and virtue, and punishes wrong action and vice. Many Western philosophers, both pre-Christian and Christian, have held that this is so, and some continue to believe it to this day, as does popular Christianity, and as do I.

Note, too, that traditional Western thought has made this doctrine rest on that of the immortality of the soul, placing both the rewards and the punishments in an eternity beyond the grave; or in periods between successive incarnations (Plato); or in the future lives themselves (maybe Pythagoras and other pre-Socratics). Each of these variations to this day has its adherents in the West. I myself accept one of them.

Conservatives have generally believed this, and also held it essential that the people believe it. Some liberals have agreed - notably Voltaire, but also Locke, neither of whom wished to extend civic toleration to any who denied God or rewards and punishments beyond the grave. Indeed, many Christians, Jews and even Mohammedans have agreed with many pre-Christian pagans, philosophers and others, both that such unbelief is morally wrong and that it should be legally punished. Personally, I agree that such unbelief is wrong, but I do not think ours is a society in which one could rightly criminalize such unbelief.

Next, there is a kind of validating role that God plays for the believer, or for the believing society, in endorsing, approving and sharing our judgments of value, and our commitments to value. This validation is at once epistemic and psychological. The divine wisdom includes perfect and complete knowledge of the true values of things, be they moral, aesthetic, ontological or of any other kind; and perfect and complete appreciation of value.

Think what it means for our confidence in the truth and objectivity of our evaluations, and for our courage in pursuing them, to know that God knows and appreciates without fail beautiful sunsets, brave sacrifices, and chaste affections, even while we are confronted with arrogant depravity and scornful vice, shouting nihilism and subjectivism, apparently triumphant.

Think what such faith meant to early Christians faced with the moral sewer that was late Rome. Where else find the strength to overcome a regime of abortion, infanticide, gladiatorial slaughter, extraordinary unchastity, and all the other crimes termed “victimless,” or whose victims were too insignificant to count?

Now we have all repeatedly heard it said that morality depends in some special way on religion. In support of this, people quote Dostoevsky (“God is dead. Everything is permitted!”) or Nietzsche (his announcement, through Zarathustra, that God has died, and with him the “moral ontology of Western man.”). But what do people mean by that? Any of the theses cited above? Or something else?

My impression is that people actually seem to mean something I have not mentioned up to now. It often seems they have it in mind that, if there is no God, then value realism cannot be true with regard to any sort of value. If there is no God, they seem to be saying, then there are no objective moral truths for anyone to know or believe; nothing is truly in any absolute, objective sense, better or worse than anything else; and nothing is really more beautify, or more ugly, than any other. But I personally do not see that this is so.


Posted by: Marcus Tullius Cicero on July 19, 2002 9:00 PM

On MTC’s final point, I think the notion is that to say there are objective goods that are facts about the world is to say that purpose is implicit in the world. To say X is something’s natural good is to say it is its natural purpose. But it’s hard to know what a purpose is apart from a person whose purpose it is. So if you accept that there are objective goods you’ll end up believing in a personal deity as a way of making sense of them.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on July 20, 2002 7:47 AM

Mr. Kalb:

It’s a shame, I agree, to beat a dead horse forever, but let me make a few more comments after which, I promise, I will drop the matter.

It seems to me that you, and many others, suppose there to be a connection between the objectivity of values and religion of a kind that would permit a proof of the existence of God from the objectivity of value as a premise. And it is this that I don’t quite see.

It is well known, of course, that Kant attempted a proof from morals, though he insisted it led to God and immortality only as “practical postulates” rather than things capable of “theoretical” proof. But that was quite a different sort of thing. His argument premises a supposed human duty to produce what he considers the highest good (that all should be happy in the measure of their moral goodness), and his famous postulate that “ought implies can,” concluding to both God and immortality as what he conceives to be necessary conditions for our being able to fulfill this duty. But this, of course, is not your argument, and is not to the present purpose.

Your own argument, from natural good to natural purpose to (I think - you were sketchy) a mind or person capable of doing the purposing, (to wit: God) seems a kind of variant on (or perhaps rather a piece of?) the broader argument from design to the existence of God, and takes the existence of what you call “natural good” rather than objective values, or even simply objective good, as the premise. I am not sure this is quite the same thing. But, even if it is, by no means everyone would accept the move from natural good to natural purpose.

