Kurtz, Scruton, and liberal reason

The conservative liberalism of Stanley Kurtz accepts the liberal view that the good of the individual is the ability to do as he chooses. It nonetheless recognizes the need for traditional moral restraints to moderate the pursuit of self-interest, and in particular to promote the network of habits and mutual obligations that constitutes family life. A problem with the view is that it sets the good of the individual in basic opposition to the public good, and so can’t provide a motive to the individual to choose the public good over his own, except perhaps in clear cases of immediate damage to others. However, Kurtz’s own discussion of social taboos shows that immediate damage to others is not a sufficient standard for a tolerable way of life in society. It follows that his moral views make no practical sense.

So far as I can tell, the same is true of all intellectual conservatives who want to be moderate and secular and so take part in what counts as mainstream political and moral discussion. They may say intelligent and illuminating things, but taken as a whole their views are always useless. They never suggest anything practical that might be done to transform the situation in which Western society now finds itself. The most illuminating example I know of is Roger Scruton. In a recent article in The New Criterion, he goes so far as to argue explicitly that there is no good reason for the individual to do what’s good from a social standpoint, and thus no rational basis for individuals to respect traditional sexual morality:

Burke brought home to me that our most necessary beliefs may be both unjustified and unjustifiable from our own perspective, and that the attempt to justify them will lead merely to their loss … The real justification for a prejudice is the one which justifies it as a prejudice, rather than as a rational conclusion of an argument. In other words it is a justification that cannot be conducted from our own perspective, but only from outside, as it were, as an anthropologist might justify the customs and rituals of an alien tribe.

An example will illustrate the point: the prejudices surrounding sexual relations. These vary from society to society; but until recently they have had a common feature, which is that people distinguish seemly from unseemly conduct, abhor explicit sexual display, and require modesty in women and chivalry in men in the negotiations that precede sexual union. There are very good anthropological reasons for this, in terms of the long-term stability of sexual relations, and the commitment that is necessary if children are to be inducted into society. But these are not the reasons that a motivate the traditional conduct of men and women. This conduct is guided by deep and immovable prejudice, in which outrage, shame, and honor are the ultimate grounds. The sexual liberator has no difficulty in showing that those motives are irrational, in the sense of being founded on no reasoned justification available to the person whose motives they are. And he may propose sexual liberation as a rational alternative, a code of conduct that is rational from the first-person viewpoint, since it derives a complete code of practice from a transparently reasonable aim, which is sexual pleasure.

It’s really not difficult to suggest motives that are rational from the first-person viewpoint for complying with traditional Christian sexual morality. One motive would be that (as I’ve argued) Christian morality enables us to make sense of intrinsic features of sexual experience in a uniquely persuasive way. Another would be that traditional morality is required for social well-being, so our integrity as social beings requires us to accept and live by it.

The apparent reason Scruton fails to notice such possibilities is that he — like Kurtz — is wed to the liberal conception of rational action as a strict matter of human desires, formal logic, and technical feasibility. The basic problem, I think, is that both men want to participate in respectable mainstream discussion, and a discussion needs an understanding of reason to go forward. The intellectual mainstream is defined by a particular understanding of reason — that reason is a matter of desires, formal logic and technique — and that understanding encodes liberalism. As a result, it’s impossible to participate in mainstream discussion and state genuine conservative views. Conservatism in any real sense must draw on the view that there are standards knowable through tradition or revelation that transcend the liberal conception of reasonableness. What follows is that for conservatives the goal can’t be to “have a place at the table” so they can “take part in the public conversation” in respectable intellectual society. It must be to tranform the discussion and intellectual life itself.
Posted by Jim Kalb at May 10, 2003 11:18 AM | Send


The Scruton quote is remarkable. I must say that I had never felt I had completely “got” Mr. Kalb’s frequent description of liberalism as the application of reason to the satisfaction of human desires. But here is that point of view stated clearly and baldly, and from a well-known “conservative” no less. Scruton says right out that traditional moral restraints can only be based on prejudice, while libertinism is based on reason. Amazing.

