The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Ends of Social Policy

A policy is a general principle that a person, business, or government seeks to follow when making decisions and acting upon those decisions. Every government has many policies each of which falls into one of two broad categories, foreign and domestic. Foreign policy includes the policies the government follows in its external relations with other countries, whereas domestic policy consists of government policies that are internal, that pertain to the government’s own country. Domestic policies fall into a number of smaller categories. Fiscal policy concerns government revenue and spending whereas economic policy pertains to the production and distribution of goods and services and all related matters. A government’s social policy consists of the principles which determine government decisions that affect how people interact with each other socially.

Policies, including social policy, have both ends and means. Ends are the goals that a government seeks to accomplish. Its policies are directed towards the achievement of those goals. Means are the methods and instruments which a government uses to achieve its ends. Among the means which government has at its disposal are its powers of taxation and legislation and the funding it provides for various projects out of the revenue it receives from taxes. Policy determines the means, the ends determine the policy. It is not the means by which government enacts its policies that is our subject of discussion but the ends to which those policies are directed.

What should be the ends, the goals, the purpose, of public social policy?

Public discussion of this question is usually framed as a debate between the conservative and the liberal position. This is a false dichotomy in more ways than one. First, the conservative and liberal position, while very different, are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In the best of circumstances, they are complementary positions. Second, there is a third position, the progressive position, which since at least World War II has had more influence on public social policy than either conservatism or liberalism. It is because of the success of progressivism that conservatism and liberalism are no longer complementary positions.

What are the conservative, liberal, and progressive positions?

The conservative position on public social policy is that government and its laws should support and strengthen the traditional social order. The liberal position is that social interaction and cooperation should consist of the free choices of individuals with which government should not interfere. Interestingly, this can be stated in one of two ways. The first is that government should adopt a policy of laissez faire on social issues, the second is that government should have no social policy whatsoever. These sound like contradictory statements but they amount to the same thing. The progressive position is that government should actively seek to correct the “injustices” in the traditional social order by replacing it with a new, rationally engineered, social order built upon ideals of equality and fairness.

Progressivism has been very successful, not in the sense of having achieved its unachievable goal of eradicating evil and suffering from human existence, but in the sense of influencing public social policy so that it serves progressive rather than conservative or liberal ends. The success of progressivism has severely undermined and weakened the traditional social order.

To understand how progressivism has undermined the social order, we must first look at what the traditional social order is and how it emerges from the natural order of the family, after which we will look at a few examples of how government social engineering has damaged this order.

The traditional social order is part of a society’s inherited way of life. It is a complex set of relationships, responsibilities attached to those relationships, and rules governing those relationships, which slowly evolves as a society passes it down from one generation to the next. Although it varies from society to society and changes over the course of a society’s history it contains elements which are the same in every society in every time and place. This is because it is an expansion of the natural social order which arises out of human nature and can be found in the family.

The family is the most basic unit of social organization. It is not based upon a contract, an agreement between its members to cooperate together for their mutual benefit, but rather upon the natural relationships of its members. A natural relationship is a matter of who one person is to another not a matter of who two people chose to be to each other. All human children are born from a woman. They are her children and she is their mother. That is their relationship to each other. All children born from a woman were sired by a man. They are his children and he is their father. That is their relationship to each other. All people who have the same father and the same mother are siblings, brothers if they are male, sisters if they are female. That is their relationship to each other. The people who bear these relationships to one another make up a family.

It is the nature of human beings that these relationships come with responsibilities. Human children are born helpless and it is therefore the responsibility of the mother who conceived, bore and gave birth to them and of the father who sired them, to love and care for the children they brought into the world. This responsibility is not optional but is the binding responsibility that we call duty. A mother has a duty to nurture and watch over her children and a father has a duty to provide for and protect his children. Children, in turn, have a duty to love and obey their parents. Contrary to the claims of eighteenth century liberalism duties and authority do not derive their validity from personal consent. They arise in the family out of the essential nature of blood relationships.

There is one family relationship that is different in kind from all the others. The relationship between husband and wife is not like the relationship between father and son, mother and daughter, brother and sister. It is not a blood relationship. A man is not born a husband to a woman or a woman born a wife to a man. It is not an automatic relationship but one which must be entered into. This does not mean that it is an artificial, contractual relationship the terms of which we are free to define in whatever way pleases us. It too is a natural relationship, albeit one that lacks the intrinsic permanency of a blood relationship. We have seen how a father has a natural responsibility to protect and provide for the children he sires and a mother has a natural responsibility to nurture and care for the children she bears. Implicit within this is a shared responsibility on the part of both the father and the mother to cooperate with the other in looking after and raising the children they have brought into the world together. This shared responsibility creates the need for a relationship between a father and mother and it is to answer this need that the relationship we call marriage exists. A marriage is created by a set of mutual vows in which a man vows to take a woman as his wife and to be a husband to her and the woman vows to take the man as her husband and be a wife to him. In vowing this, the man and woman are vowing to live together and love each other for the rest of their lives and to raise their children together.

