Mac Donald, reason, and conservatism

Here’s more from Heather Mac Donald’s complaint against Christianity. She writes at The Corner:

My real point in writing, however, was to say that reason and a commitment to evidence provide ample grounds for leading a moral, responsible life. Unfortunately, I have heard too many leading Republican pundits suggest the opposite.

The notion that man’s unaided reason is sufficient to form a good way of life and a good society is, of course, a defining belief of liberalism. By contrast, conservatives, starting with Burke, believe that one person or a group of persons do not know enough, that people cannot start from scratch in each generation and build a decent society, and therefore society depends to a great extent on the wisdom and experience of the past transmitted to the present via culture, laws, moral habits and traditions, religious teachings, accumulated know-how, and so on.

It is also a conservative (and Jewish and Christian) truism that human beings, while capable of good, are inclined toward evil, which also leads to the conclusion that a moral society cannot be built on each man’s unaided faculties. To live virtuous lives, men require sources of moral guidance that come from outside themselves. Rousseau believed that human beings are naturally good. Jefferson believed that if men were left in complete freedom, they would naturally live in harmony with their fellow citizens. These are liberal or libertarian ideas. They are not conservative ideas.

Mac Donald has a right to believe (though she is wrong) that reason and a commitment to evidence are the sufficient bases for a good society. She does not have the right to believe that, and to call herself a conservative. Words have meanings that are not infinitely elastic.

But here again, Mac Donald, who pursued the deconstructionist approach to the study of literature for many years before turning to conservative journalism (as she explained in her 2003 interview with Luke Ford), would disagree. She writes: “I am amused by the claim that God provides a ‘fixed’ place for moral or philosophical certainty. The Bible is as open-ended a text as any other.” Which would mean, for example, that since the Bible is as open to interpretation as any other text, the words, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” could really mean that the universe is the result of the chance bouncing together of electrons which came into existence by their own free will. Or whatever. Someone who says that words lack objective and stable meanings and are open fields for interpretation, is, by definition, not a conservative.

So, ironically, while the gripe that apparently triggered Mac Donald’s attack on Christianity in the TAC symposium was that today’s conservative movement excludes non-believers (which is not true, and certainly not generally true), Mac Donald fulsomely demonstrates that she herself is not a conservative. No one has excluded her. She has excluded herself.

Not that this will have any practical effect on her place in the conservative movement. There are, of course, scads of “conservatives” today who are not conservative by any reasonable definition of the word, yet are welcome in the conservative movement and are even its leaders. So, unless Mac Donald does something on the order of supporting the Democratic candidate in the next presidential election, her place in the conservative movement will be secure, notwithstanding her own bitter sense of alienation from it.

- end of initial entry -

Ben writes:

There she goes again, resorting to a platitude used since the dawn of Christianity to try and discredit it.

Because different men interpret various parts of the Bible differently, this automatically means that God didn’t really have one meaning but many. She doesn’t acknowledge one of the major truths in the Bible, which is that men are inherently evil in their hearts, which is the whole reason for the Savior and so on. The whole Bible revolves around man’s being unable to save himself and live a moral life without God’s guidance. Man cannot create a decent moral society without his guidance. Period.

In Mac Donald’s illogical thinking, there is no chance that one man’s interpretation of the Bible could be wrong and the other man’s interpretation right. No, we must say that because both men see different meanings in the same text, the Bible has no real truth and is subjective.

There are certain truths in the Bible that cannot be misinterpreted. It’s only when men wish for them to say something they are not saying is when they are misinterpreted. [LA adds: A good example of this is the homosexualists’ re-intepretation of the story of Sodom to mean that God destroys Sodom because the Sodomites were lacking in hospitality!]

In the end, I don’t care if she wants to believe or doesn’t, but she has made herself look completely ridiculous with her endless platitudes against Christianity. A few men’s stupidities or interpretations do not represent the Holy God. Only his Word does.

“I am amused by the claim that God provides a ‘fixed’ place for moral or philosophical certainty. The Bible is as open-ended a text as any other.”

This statement shows she knows nothing of Christianity and should keep her mouth shut about something she knows nothing about. To make a statement that the Bible is open to any interpretation is absurd. She cannot be a conservative. I don’t see how she can have a leg to stand on when it comes to any issue she writes about. Who is she to say she is right about anything, since there is no truth?


Yes, this is part of what I meant by her ignorance parading as superior understanding. Disbelieving in Christianity is one thing. Claiming to speak knowledgeably about Christianity while knowing nothing about it is something else. Also, being a deconstructionist is one thing. Being a deconstructionist while claiming to be a conservative is something else.

I can already hear people saying that I am taking it upon myself to exclude Mac Donald from conservatism. But as I said, she has excluded herself. Yes, she is on the same side as conservatives on a variety of discrete issues, such as immigration, crime, social policy, and so on, and she will continue to make a valued contribution in those areas. But she herself is not a conservative, any more than a libertarian is a conservative because he sides with conservatives on some issues.

Sage McLaughlin writes:

Just to follow up on your latest post regarding Heather Mac Donald, it occurs to me that for all her harping on about the “apparent tensions” of religiously motivated conservatism, she is incredibly blind to the “tensions” in her own attempt at a classically liberal conservatism.