So now, in addition to conservative John Derbyshire preferring New York liberals to heartland conservatives, and conservative Stanley Kurtz trying to hold on to a bare minimum of moral tradition while rejecting religion, we have conservative Roger Scruton saying that our moral tradition is pure prejudice.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on May 10, 2003 11:47 AM

These men are not conservatives, though. They are liberals in age in which the mainstream has become radically leftist.

Posted by: Matt on May 10, 2003 1:58 PM

I can’t get my head around calling Derbyshire, or even Kurtz, a liberal. At least not for ordinary conversational usage. In searching for a more precise terminology, I’ve previously suggested calling today’s liberals “radical liberals,” today’s centrists “moderate liberals,” and today’s Republicans and moderate conservatives “conservative liberals.” At least in the case of mainstream or establishment conservatives, “conservative” would thus become an adjective modifying liberal rather than a noun.

However, while such definitions can be helpful in clarifying our own understandings, they are not usable in everyday debate and discourse. There, we need to stay with conventionally accepted terms, or else communication would become impossible.

For example, I’ll bet even Matt would not insist that in ordinary conversation people call Nazis “liberals.” :-)

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on May 10, 2003 2:24 PM

Likewise, we must remember Scruton is British and “prejudice” does not mean something negative all the time to the British. Prejudice can and does mean “A preconceived preference or idea”, according to the secondary meaning in the dictionary. Liberalism has twisted this meaning in America to imply if it isn’t rational, it is evil. It is used by Scruton in the same sense that Jim means when he says conservatism is nonrational, that it conceives of a source of authority other than conscious reason. Scruton does not, for example, believe in racial hatred or anything called “prejudice” nor does he put conservatism in that class.

Posted by: Gary on May 10, 2003 2:51 PM

Mr. Auster writes:
“There, we need to stay with conventionally accepted terms, or else communication would become impossible.”

There is a tendency among conservatives to treat “everyday discourse” as an established thing that must be accepted. Liberals, especially postmodern ones but even the merely modern self-created “I get to tell you what I am” types, feel no such obligation. I think conservatives have given a great deal of ground semantically (“pro choice”, “sexual orientation” — hundreds of examples come immediately to mind). I don’t know why we should be expected to give up that ground without a fight.

A nazi is an advanced form of radicalized right-liberal, just as a communist is an advanced form of radicalized left-liberal. I get chided for saying it, but I do say it and it is objectively true.

Posted by: Matt on May 10, 2003 3:04 PM

First, that’s a good point by Gary about how “prejudice” is understood by the English

Second, staying for a moment on the question of whether Derbyshire is not a conservative, let’s consider a couple of passages from his article on “metropolitan conservatives”:

“To get it back from the institutional to the personal: look at me. I have not the slightest doubt that I am a conservative by thought, feeling and instinct, yet on a lot of the issues that define American conservatism, I barely move the needle from the zero mark on the dial. I have guns but only fire them down at the range once a month, for the satisfaction of it, and to develop confidence in handling them. I have never hunted with guns. I am only feebly religious—feebly Episcopalian, in fact, which is feebleness squared! Homosexuality? I don’t like it, and have got myself in a lot of trouble for saying so rather bluntly, but I wouldn’t criminalize it. Abortion? Pretty much the same. Creationism? Sorry, I think it’s pseudoscience. I’m fine with evolution.”

The main problem here is not Derbyshire’s political beliefs but his intellectual casualness and sloppiness. Not being a hunter (rather than just owning and practicing with them!) doesn’t make one a non-conservative. Being feebly religious doesn’t make one non-conservative. Not subscribing to the creationist belief that the world and everything in it was created 5,000 years ago doesn’t make one a non-conservative. Not being in favor of sending sodomites to jail doesn’t make one a non-conservative. (Let’s be clear that until the Santorum controversy, sodomy laws had not been a political issue in our lifetime and certainly not a litmus test of conservatism; the only issue had been the constitutional right of the states to legislate on the matter, not the substantive pros and cons of the legislation itself.)