The relationship of marriage unites more than just a husband and wife. It unites families into an extended social network. The need for marriage generates the need for community. A family cannot survive beyond one generation in isolation from other families. Since human beings have an instinctual aversion to incest which manifests itself in a universal taboo against the practice, a man must marry a woman from outside his immediate family and vice versa. Therefore families must live in communities with other families so that when their children are old enough they can marry and perpetuate the family. This is not the only reason families form communities but it is the most important.

As network of human society expands outward from the essential relationships in the nuclear family it becomes more complex and therefore requires more complex social arrangements in order to function. These arrangements and the rules necessary to maintain them are not something that came about at a specific point in time when a group of people sat down and drew them all up on paper. They came about gradually as society became more complex and the need for them arose. They are neither fixed in stone nor infinitely malleable. They change over time as circumstances change and as the collected experience and wisdom of the community grows. Since the needs they meet arise out of human nature, however, much remains constant within these arrangements. The community passes them down from one generation to the next, making the necessary adjustments wherever necessary. This is why they are called the traditional social order, a tradition being something that is passed on from one generation to the next.

Government is not the source of a traditional social order, which can neither be rationally planned nor legislated into being. Rather it is the other way around, the traditional social order is the basis of the constitution (1) of a society from which government derives its legitimate authority. Just because government cannot create something, however, does not mean that it cannot affect it. The laws government passes can have either a positive or a negative effect upon the social order. When government does not respect a community’s social arrangements as they have been agreed upon, passed down, and slowly modified through time and when it introduces major changes to these arrangements to make them conform to a set of abstract ideals thought up by social planners, the laws it passes will have a negative effect upon the social order.

These are exactly the sort of laws which have been passed by Western governments since at least the end of World War II. In the 1960’s and 70’s, for example, Western governments amended divorce laws to make “no-fault divorces” available. A no-fault divorce is a legal dissolution of marriage that is granted without requiring that one spouse sue the other for violation of marriage vows and without legal penalty to either party. The result of the passing of these laws is that marriage is now less binding, less permanent, than a business contract.

The argument most often used by those who favour no-fault divorce and are glad that it was introduced by our governments to justify their position relies upon liberal presuppositions. It goes along this line that if a man and a woman marry and discover that they are not happy living together then we as a society should not force them to stay together in misery when they could be happy apart. Beneath this line of reasoning lies the idea that each person as an individual has a right to pursue his own happiness and that this right outweighs both his society’s need for stability and security in the family and his children’s need for a father and a mother who love and are committed to them and to each other. This idea comes out of the liberal notion that the individual comes first and is more important than the family, community, or society.

Yet, while no-fault divorce laws may rest upon an ideologically liberal foundation, they are manifestly inconsistent with liberal social policy. They are not an example of government taking a laissez-faire, hands off approach to social arrangements but of government actively intruding itself into social arrangements so as to radically transform an existing social institution and pervert it from its original purpose.

It is often difficult to get people with a strong belief in liberal individualism to understand this. Such people often look at no-fault divorce as an issue in which one side, the liberals, say that people should live with whoever they want to live with for as long as they want to live with them without outside interference, whereas the other side, the conservatives, want the government to force people intro particular living arrangements. This assessment is very superficial and shallow. Conservatives did not think up the idea that a man and woman should marry each other for life and then use the government to impose this idea upon everyone else. Marriage is a social arrangement that predates government. This is true whether one accepts Christian and Jewish Urgeschichte in which it was instituted by God in the Garden of Eden or the anthropological explanation that it began as an arrangement between families in prehistorical tribal societies. (2) That it was a binding covenant consisting of life-long vows was not something that government added to it. It is active government legislation that has reduced it to something less than what it was. (3)

The reason liberal individualists fail to grasp this because of their extremely limited understanding of voluntary human behaviour. They understand human arrangements to be voluntary only if they were thought up and agreed upon by individuals qua individuals. If individuals did not think up and agree upon their own arrangements for themselves, the liberal individualist thinks, they must have been thought up by some other group of individuals and imposed upon them by the government. He does not get that social arrangements arise out of a process called tradition that involves all members of a society, past, present, and future and therefore he does not see that government interference with these arrangements is at least as bad, and probably far more so, than government interference with the choices of individuals.

In the last two decades Western governments introduced a new round of progressive interference in the ancient social institution of marriage. This was the introduction of “same-sex marriage”. The public debate over this government initiative has reached new heights of absurdity. Conservatives who oppose “same-sex marriage” are accused by their opponents of trying to use the government to control the lives of other people. That “same-sex marriage” is a government invention created by state interference in a traditional social institution and is therefore itself an example of state intrusion into people’s lives never seems to dawn on such people. Instead they accuse everyone who wants the definition of marriage to be what it was twenty years ago of wanting to establish a theocracy.

These changes to marital laws are not the only way in which Western governments have been undermining the social order of their countries. By establishing bureaucracies which set and enforce universal standards of education throughout their countries, governments have wrested control of local public schools from parents and community. They then transformed those schools into indoctrination centres that program children with values that are often contrary to those passed on by parents in the home. Western governments have created vast networks of programs through which the government undertakes to look after people when they are sick, unemployed, impoverished, aged, etc. These programs are not temporary measures for helping people out in emergencies but permanent programs whereby the government undertakes to ensure that all needs are met from cradle to grave. This weakens the traditional social network by causing people to look to and rely upon government first rather than upon their families, churches and communities.

