Steele’s Moral Trap
Shelby Steele, writing in the June 6, 2001 Wall Street Journal, argues that conservatives can only claim the moral authority that is their due if they prove that their principles of merit and standards can end racial inequality. According to Steele, the idea of standards and merit lost moral authority in the 1960s because it was seen as part of a historic system of racial discrimination. Liberals achieved moral authority—and thus power—by fighting racial discrimination, and they have maintained that moral authority and that power ever since, even though they have become unprincipled and now oppose merit and standards. Steele writes:
Conservatives will always be at an inherent disadvantage in American political life until the timeless principles they believe in—merit, accountability, competition, the pursuit of excellence, etc.—win moral authority by proving their effectiveness against those great enemies of the nation’s promise: racism and poverty.In other words, America can only uphold intellectual and moral standards once again if those standards succeed in making all races completely equal.
This is of course an absurdity. Steele is saying in effect: “Go on, you conservatives, save us stupid liberals with your traditional standards, but be warned: We’re going to keep demonizing you unless your standards result in social and racial equality.” On one hand, Steele affirms civilization and the principles that undergird it. On the other hand, he insists that those principles only deserve to survive if they can achieve a racial equality that is inherently impossible to achieve. He pretends to believe in life, but seeks death.
The correct conservative answer to Steele’s challenge is that a society adhering to standards will inevitably have a significant amount of substantive inequality. The reason is simple: human beings, both as individuals and as groups, vary widely in their abilities and aspirations. Furthermore, since the standards of each group tend to reflect its own particular abilities and aspirations, standards can only be practically realized within an actually existing society with a dominant culture that idealizes and enforces those standards. If a culture is to maintain its own existence, along with its standards, it must exclude other cultures that do not share those standards. This does not mean blanket discrimination. It means that the dominant group must refuse to grant equality to other groups as groups, while, if it chooses, still admitting assimilable individuals of those groups.
In other words, conservatives must rediscover the moral authority of particularism (which pertains to the actual characteristics and ideals of a cultural or national group) balanced with universalism (which pertains to the truth that is above all groups, and that all groups express to varying degrees and in their own distinctive ways). Conservatives must reject the moral authority of a universalist egalitarianism that is both impossible to achieve in itself and destructive of all existing goods if people seek seriously to achieve it.
Steele’s uncompromising approach shows once again that even “old-fashioned” liberals who supposedly demand only procedural equality still inchoately assume that a procedurally fair system—that is, a system in which everyone is held to the same standards—will result in substantive group equality. Their proceduralism is rooted in the undying progressivist faith that all human groups are at bottom the same; or, that if the groups are not exactly the same at the present moment, an alteration of the environment can readily make them the same. The ground separating “equality of rights” liberalism from “equality of results” liberalism is a slippery slope indeed.