However, on the other side, if by his belief in evolution he means Darwinian evolution, that would put him in the liberal camp. Similarly, if by opposing the “criminalization” of abortion he means that he’s in favor of an absolute right of abortion under all circumstances—i.e., the radical position of NOW, that is shocking and certainly would make him a non-conservative.

And then there’s this confusing passage from Derbyshire’s article:

“What the heroic worker was to an old-line Marxist, what the suffering Negro was to civil-rights marchers, what the unfulfilled housewife is to Hillary Clinton, the Vietnamese peasant to Jane Fonda, the Palestinian rioter to Edward Said, so the red-state conservative with his Bible, his hunting rifle and his sodomy laws is to me. He is authentic, in a way I am not.”

This makes no sense, since the examples he gives are of ideologues who use the image of a “real person” as the symbol of their cause. But Derby by his own confession is NOT an ideologue. What he really seems to be saying, both here and in the article as a whole, is that he doesn’t believe seriously in much of anything, or rather, that his beliefs (mostly conservative) are different from what he IS (a cosmopolite of mixed conservative and modernist tendencies).

The bottom line is that Derbyshire is a chatty, anti-philosophical Englishman, so that it’s not clear that general intellectual conclusions about the state of modern conservatism can be derived from reading him. Kurtz, at least, makes something of an attempt to lay out his ideas and their intellectual basis; he doesn’t just keep talking about his personal feelings and experiences, as Derbyshire does. However, it must also be said that Derby’s instincts and feelings are far more conservative than those of neocons like Frum, who in a recent shocking article celebrated the cultural decadence of Britain.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on May 10, 2003 3:28 PM

Mr. Auster writes:
“This makes no sense, since the examples he gives are of ideologues who use the image of a “real person” as the symbol of their cause. But Derby by his own confession is NOT an ideologue. What he really seems to be saying, both here and in the article as a whole, is that he doesn’t believe seriously in much of anything, or rather, that his beliefs (mostly conservative) are different from what he IS (a cosmopolite of mixed conservative and modernist tendencies).”

Mr. Derbyshire is just identifying his oppressed victim class. Every liberal has an oppressed victim class that he defends from the oppressor. He defends the victim class even though he is not of it. He understands the instrumental value of the provincialisms of the oppressed class, but he himself is far above it and isn’t subject to its prejudices and provincialisms. All it takes to get to nazi from here is a desire to put down the untermensch-oppressor and aggressively transform the oppressed class into the ubermenschen — in other words, acute external circumstances. Derbyshire would never intentionally support such a thing himself, but his type of liberalism provides the basis from which it can occur.

Derbyshire’s “intellectual sloppiness” doesn’t reflect a lack of intellect, knowledge of history, etc. It reflects a vehicle by which he can make unprincipled exceptions. (I’m reading his new book right now and find it impossible to disrespect his intellect, knowledge, and capacity for precision to the degree that would be needed to say “he is just intellectually sloppy and that is that”).

Mr. Derbyshire is just a plain old ordinary everyday liberal. It couldn’t possibly be more clear; and Mr. Auster is right to chart David Frum to Derbyshire’s left. If the neocons want to give up “neoconservative” that is fine with me. Lets call them what they are: plain old ordinary liberals.

Posted by: Matt on May 10, 2003 3:49 PM

First, I wrote the preceding comment too quickly and came across as harder on Derbyshire than I intended. I like him and like many of his articles and my main criticism of him (which I’ve communicated to him in the past) is that too many of his pieces revolve around his personal anecdotes, experiences and tastes. I do not think of him as a sloppy writer and thinker. But in the paragraph I quoted, I think he was not thinking carefully.