All of these are examples of a progressive social policy, a policy in which the government actively sets out to reshape the social order.

This influence of progressivism over social policy in recent decades affects our answer to the question of what the proper ends of public social policy should be. The basic conservative answer to that question is that public social policy, policy that determines government actions which affect society, should have as its end the support and strengthening of the traditional social order. In the days before all of this progressive meddling began the laissez faire policy of the true liberal would have been sufficient to serve this end.

Now that progressive meddling has weakened the social order and in many areas all but destroyed it the conservative answer must be amended. It is no longer a matter of strengthening and supporting an order that to a large extent no longer exists but of reviving and restoring it.

Here, however, the conservative runs into a dilemma.

What kind of social policy can possibly serve the reactionary end of restoring the social order progressivism has ruined?

This is a dilemma because of the very nature of the traditional social order as described earlier. It is not something that can be constructed from a blue print. It cannot be planned in the abstract and drawn out on paper. It cannot be legislated into existence. This is not how it came into existence in the first place and it is not how it can be recovered.

Does this mean that the liberal social policy of laissez faire would still serve the conservative end?

For it to do so it would have to be a true laissez faire policy, not social progressivism hiding behind the guise of social liberalism. The government would have to commit itself to no longer trying to bribe people’s loyalty away from family, church, and community, to no longer actively undermining the authority of parents in the home, to cease encouraging a socially and morally destructive culture of self-indulgence. It would have to commit itself to allowing other social institutions to grow strong again and not actively opposing those who seek, through non-governmental means, a cultural revival. It would have to reject the idea that a thriving, complex, social order is something that can be planned and enacted by itself, and return social arrangements to the hands of the time-honoured process of tradition.

(1) The title of the written charter of the American Republic is “The Constitution of the United States of America” and when Americans refer to their “constitution” they are referring to this document. A country’s constitution, however, is more than just its charter. All countries, even those that do not have charters, have constitutions. A country’s constitution is the way it is organized, the way it does things, and the most important part of its constitution – even in the United States – is always unwritten.

(2) These are not mutually exclusive explanations and could be regarded as the same explanation approached from two different starting points.

(3) This is true to a lesser extent of all divorce legislation, not just the “no fault” type. Government and law were not necessary for the creation of marriage, but they have the primary, if not the sole, means of its dissolution throughout history.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Society is an Organism

There are many things I admire about former British Prime Minister, Baroness Margaret Thatcher. I admire her Cold War anti-communism and the strong leadership she provided her country during the Falkland Islands War. I admire the honourable way in which she stood up for General Pinochet, who had been a consistent friend to the West in general and to Great Britain in particular, when he was dishonourably arrested by the Blair government during a visit to Britain.

Needless to say I also agree with many of her ideas. While I am not as doctrinaire a Hayekian as she is I am in general sympathy with her belief in economic freedom and private property and her opposition to welfarism and socialism. I can think of no better response to the silliness of anti-royalism than Lady Thatcher’s remark that “Those who imagine that a politician would make a better figurehead than a hereditary monarch might perhaps make the acquaintance of more politicians.”

There is, however, a well-known statement she made with which I strongly disagree. In an interview with Douglas Keay of Women’s Own magazine in 1987, she said “There is no such thing as society.” This was a rather bizarre statement for someone who was at the time serving as Prime Minister of a society to make. As we will see it was also a statement that was particularly inappropriate in the mouth of the leader of the Conservative Party, which Lady Thatcher was at the time. She made the remark in the context of arguing that people should take responsibility for their own lives and not expect the government to solve all their problems for them. That is a perfectly sound position which makes the absurdity of her remark stand out all the more against the background of such straightforward common sense.

As it happened, we do not have to ask ourselves what on earth she was thinking. The remark generated all sorts of comment and the Sunday Times, in its July 10, 1988 published a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office explaining what she meant. The statement reiterated the point about personal responsibility and includes these illuminating remarks about her earlier words:

But society as such does not exist except as a concept. Society is made up of people. It is people who have duties and beliefs and resolve. It is people who get things done.

This clarifies everything. She was expressing a basic concept of classical liberalism.

One of the ideas of classical liberalism is that individuals have concrete existence but societies do not. Society, according to liberalism, is an abstract idea constructed by individuals to help them better their own lives in cooperation with other individuals. Society is no more than the sum of the individuals who comprise it and to treat it as if it were something more than that, liberalism says, is to commit the fallacy of reification, the false attribution of concreteness to something that is only abstract.