Still, even without recourse to the idea of purpose, some believe that, without God, there can be no objective values at all, and hence no objective moral values (right and wrong). Thinking this, for example, both Hastings Rashdall and John Hicks (yes, the pluralist theologian) have constructed proofs for God based on prior conviction of the objectivity of moral values.

The crucial premise, however, that without God no moral values, or no values at all, can be objective, is just what does not seem to me to be clear. Some writers try to defend it by seemingly agreeing with J.L.Mackie, that objective values would be somehow especially spooky or weird qualities for anything to have (remember the label, “non-natural”?), in contrast to such allegedly non-spooky, “natural” qualities as charm, electric charge, and mass (my examples, not his). Owing to their special weirdness, some writers say (as Mackie, of course, does not, because he is not confused on this point), objective values can exist only for a mind or a person, and thus conclude to God. Why such folk do not realize that this radically subjectivizes values, even if the mind or person in question is God, I do not know.

Still, it might be possible to argue for God, not by employing the objectivity of value as a premise, but on the basis of particular evaluative judgments assumed to be objectively true.

For instance, it being given that, within the limits of this life, the wicked prosper and the good suffer, it could be said that the universe as a whole would be unjust without some kind of afterlife (or series of afterlives) in which people could have their just deserts. But, it might be said, while the human soul at least could be immortal, and have such a fate, only an omnipotent, omniscient God, perfect both morally and otherwise, could and would actually ensure these things. Hence, since the universe is not and cannot be unjust, there are both such a God and such an afterlife (or series of afterlives).

Or again, skipping the retributive point, it might simply be claimed that, humans being such creatures as they are, the universe would be unjust (or at least ungenerous, or otherwise not well-ordered) if they were truly mortal, and ceased to exist altogether with the death of the body. And, as before, one could add that only God could ensure that that is not our fate, and thence conclude to His existence as well as our immortality.

But, it may be asked, how can we justify the claim that the universe cannot be unjust, or ungenerous, or not quite so good as all that? Perhaps like this: as Plato and many since him have said, being itself is good; what is greater in being is better; and the universe as a whole is, morally and otherwise, well-ordered. Now, not only does the well-orderedness of the universe entail its justice, but so does the goodness of being itself since, if the universe were either not well-ordered or (specifically) not just, the goodness of being could not be maintained.

But how, then, defend the goodness of being? By appeal to the facts that: (a) being cannot be merely indifferent, but must be either good or evil; and (b) it is impossible for being to be evil, since then non-being would be better than being. Radical pessimism, though some philosophers, and even great religions, have held it (with varying degrees of consistency), espouses just this absurdity, and is necessarily false.

Of course, the point could be made that, while this argument does not make use of the objectivity of values – neither values in general nor specifically moral values – as a premise, many of those who would reject it would base the rejection on an appeal to the subjectivity, the “merely human” character, of the ideas of justice, well-orderedness and goodness that it employs. That is doubtless true. But not to the point.


Posted by: Marcus Tullius Cicero on July 21, 2002 1:52 PM

Thanks for your reflections.

I didn’t suggest that I knew of anything that Kant would consider a proof for the existence of God. For that matter I don’t have a proof that I’m not a brain in a vat, or that the world didn’t spring into existence the moment I started typing this message and will vanish totally when it’s completed.

What I did suggest was that “if you accept that there are objective goods you’ll end up believing in a personal deity as a way of making sense of them.” It seems to me in general that’s been true—for example, oriental religions that reject a personal deity seem in the end to reject the presence of objective goods within the world. (I would say that imperial Confucianism, which was concerned with ethics while apparently sometimes falling into atheism, was a defective religion.)

To my mind the question is how we can best understand the world in which we find ourselves. Basic aspects of that understanding, like what things exist, have more to do with Pascal’s intuitive than his mathematical mind.

I wouldn’t rely on a single line of thought for something as basic as religion. Concurrent and mutually reinforcing reasons are necessary, some of which are provided by considerations of the sort you object to as insufficient for proof.

Incidentally, the view that there are no values without a mind does not subjectivize values if there’s an absolute mind in the picture. God is the way we reconcile the intuition that there’s some necessary connection between values, purpose and mind with the intuition that there are objective goods.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on July 21, 2002 7:26 PM
Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember info?

Email entry

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):