Second, I don’t agree with Matt that Derbyshire was identifying an oppressed victim class. That was true of the other people on Derbyshire’s list, but not of him, because, as I said, he is not a liberal ideologue. If Derbyshire is indeed a liberal, we need to specify in what sense that is true. I don’t see how Matt can justify describing Derbyshire (who of course opposes liberals on most issues) as a “a plain old ordinary everyday liberal.”

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on May 10, 2003 9:55 PM

I think Mr. Derbyshire’s words speak for themselves, and I disagree with Mr. Auster that someone can self-define as liberal or conservative based on a laundry list of positions on issues. Liberalism is a fundamental political orientation that disconnects the transcendent from political aims and replaces it with formal freedom and equal rights. One liberal can be for free markets and another for state planned economies — these represent tactics intended to achieve freedom and equal rights, and picking one set of tactics over another isn’t a determinant in whether or not one is categorically liberal.

Now, it is true that in common everyday speech people use the words “liberal” and “conservative” to designate positions on lists of issues in the schema of party platforms. One of the things that differentiate so-called “conservatives” from liberals is that the “conservatives” tend to be more pragmatic, and thus more — uh — liberally — exercise the “unprincipled exception”. But Mr. Derbyshire’s basic fundamental political loyalty is not toward the transcendent. He says as much explicitly himself, in addition to explicitly setting up provincial authentic conservatives as the class of people he both defends and condescends to at the same time. I don’t know why we shouldn’t take him at his word.

Posted by: Matt on May 11, 2003 3:32 AM

Gary made an important point up there about “prejudice.” Burke certainly did defend prejudice, as in this justly famous passage:

“To avoid, therefore, the evils of inconstancy and versatility, ten thousand times worse than those of obstinacy and the blindest prejudice, we have consecrated the state, that no man should approach to look into its defects or corruptions but with due caution, that he should never dream of beginning its reformation by its subversion, that he should approach to the faults of the state as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude. By this wise prejudice we are taught to look with horror on those children of their country who are prompt rashly to hack that aged parent in pieces and put him into the kettle of magicians, in hopes that by their poisonous weeds and wild incantations they may regenerate the paternal constitution and renovate their father’s life.”

But Scruton goes too far in lending radicalism the imprimatur of reason. If reason is narrowed to merely the shriveled philosophy of the imperial self, then conservatives have capitulated. This is why a guy like Scruton, whose writing I enjoy and admire, is quite dangerous when he claims to speak to conservatism.

Posted by: Paul Cella on May 11, 2003 5:42 AM

“Liberalism is a fundamental political orientation that disconnects the transcendent from political aims and replaces it with formal freedom and equal rights.”

That seems to imply therefore that conservatism can only be defined as a fundamental poltical orientation that connects the transcendant with poltical aims.

My question is, who’s “transcendant” are we talking about?

By this definition, would it not be true that a person who believes in a Higher Power that mandates freedom of choice on issues like abortion and homosexuality therefore be a conservative?

Or would someone who believes in the Goddess and “Womyn Power” also be a conservative.

Does this definition not make Osama bin Laden a conservative?

I dont think the definition is wrong in and of itself, but it does seem incomplete on its own.

After all, the Nazi’s believed they were carrying out the will of the transcendant.

Posted by: Shawn on May 11, 2003 6:36 AM

Andrew Sullivan gives the “Derbyshire Award” for “extreme right-wing” rhetoric. And at VFR, even Derbyshire is considered a liberal. Yet to the public, or anyway the NY Times, both are way to the right of mainstream. What does that make VFR? Just asking.

Posted by: Gracián on May 11, 2003 10:30 AM

For the record, I call Derbyshire a conservative. Even if we accept Matt’s definition of liberalism as “a fundamental political orientation that disconnects the transcendent from political aims and replaces it with formal freedom and equal rights,” I don’t see how Derbyshire fits that definition. He may be, to some of us on some issues, a disappointingly weak conservative. But he’s still a conservative.