Now there are some liberal ideas that a conservative can agree with. This, however, is not one of them. It is in fundamental contradiction to the conservative understanding of the nature of society. It is also a key element of the theoretical foundation for progressive social engineering. Liberalism and progressivism are both the offspring of the modern rationalist belief that human beings can create a better life and future for themselves by doing away with tradition all together and applying reason and the findings of empirical science to the planning of such a future. Progressives believe that governments should implement this planning over the objections of those who have an “irrational” preference for traditional ways of life. It is far easier to believe that a better society can be devised from scratch through rational planning and that opposition to such planning is irrational and should be overruled by the state in people’s own interests if you also believe that society itself is just an abstract concept.

Conservatives do not share the liberal and progressive faith in the ability of human reason to design a better way of living and a better society from scratch. Conservatism is the belief that a society that grows and develops, slowly and naturally, over a long period of time, will never be perfect, but will always be preferable to a society drawn up on paper by some committee of planners, no matter how intelligent they may be. A society that grows and develops naturally over time cannot be merely an abstract concept. It must exist in a more concrete sense.

The liberal idea that society is merely an abstract concept shows just how out of touch with reality liberalism is. This idea is closely connected to the liberal idea of the priority of the individual. Indeed, the two ideas are the reverse sides of one coin in that neither could be true if the other were false. The idea of the priority of the individual is that the individual is prior to all social groups and that human beings are autonomous individuals in their natural state. For this to be true society would have to be an abstract concept thought up by individuals and for society to be an abstract concept thought up by individuals the individual would have to be prior to all levels of social organization. Yet the idea that the individual is prior to society is demonstrably false. Every human being born into this world is born into a number of social groups of which he is already a member without his voluntary consent being given or even asked for. He is born into his family, both the nuclear family consisting of his parents, whatever siblings he might have, and himself, and his extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Except in the most unusual of circumstances he will have been born into a community as well. Each of these, his nuclear family, his extended family, and the community to which his family belongs, existed before he did.

The liberal theory of the priority of the individual is not only false it is the opposite of what is observably true in the real world. It follows from this that the idea that society exists only as an abstract concept and not as something concrete is false too.

If society has concrete existence it must also have a nature. The traditional society preferred by conservatives over the artificial planned society preferred by liberals, progressives, and other rationalists is organic in nature.

What exactly does it mean to say that traditional society is organic?

The first thing it means is that traditional society has the quality, already discussed, of having grown and developed naturally over time rather than having been deliberately thought up and drawn out by a group of social planners. This is why the expression “the organic model of society”, an expression I confess to being guilty of having used in the past, is a contradiction in terms. A model is a tool of the rational planner. An architect designing a large building, a civil engineer designing the traffic infrastructure of a city, and an inventor designing a piece of complex machinery, might each first build a model so as to test his design and fix the flaws he finds before the construction of the final product begins. There can be no organic model of society because an organic society cannot be designed and constructed in this manner.

The concept of an organic society is a metaphor rather than a model. It means that to understand the nature of such a society we should think of a living organism, like a human being, animal, or plant. The way in which persons and groups within a society, relate to each other and cooperate with each other to form the society, is analogous to the way cells, tissues, and organs come together to form an organism.

There are a number of different ways in which the metaphor of an organism sheds light upon the nature of society.

Take, for example, the way the body of a complex organism like a human being, is multilayered. The human body consists entirely of cells but these cells do not come together directly to form the unity which is the body. First, cells of a similar type and function form tissues. Organs, such as the heart, lungs, and brain, are then formed out of tissues, and come together themselves to form systems like the nervous, reproductive, and digestive systems. Finally these systems, cooperating together by each performing its distinct function, make up a human body.

A traditional society is like this too. A traditional society is made up of people but individuals do not come together directly to form the unity which is society. Individuals belong to families and families come together to form larger social groups of various sorts. Families with similar education, occupations, wealth, and social status come together to form classes. Families that live in proximity to one another and who tend to do business with each other, shop in the same stores, eat in the same restaurants, send their children to the same schools, and regularly meet each other in a variety of contexts of work and play, form communities. Families that regularly meet together to collectively worship their God form religions. All of these various groups together make up a society.

As with any other metaphor the details of the analogy should not be pressed too far. The correlation that is being drawn is between the relationship of the parts of the body to the whole and the relationship between the parts of society and the whole. This does not mean that every specific part of society corresponds to a specific part of the body or vice-versa. Sometimes such a correlation may exist. That the government performs the same function in society that the head performs in the body is an observation that has been around since at least the time of Plato’s Republic. (1) Other times there may be no such specific correlation.

Parallels can be drawn between the role of the individual in society and that of the cell in the body. One can also draw parallels between the family and the cell, however. If the family is the cell then the individual is the atom. Interestingly, the term social atomization is used to refer to the alienation of the individual from society that has been brought about by modern conditions.

There is another way in which the relationship between the whole of a society and its parts resembles that of the body of a living organism and that is in its longevity. The life of a complex organism is ordinarily much longer than the lifespan of most of its cells. Its cells are constantly multiplying and replacing themselves. Indeed the fact that is occurs is one of the most basic traits that distinguishes living from dead material. The lifespans of the various cells which make up the human body vary, most falling within a range that goes from a couple of days to a little over a year. Only the cells of the brain and nervous system live as long as the body itself (2) assuming that one does not kill them prematurely by consuming toxic substances or holding to progressive ideas.