For example: Does she really mean to claim that 1) each man’s unaided reason is sufficient to form the moral basis for not just a good life, but for society as a whole, and 2) that even Scripture is naught but an infinitely malleable text, so that each man using his unaided reason can come to wildly disparate conclusions about the good life, each of them as reasonable as the next? Does she really see no difficulty in basing a workable moral and social order on the view that perfectly reasonable people can reasonably conclude any moral position whatsoever from the same data?

Her position is not simply untenable, it is wearyingly so. Thanks for keeping up with the discussion, because I simply can’t bear to myself.

Jim Kalb writes:

She has her limitations, that’s for sure.

I would think it’s obvious that reason depends on all sorts of things that are prerational, subrational and suprarational—cultural understandings that tell us what things are, what they mean and what they are worth for example. Also, the habits and loyalties that make us act in an orderly and social way and care whether what we say is true rather than advantageous. Not to mention the belief that the world makes sense in a way we can understand and make use of. Those aren’t things we reason out.

Basically, it seems to me we can’t simply grasp the world. It’s a multilayed system and our way of connecting to it also has to be multilayered. Part of that is natural, part habitual and inarticulate, part reasonable in Heather Mac D’s sense, and part has to do with overarching understandings that put the other things in a setting. She wants to leave at least the last part out.

If reason is self-sufficient why doesn’t it always tell people the same thing? If wars among Christians are supposed to prove something why not wars among people each of whom thinks he has the better argument? Where’s the society that’s actually been able to run on her version of reason? I find such a thing hard to imagine.

Maybe the problem with studying literature from a deconstructionist standpoint is that it deprives it of the ability to tell us anything, so we never find out what people and human relations are like. If I think I can lead a stable and productive life based on nothing in particular other than empirical evidence, whatever that might mean, then that must be true of everyone.

To some extent I agree with her point though that the Bible is a text that needs interpretation. That’s a big reason why I’m Catholic.

Mark D. (who has been absent from VFR for quite a while—welcome back) writes:

Mac Donald wrote, as you quote:

“My real point in writing, however, was to say that reason and a commitment to evidence provide ample grounds for leading a moral, responsible life. Unfortunately, I have heard too many leading Republican pundits suggest the opposite.”

In this quote, Mac Donald reveals her wholesale ignorance of Western thought, from Hume and Kant to the present day.

On the one hand, Mac Donald poses as a Humean, one dedicated to material empiricism, which she is confident can provide the ground for a rational morality. Hume himself, who was more principled and thoughtful than Mac Donald, took empiricism to its logical conclusion and found nothing but radical skepticism. This led Hume to ground ethics and a moral social life in habit, custom, and tradition, a position that Mac Donald curiously denies.

On the other hand, Mac Donald comes off as a conventional Kantian: morality and a moral life can be grounded in human reason. This is the belief that morality has a rational ground.

Hasn’t Mac Donald heard of Kierkegaard or Nietzsche? The Kantian position was destroyed in the 19th century, and led to the ruin of Western philosophy, moral philosophy, and ethics (at least at the academic level), and resulted in the course of time in Heidegger, Sartre, deconstruction, structuralism, and postmodernism. As a former “deconstructionist,” Mac Donald should know this history, but apparently she is entirely ignorant of it.

The best short summary of this intellectual history is MacIntyre’s “After Virtue,” a classic of which Mac Donald is apparently wholly ignorant.

Mac Donald is a very confused person, intellectually. Her position—a strange combination of empiricism and rationalism—is itself incoherent. A strict empiricism, for example, wholly undercuts a comprehensive rationalism; Hume demonstrated this in the 18th century. A strict rationalism was exposed and eviscerated by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in the 19th century.

It seems that Mac Donald, eager to attack theism, has latched onto whatever props she can to support her original, non-rational position (her non-theism). She should understand that her atheism is itself a matter of faith, and, in principle, she should express it as such, and not confuse herself and her readers with misplaced appeals to empiricism and rationalism.

Note that Mac Donald not only appeals to empiricism and rationalism to attack theism; she also invokes empiricism and rationalism as adequate ground for a coherent individual morality and a moral society. She is up against some heavy hitters (and the historical momentum), and I wish her luck.

It is perhaps this complete misunderstanding of the present civilizational crisis, and its historical roots, that makes Mac Donald a “conservative” in scare quotes. She has no understanding of the roots of the problems, particularly among our elites. She therefore focuses on particular symptoms (immigration, law enforcement, etc.) without any comprehension of the greater rot.

LA replies:

Your e-mail is timely because it helps me with a puzzle that came up at the same time. I said Mac Donald, the non-believer who says reason is sufficient to form a good society, is not a conservative. But then the thought arises, aren’t there non-believing conservatives, like Hume? Then you came in: Mac Donald says she’s an empiricist, but Hume, the original empiricist, said empiricism leads to radical skepticism and the destruction of society, and therefore habit, custom, and tradition are needed. But Mac Donald, unlike Hume, doesn’t base herself on tradition but on pure reason and fact. And in fact she despises the traditions of our society and the beliefs of common people, repeatedly expressing her alienation from them.

Thus Mac Donald is not a conservative, even of the skeptical, non-believing, Humean type, because if she were, she would uphold the habits and traditions of her society (even including its religion, perhaps?) instead of saying that the good life can be based on reason and empiricism alone.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 20, 2006 03:30 PM | Send

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