However, I remain open to further persuasion on this.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on May 11, 2003 11:38 AM

“Andrew Sullivan gives the ‘Derbyshire Award’ for ‘extreme right-wing’ rhetoric.”

I would suspect that Sullivan considers Derbyshire an extreme right-winger almost solely on the basis of Derbyshire’s outspoken disapproval of homosexuality.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on May 11, 2003 12:17 PM

Shawn writes:
“That seems to imply therefore that conservatism can only be defined as a fundamental poltical orientation that connects the transcendant with poltical aims.”

I wasn’t attempting to define “conservative” at all, let alone in such a way as to comprehensively account for every human being ever by placing each in either the “liberal” or “conservative” category. In today’s radicalized world identifying a coherent “conservative” is itself problemmatic, as Mr. Kalb, Mr. Auster, and others have observed elsewhere.

Shawn writes:
“My question is, who’s “transcendant” are we talking about?”

I suppose I could have written that liberalism is the ideology that, in the realm of political authority, rejects the traditional moral order of Christendom in favor of the exaltation of the will through formal freedom and equality. A liberal then is one who has loyalties to this ideology, although as Mr. Auster has observed elsewhere liberals will always necessarily engage in unprincipled exceptions. Derbyshire (and Kurtz, for that matter) certainly do have such loyalties and engage in UE’s. They are interested in the remnants of the traditional moral order only as whimsy and for its utilitarian value (again, insofar as we can take them at their word).

Perhaps that construction better deals with the transcendence squirreliness that concerns Shawn. It is true I suppose that the nazis might use the word “transcendence” to refer to the ultimate this-worldly exaltation of the human will and the ascendence of the volk from oppressed class to free and equal superman. In general though the answer to Shawn’s question is that liberalism rejects the actual real transcendent. Shifting the discussion to determining what that transcendent is, is a useful but quite different discussion (although no doubt many liberals are liberals because they have given up on the possibility of knowing the transcendent rather than rejected it outright).

The key point in defining liberalism is that a liberal in fact (if not always consistently) rejects the ultimate authority of the transcendent (e.g. God, moral truth) in politics. A traditionalist accepts that ultimate authority, despite any intellectual or spiritual problems that may be encountered in determining it. “Conservative” is difficult to pin down precisely because the current order is liberal and “conserve liberalism” is an oxymoron. I think that is at least partially why there is a tendency to define “liberal” and “conservative” in terms of laundry lists of policies: everyone respectable is a liberal, so the distinctions are not fundamentally ideological (the end of history and all that) but rather just on how to best go about administering the liberal order as a practical matter.

Posted by: Matt on May 11, 2003 12:31 PM

I wrote:
“The key point in defining liberalism is that a liberal in fact (if not always consistently) rejects the ultimate authority of the transcendent (e.g. God, moral truth) in politics.”

To expand on this point a bit: we often hear about how if the people are moral, democracy will work and have a good result. The people can decide to be good. This is in essence a fundamental concession that liberalism and its forms depend parasitically on a moral order and a culture that it refuses to acknowledge as having real authority. The culture and the moral order can be politically rejected or accepted based on the arbitrary free and equal will of the people. Politics can provide no inalienable authoritative support for them, let alone acknowledge them as legitimate authority over and above individuals. Individual rights are the only inalienable this-worldly authority.

To have liberal loyalties one need not set about deliberately destroying the traditional moral order and the culture. To be a liberal one only needs to exalt freedom and equality as authoritative, leaving the traditional moral order and the culture as raw materials to be manipulated and used for the purposes of the free and equal wills of the new man.

Posted by: Matt on May 11, 2003 1:02 PM

Matt raises an interesting conundrum. From the Founding on, leading American statesmen have repeated that our form of government depends on a people who are good, and thus on morality and religion. Yet these very things that are considered indispensable to the political order are given no formal authority in the political order.

As Washington said in his Farewell Address:

“Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connexions with private and public felicity… . And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion… .

“It is substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who, that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?”