In similar fashion the lifespans of the people who make up a society vary but are usually much shorter than the lifespan of the society itself. Some people live out the threescore and ten years allotted to them by the psalmist, some live longer, and some die young for one reason or another. The lifespan of a society, however, is ordinarily measured in centuries not in years. As cells multiply, replace themselves, and die within an organism that lives much longer than they do, so generation succeeds generation as people are born, reproduce, and die, within the life of their society.

An implication of this is that the good of the whole society should be considered, not just in terms of its present living members, but of past and future generations as well. (3)

Further light on the nature of an organic society can be found by considering and answering a misconception about it.

The most common objection to the organic view of society is that it is a recipe for totalitarianism. An organic society, libertarians say, is a society in which the parts are completely subordinated to the whole and therefore the organic view of society serves the interests of despotic governments looking to justify their acts of tyranny.

In answer to this objection it should be pointed out that while specific despots may have used the organic theory in this manner the idea that government should have absolute control over the lives of its people by no means follows from the view that society is best understood as an organism. Earlier, I pointed out that the contractual model of society, which is part of the classical liberal worldview held by most libertarians, is itself an important element in the theoretical justification of progressive social engineering. Progressive social engineering is when the government, in order to achieve progressive goals like universal economic and social equality, interferes with the customs, traditions, mores, and folkways which people follow in their everyday lives. The idea that society is an abstract concept, a contract drawn up by individuals for the good of individuals, eliminates many of the objections people might have to this sort of heavy-handed government interference with the way of life they have learned and inherited from their parents and ancestors. Several objections to such social engineering arise, on the other hand, out of the idea that society is a living organism.

Indeed, the idea that the government should have absolute control over the lives of its people does not logically follow the idea that society is an organism at all. Think about it. Throughout your entire life, the cells, organs, and systems in your body perform various functions. How many of these do you consciously control? Do you ordinarily think about how your lungs inhale and exhale air and instruct them on how to do a better job? Do you regularly tell your heart when to beat? Do you find yourself bossing your kidneys and your liver around or passing laws in your brain regulating the way your skin absorbs sunlight or your white blood cells fight off infection? If you had to consciously control all the internal processes in your body you would be unable to function. Neither can a society function when its government tries to micromanage all the affairs of its members. If anything, the organic metaphor suggests that government should have less control over the affairs of a society’s members than you have over the involuntary processes and functions that take place in your body. This is because the people who make up a society possess something which the cells and organs which make up a human being do not possess and that is the ability to reflect, deliberate, and make choices.

The organic understanding of society, then, is not consistent with tyranny. The idea that the members of a society are parts of an organic whole is not an excuse for government oppression. It means that when people go about their everyday lives, voluntarily acting in ways influenced by the customs and traditions that have been passed on to them, which have developed throughout their society’s history to serve its needs, their actions contribute to the greater good of the whole society. When a man and a woman marry each other, have children, raise those children to both fend for themselves and cooperate with others in accordance with the customs and rules of their society, this serves the good of their society as a whole, which cannot survive unless a new generation follows the old generation.

A conservative is someone who prefers this kind of traditional, organic, society to one drawn up on paper by even the most competent of planners. For this reason “there is no such thing as society” is a phrase that does not belong in the mouth of the leader of a party which professes to be conservative.

(1) Ironically, of course, when Plato places this observation in the mouth of his mentor Socrates in The Republic, Socrates and his friends are engaged in thinking up a hypothetical, ideal model of a city-state.

(2) The claim that all of the cells in your body are completely replaced every seven years is a myth.

(3) Those who would question how the good of people now deceased could be affected in the present are invited to read the accounts of Solon’s interview with Croesus of Lydia found in Herodotus’ Histories and Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, and the discussion of this interview in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. When, according to Herodotus and Plutarch, the Athenian lawgiver Solon in his travels met Croesus, the king displayed his wealth to him and asked him if he had ever known a happier man. He was not pleased when Solon answered yes and proceeded to name Tellus, Cleobis, and Biton, all of whom were dead. Solon told him that because the fortunes of man rise and fall “and him only to whom the divinity has continued happiness unto the end we call happy; to salute as happy one that is still in the midst of life and hazard, we think as little safe and conclusive as to crown and proclaim as victorious the wrestler that is yet in the ring.” Croesus would learn what Solon meant when he lost his kingdom and life to the conquest of the Persians. Aristotle, in Book One of his Nicomachean Ethics asks “Must no one at all, then, be called happy while he lives; must we, as Solon says, see the end? Even if we are to lay down this doctrine, is it also the case that a man is happy when he is dead? Or is not this quite absurd, especially for us who say that happiness is an activity?” He then takes the question further than Solon himself had taken it by questioning how the fortunes of children and descendants affect the happiness of the dead. “It would be odd, then, if the dead man were to share in these changes and become at one time happy, at another wretched; while it would also be odd if the fortunes of the descendants did not for some time have some effect on the happiness of their ancestors.” The quotation from Solon is from Plutarch’s account of his life as translated by John Dryden. The quotations from Aristotle are from W. D. Ross’ translation of the Nicomachean Ethics.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Caution and Change

“Don’t ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up” – Robert Frost

Lucius Carey, the 2nd Viscount Falkland, who died fighting for the House of Stuart in the English Civil War, once said “When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” He made this remarkable statement in the context of a speech given in 1641. The previous December, the Puritans of London had presented the “Root and Branch” petition to Parliament which called for the abolition of the episcopal government of the Church of England. Out of the petition arose the Root and Branch Bill, which would have replaced the episcopacy with a presbyterian church government . The Bill passed the House of Commons but was defeated in the House of Lords. Lord Falkland’s speech, including the famous words quoted above, was given in response to the Root and Branch petition, and in defense of the Anglican bench of bishops.

