Friday, September 11, 2009

Kinneging on the Difference Between Liberalism and Conservatism

In his recently translated The Geography of Good and Evil: Philosophical Investigations, (ISI Books, 2009), Andreas Kinneging, holder of the chair in Legal Philosophy at the University of Lieden, discusses the difference between conservatism and liberalism in a most helpful manner. He notes that in the 19th century three new philosophies emerged: socialism, liberalism and conservatism. They all reacted in different ways to the French Revolution and the Enlightenment philosophy that gave birth to it.

"To the socialists, they were the dawn of a new day. To the liberals, they were the noonday sun breaking through the clouds. And to the conservatives, they were the fall of night. For socialists the Enlightenment and the Revolution did not go far enough. The battle was not over yet. To the liberals, they were the discovery and implementation of the only valid principles of political and social order. What remained to be done was to bring reality fully into conformity with these principles. The conservatives, finally, saw the Enlightenment and the Revolution as an intellectual and political abberation that ignored the nature of things - reurm natura - and hence as the prelude to great misfortune." (11-12)

For Kinneging, conservativism has two roots. The first, obviously, is Christianity: "All true Christians may be conservative, but not all conservatives are Christian." (20) Conservative ideas are also derived from classical Greek and Roman sources as well. Conservativism, in its Christian and classical forms, stands against the Englightenment and the Revolution (and the child of the Enlightenment - Romanticism), which are regarded as a rejection of the tradition of Western civilization rooted in classical and Christian sources and flowering in the Medieval period. Modernity is the rejection of Christendom.

Conservatism and the Enlightenment both place a high value on the use of reason but whereas the Enlightenment holds man's reason to be sufficient to create the good society, conservatism views man's rational capacities as vitiated by the weakness of the will and the unruliness of the passions. (12) So the conservative critique of the Enlightenment is that it is an example of hubris. But the deeper issue here is the radical disagreement between the Enlightenment and conservatism on the issue of sin.

"What is the essence of the conservatives' objection to the modern idea of conation? It is the fact that the modern view rejects the idea that man is by nature inclined to evil or, to put it in more religious terms, is encumbered with original sin. Conservatism disputes this rejection." (13)

Kinneging analyzes human evil into (1) malevolence (knowingly and intentionally doing evil or allowing it to happen) (2) akrasia or weakness of the will and (3) moral ignorance or failing to realize the harm one does - obliviousness to evil. (15) Conservatism does not think that man's plight is so hopeless that he cannot do good, but it stresses that doing good requires moral struggle. (16)

This moral struggle is primarily within the person. To become virtuous, man must have a change of heart and develop a healthy conscience to act as a check on his desires and will. "Without inner control man is a slave of his passions, his affects. And since many of these are of an evil nature - they bring disorder, disruption, and destruction." (17) But Kinneging also discusses forms of outer control.

"Outer control consists of the legal instruments of order: the state, legislation, armed forces, police, judiciary, penalties, prisons, and so on. This body of instruments calls man to order primarily through the blunt incentive of fear of punishment. Apart from this, there is the system of social-control mechanisms, which function on the basis of the more subtle incentives of reputation, esteem, status, and rank. The process of calling to order in this case works through the importance we attach to our honour and good name and the fear we have of being shamed and ridiculed." (17)

Kinneging then explains that conservatism expresses a preference for individual self-control on the basis of conscience and views social-control mechanisms as of crucial importance in moral education. The family, the church and civil society are the home of social controls and are essential to the flourishing of a good society. The blunt instruments of state control are regarded as a last resort and as an admission of failure when they must be employed. Then Kenneging contrast conservatism with liberalism.

"The Enlightenment doctrine par excellence is the view that evil should not be sought in man but in society - civilization, Christianity, feudalism, property, capitalism, the law, education, the family, and so forth - and that it can therefore be erased by bringing about a better society."
. . . The direction of man's will, his desires, is not an object of moral reflection but is taken as a given. The focus is on how these desires can be realized, not on what always came first in the Christian and classical tradition and was taken up again by conservatism: the question of whether the desires are morally sound." (21)

For the Enlightenment, the goal is to recreate the world according to our desires; for conservatism the goal is to discipline our desires so as to bring them into line with reality. The new scientific method was considered the means by which man could alter the world without altering himself. Man is considered simultaneously as part of nature and as the ruler of nature.

"The scientific approach of natural sciences could and should be applied to man and society, the Enlightenment thinkers believed because they saw no fundamental difference between body and mind, man and matter, culture and nature. Natural phenomena are causally determined by various forces of nature. Man is too." (22)

Kinneging goes on to discuss Bentham and utilitarianism at this point as the great example of the liberal approach to morality and says: "This idea [of utility] robs the traditional question of a desire's moral propriety of all meaning." (23) Since the goal is the maximizing of pleasure and the minimizing of pain, social engineering becomes not only possible but desirable.

"What should be done if there are confrontations and the pleasure of one is the pain of another? Experience shows that this is often the case. The answer to this question is deceptively simple: given the desirability of maximum pleasure and minimum pain in society, and given the fact that man unfailingly wants the same for himself, it is necessary and sufficient to place him in an institutional environment of postive and negative incentives - carrots and sticks - that achieves the desired social results." (23)

The conservative crticism of the Enlightenment is that it has too narrow a conception of rationality and knowledge and neglects what is most important, namely the art of living, prudence. Conservatives do not have a blind faith in knowledge; there are some things we are better off not knowing. (25) Conservatives believe that modernity has turned man into a highly armed barbarian and that the 20th century was the darkest in history. Human desires have been given free reign and the result is "criminal, rude, and selfish behaviour" and "murder, theft, violence, fraud, adultery, slander, defamation, tyrannical behaviour, indifference etc." (36) All this leads to a greater need for outer social control and the "an avalanche of regulations and policies has followed." (37) Since the Enlightenment views it as an infringement on our freedom to have inner control, whether as a result of individual conscience or civil society, the only thing left is state control of behaviour. As for the future:

"Either the state will succeed, or it will not. In the latter case, we will gradually slouch into anarchy. But it is equally possible that they will succeed in creating order out of chaos. In that case, however, it will become a nanny state that, while perhaps not despotic in the classical sense of the word, will certainly be despotic in the sense described by Tocqueville." (37-38)

He then quotes Tocqueville's vision (from Democracy in America, II, IV, 6):

"Above [the populace] an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It would resemble paternal power, if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in perpetual childhood: it likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided they think only of enjoying themselves. It willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent and the sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, and divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?" (37-38)

The Enlightenment, for its part, regards Christianity and the classical tradition as enemies of progress and obstacles to human happiness. Why? Because Christianity and the classical tradition are obstacles to the total dominance of the nanny state. Note that liberalism, like socialism, is not, for Kinneging, an obstacle to the rise of this soft totalitarianism. In that lies its principal difference from conservatism.

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