The problem with these fine words—especially from a traditionalist or Catholic point of view—is that a moral appeal not to be indifferent to attacks on religion is hardly carries the same weight as a formally recognized religious authority. But I guess that’s what we mean when we say that America is a free country or a Protestant country: Our happiness and well-being depend on our CHOOSING the transcendent good, but we must FREELY choose it.

Toqueville talked a great deal about how America was unique in being both a Christian country and a free country. But freedom means that we can choose not to be good, and so bring ourselves to ruin. That’s the traditionalist/Catholic objection to political freedom. But isn’t such freedom—the freedom to reject the good and suffer the consequences—the same freedom that God grants us as individuals? Since men’s freedom to choose to reject God is the very condition of men’s freedom to choose to embrace God, is it really all that objectionable that governments instituted of men should have the same sort of freedom?

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on May 11, 2003 1:48 PM

Mr. Auster asks:
“But isn’t such freedom—the freedom to reject the good and suffer the consequences—the same freedom that God grants us as individuals?”

That sort of ultimate freedom always exists whether anyone wants it to or not, both at the individual level and at the institutional level. The more pertinent question is whether human politics ought to authoritatively support good choices based in the traditional moral order or attempt to hold authority and remain value-agnostic, enforcing formal freedom and equality with the guns of police and armies, at the same time. One problem with the latter liberal view is that it is self contradictory.

Posted by: Matt on May 11, 2003 2:16 PM

I believe that a polity that followed Washington’s counsel would be doing what Matt is suggesting. Contemporary moral traditionalists would probably not consider Washington a traditionalist; he was too liberal, and not explicit enough in articulating a particularist cultural and moral tradition. Yet what Washington was calling for in his Farewell Address was not different from what Matt is calling for here: authoritative (though informal) support for the traditional moral order, and resistance against any attempt to undermine it.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on May 11, 2003 3:45 PM

Other than the “informal” qualifier I agree. I think that if the traditional moral order has real authority that authority will naturally manifest itself in both formal and informal structures, procedures, etc. Formal systems cannot possess the traditional moral order but they must reflect it. If an attempt is made to expressly restrict the moral order to informal manifestations only then it has de-facto been abolished (which is precisely what has occurred in America).

In any event if Washington was a liberal by the standards of contemporary moral traditonalists then Derbyshire most certainly is :-)

Posted by: Matt on May 11, 2003 5:23 PM

Matt, thankyou for your reply, it helped to make clear what you meant.

For what its worth, my own way of defining what a conservative is to use the three loves. Love of God, love of country, love of family with these loves grounded in the Christian tradition.

Posted by: Shawn on May 11, 2003 10:34 PM


“After all, the Nazis believed they were carrying out the will of the transcendant.”

Actually, this is incorrect. The Nazis didn’t believe in transcendant, immortal truth. Hitler mocked morality; the Nazis were beholden to the ‘might makes right’ Nietzschean view of ethics.

Of course, you are correct to point out that an appeal to transcendance isn’t enough to be a conservative, but the denial of such is also surely a denial of conservatism.

Posted by: Owen Courrèges on May 12, 2003 9:09 PM

“Actually, this is incorrect. The Nazis didn’t believe in transcendant, immortal truth. Hitler mocked morality; the Nazis were beholden to the ‘might makes right’ Nietzschean view of ethics.”

I was under the impression that at least some Nazi’s indulged in a kind of psuedo- Germanic pagan mythology mixed in with their notions of the “Volk” and race. Himmler was one of these, and the Nazis were a wing of a Germanic pagan revivalist cult. I couldnt honestly say if this constitutes some kind of belief in a transcendent order or not, but it does seem to at least suggest it, and there is no doubt that, however cynically, the Nazi’s exploited religious mythology in portraying Hitler as a saviour figure, the “Strong One from Above”.

I certainly agree that the denial of the transcendent is a denial of conservatism.

Posted by: Shawn on May 15, 2003 6:22 AM
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