When the radicals won the English Civil War they deposed and murdered King Charles I, placing Britain under the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell, and abolished the house of bishops. Puritan rule proved so disastrous that after Cromwell’s death, Parliament restored the episcopacy of the Church of England, its Prayer Book and its authorized Bible, and brought Charles II back from exile and placed him upon his father’s throne.

The English were lucky that they were able to undo the damage which the Puritans had done. There are other countries which have not been as fortunate. Their revolutions were so complete that the will and ability to go back was simply not present. In this we see the wisdom of Lord Falkland’s words. It is often far easier to make a change than to undo it once you have made it and found you didn’t like it. Therefore, we should exercise a great deal of caution before tampering with things, especially things that have been established for a long time and have the weight of precedent and prescription behind them.

There is a common saying which expresses this same truth that Lord Falkland stated 371 years ago. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

Lord Falkland died fighting for his king and for the established episcopal Church of England. By the end of the 17th Century, those who supported the cause for which he fought and died, had organized themselves into the Tory Party, which in the 19th Century would be reorganized into the Conservative Party. While the party often seems to have moved far from the principles upon which it was founded, if asked for a quote that summarized the ideas of small-c, philosophical conservatism in a nutshell, Falkland’s remark about change would fit the bill nicely.

Liberals and progressives frequently misconstrue the conservative view of change in two ways.

The first is to say that we are blind supporters of the status quo who oppose all change. But Falkland’s maxim does not preclude all change, only unnecessary change. “Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation”, Russell Kirk wrote, in the sixth of his “canons of conservatism” (1).

The second is to say that once a change proposed by a liberal or progressive has been accomplished, we conservatives are forbidden by our own philosophy, to try and undo that change, because undoing the change is itself also a change. The word “reactionary” was originally a term of abuse coined by progressives and liberals to refer to someone who tried to undo the changes they had accomplished. “A true conservative”, the progressive claims “cannot be a reactionary”. That is nonsense, however. A large part of the reason the conservative recommendation of caution and prudence before changing something is sensible is because it is easier to make the change than to undo it if we find the change is for the worse. If that is the case, it makes no sense to take that same recommendation of caution and prudence as precluding all attempts to undo a change for the worse if it is possible so to do. Prudence, of course, should be exercised in deciding to undo a progressive change as much as it should be exercised before making the change in the first place. But conservative principles do not mean that once progressives have saddled us with an obnoxious change we must therefore consider ourselves to be forever stuck with it. A conservative can, and often should, be a reactionary.

This is all the more true because of the unfortunate fact that the wisdom of the caution and prudence counseled by conservatism, is very often best seen after the time to exercise it has passed, and an ill-conceived innovation has been made.

The period beginning with the end of the Second World War has been an era that has seen rapid and tremendous social changes in Western countries. By social changes, I mean changes to the ways we interact with other people and to the contextual framework of rules and institutions within which that interaction takes places. The social changes to which I refer are not changes to minor customs, manners, and rules. They are changes to fundamental patterns of behaviour. Indeed, the most radical changes have been to the most fundamental pattern of behaviour of all.

Human beings belong to one of two sexes, male and female. The physical union of the sexes is the means whereby the human species propagates itself. Since human beings are not immortal the propagation of the species is absolutely necessary for human survival. There is not much of a threat that the species will die out from people losing interest in sexual intercourse. The urge to seek out and form a union with someone of the other sex is one of the strongest instinctual drives hardwired into human beings. There is, however, a threat to ordered, civilized society that comes from the opposite direction, the threat that we will follow our urges wherever they may lead us.

The reason this is a threat should be obvious. The propagation of the species requires more than just sexual reproduction. Human children are not born with the ability to survive on their own. They cannot feed or clothe themselves at birth, they cannot find shelter, they cannot protect themselves if attacked. They need others to do these things for them and to train them to do these things for themselves. Furthermore, human children require more than just the basic training necessary for survival. They also need training in how to interact with and cooperate with other people in the society to which they belong.

Who are they supposed to get all of this from?

The best people to provide for and protect children when they are helpless, to train them to take care of themselves, and to raise them to be functioning members of society, are the people who brought them into the world in the first place, their father and their mother. Now that is clearly not always possible. Sometimes a child is orphaned, for example. There also needs to be the qualification that in saying that parents are the best people to raise their own children we do not mean parents by themselves. Obviously a father and mother, with the help and support of their own fathers and mothers and their siblings, is better than a father and mother by themselves, and it is better yet when the family has the further support of their friends and neighbors in the community in which they live. This qualification itself needs to be qualified, however. As valuable as the contribution of friends, neighbors and community may be, it is valuable as a support for parents in their role of child raising and not as a substitute for them. (2)

For this reason, human societies have traditionally imposed rules regarding sexual behaviour on their members. The exact details of the rules have varied from society to society but they all encourage the same basic pattern of behaviour in which a man and a woman marry each other and raise their children together, and they all discourage people from irresponsibly indulging their sexual appetites in a selfish pursuit of sensual gratification.

Surely if there is any area which requires long and hard serious thought and a high degree of caution and prudence before making any changes it is to this pattern of behaviour and to this set of rules. Yet the post-World War II era has seen change after radical change in just this area. These have not been merely cosmetic changes to the details of the rules either. The opposite of the message conveyed in the old rules is now being openly and actively proclaimed throughout society. The pattern of man and woman marry and raise their children together is now dismissed as antiquated and obsolete in many circles. Social restraints on sexual behaviour, even those not backed up by the force of law, are now widely considered to be intrusions into what is a “private” matter.

Those who defend these changes often do so on the grounds that technological advancements have rendered the old rules obsolete. (3) This argument is based upon a misunderstanding of why these rules were there in the first place. It is based upon the idea that the rules existed primarily to protect individuals from such consequences of sexual activity as unwanted pregnancies and venereal disease. Since the development of effective contraception, treatments and preventative technology for venereal disease has lessened the consequences of sexual activity, the need for the old rules has been largely eliminated.

This argument is not entirely wrong. The protection of individuals from harsh consequences to sexual behaviour was part of the purpose for the old rules. It was not the whole purpose, however, or even the primary purpose. The primary reason we had those rules was because it is in the best interests of an orderly, civilized, society that children be brought up, whenever possible, by a father and mother committed to each other and the raising of their children and that it is against the interests of society and civilization for people to allow their actions to be dominated by their instinctual appetites and drives. This reason for the old rules has not been diminished in the slightest by technological developments.

That civilization rests upon human beings controlling their animal instincts and passions rather than being controlled by them is an insight as old as civilization itself. Plato, in his Republic, wrote that the human soul included reason, will, and appetite and that in the rightly ordered soul the will would enforce the rule of reason over the appetites. The rightly ordered city, he further argued, would mirror this, being governed by the philosopher-kings, whose laws would be enforced by the guardians, over the workers. Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, described virtues, i.e., positive character traits, as habits of consistently choosing the middle path between the extremes of self-indulgence on the one hand and excessive austerity on the other. The cultivation of virtue in a rightly-ordered society was how these philosophers of ancient Athens conceived civilization, the closest approximation of ideal justice attainable by men on earth. (4)

Human beings are capable of civilization because of those elements of our nature which set us apart from the other animals not those elements which we have in common with the other animals and depends upon the former being in control of our actions rather than the latter. While this means that the exercise of reason and will is necessary for civilization it does not mean that they are sufficient. The last century provided abundant evidence that reason and will can be used against society, civilization, and the good of mankind, as much as they can be used in support of these things. Something else then must be necessary as well.

Another ability human beings possess, in addition to reason and will, is the ability to learn from the experience of those who have gone before us, to add our own experience to that, and to pass this cumulative, collective, body of experience down to future generations. It is this ability which enables us to acquire and pass on the skill of making right decisions, of using our reason and will wisely and well.

In the Modern Age we came to place a very high value on one part of our cumulative body of experience and knowledge at the expense of other parts. Michael Oakeshott in his essay “Rationalism and Politics” wrote that “Every science, every art, every practical activity requiring skill of any sort, indeed every human activity whatsoever, involves knowledge”. (5) He then went on to say that “universally, this knowledge is of two sorts, both of which are always involved in any actual activity.” These he identified as technical and practical knowledge. (6) Technical knowledge is knowledge of techniques or methods, i.e. of systematic ways of achieving ends. Oakeshott wrote that technical knowledge is “susceptible of formulation in rules, principles, directions, maxims – comprehensively in propositions.” Practical knowledge is knowledge which cannot be so formulated but without which “the mastery of any skill, the pursuit of any concrete activity is impossible”.

According to Oakeshott:

Rationalism is the assertion that what I have called practical knowledge is not knowledge at all, the assertion that, properly speaking, there is no knowledge which is not technical knowledge. The Rationalist holds that the only element of knowledge involved in any human activity is technical knowledge, and that what I have called practical knowledge is really only a sort of nescience which would be negligible if it were not positively mischievous. (7)

It is difficult to argue with Oakeshott’s contention that our concept of knowledge has been so truncated. (8) This sheds light on the matter which we have been considering in a number of different ways.

As we have seen, those who regard the social changes since World War II favourably, argue that modern technology has made the old rules obsolete by solving the problems which made those rules necessary. This is demonstrably false. Out of the sexual revolution came a demand for legal, easily obtainable, abortions, a demand which makes no sense if the development of effective contraception just before the sexual revolution, solved the problem of unwanted pregnancies. This claim, however, does point us to the real genesis of the revolution – faith in our unlimited ability to solve all our problems through the application of reason and science to the development of technology. Such faith could only have developed in an intellectual climate heavily influenced by the modern Rationalism of which Oakeshott wrote, which rejects all but technical knowledge. (9)

If we abandoned social rules and norms because of a misguided belief that our state of technological advancement has eliminated our need for them then the reverse side to this same coin is that we have abandoned these rules and norms because we no longer appreciate the wisdom contained in them. Moral wisdom is not technical knowledge. It is not concerned with the question of how to achieve our ends fastest, cheapest, and with the greatest ease. It is concerned with whether the ends we are seeking to achieve are right or wrong and whether the means we employ to achieve those ends are right or wrong. To someone who believes that technical knowledge is the only real knowledge, moral questions are unnecessary impediments to the achieving of goals. What does it matter that human embryos are brought into existence and made the subject of laboratory experiments if it allows us to achieve our end of preventing male pattern baldness? Such moral objections are standing in the way of our progress!

It is moral knowledge, however, and not technical knowledge, that civilization is built upon. It is more important to know how to live together and cooperate with other members of your community and society than it is to know the most efficient way of making a kitchen table. The ability to decide to do the right thing and to do so consistently so as to form a virtuous habit and build a moral character is more important than any conceivable marketable skill. This sort of knowledge cannot be formulated as a technique. It is to be found in the bank of accumulated human experience however. It can be acquired and it can be imparted to others. Moral upbringing in the home, from one’s father and mother, supported by one’s extended family, is the best way known to man of passing this kind of knowledge down. We could employ our reason and science for a million years and still not be able to improve upon it.

Perhaps then, we should have exercised a bit more prudence and caution before we introduced changes which threaten the stability of the family and the loss of the moral knowledge passed down through it.

(1)Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, Seventh Revised Edition (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 1953, 1986) p. 9. The sixth canon begins with the words “Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress” and ends by saying “a statesman’s chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence.”

(2) This qualification is necessary because there is a kind of pseudo-communitarianism today which uses this kind of language as a cloak for what is essentially the idea that the state should take over the responsibility of raising children, and delegate that responsibility back to parents as its closely supervised and easily replaceable deputies. This, for example, is what I understand US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to mean by “It takes a village”, the African proverb she borrowed for the title of her 1996 book.

(3) For a recent example of this kind of reasoning see Michael Lind’s article for the e-zine entitled “What Killed Social Conservatism?” : )

(4) The word civilization comes from the Latin word for city, which was the sovereign political society at that time. In Greek the title of Plato’s Republic is Politia which refers to the condition of living in a polis, i.e., a city-state. Aristotle’s Politics which is a continuation of his Nicomachean Ethics is Politika. This term means “things which concern a city” and is, of course, the root of our English politics, which originally meant “the art of statecraft” before it degenerated to its current, less noble, meaning.

(5) Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, (London: Metheun & Co., 1962), p. 7. The essay “Rationalism in Politics”, which was originally published in the Cambridge Journal in 1947, is the first essay in this book and the only essay from it which I will be quoting in this essay.

(6) This does not mean that all human knowledge can be classified as either “technical” or “practical”. He was only talking about knowledge that is required for doing things.

(7) Ibid., p. 11. The bold indicates italics in the original. The previous quotations about technical and practical knowledge come from pages 10 and 8 respectively.

(8) Consider the way the meaning of the word “science”, which our language borrowed from the Latin word for “knowledge” has changed. Originally “science” encompassed all forms of knowledge, the way the German equivalent Wissenschaft does. Today, it is limited in meaning to empirically acquired knowledge of the material world. The relationship between this and what Oakeshott was talking about is this: empirical science is primarily the means for improving technique. The explosion of empirical science in recent centuries has been driven by the search for the optimal technique for achieving our ends – the optimal technique being the one which has the best overall balance in speed, cost, ease and efficiency.

(9) There may be significance to the fact that these changes have all taken place since World War II. Historian John Lukacs maintains that we are living at the end of the Modern Age. Others maintain that the age which began with the Renaissance has already come to an end. The event that I have seen most often identified as the end of the Modern Age, by those who maintain it has already passed is World War II. “Post-modernists” usually maintain that the Modern Age ended in failure, that the calamitous events which marked its close brought about disillusionment with its ideals and a new skepticism towards all meta-narratives (theories that purport to be able to explain everything). John Lukacs, on the other hand, argues that forces which have shaped and driven the Modern Age have been victorious. He argues, for example, that liberalism is a spent force because it has accomplished all of its goals. Whatever one makes of all of this, if the rationalism that Oakeshott described as “the most remarkable fashion of post-Renaissance Europe” is a denial of all knowledge but the technical, then that Rationalism would appear to have triumphed around the time of World War II. For despite the fact that the conflict ended with the supreme demonstration of how the application of reason and science to the development of technique can be used to accomplish previously unimaginable evil this did not prevent the spread immediately thereafter of faith in technology.