Blogs > Liberty and Power > The Paradox of Religious Conservatism

Jul 16, 2004 1:53 pm

The Paradox of Religious Conservatism

[cross-posted at Austro-Athenian Empire]

Walk not after the flesh, but after the spirit;
for they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh,
but they that are after the spirit the things of the spirit.

-- Romans 8: 4-5.

Religious conservatives are a puzzle. They like to denounce socialism and ethical relativism; they also like to denounce the materialistic conception of human beings as mere animals. They often profess skepticism at the findings of evolutionary biology.

And yet, in practice, they enthusiastically embrace all the vices they purport to attack.

They tend, for example, to accept"divine command theory," which holds that what makes something right (or wrong) is the fact that God commands (or forbids) it. The upshot of such a view, of course, is that God's commands must be viewed as completely arbitrary and random. After all, if God had reasons for commanding and prohibiting as he does, then those reasons, rather than God's will, would be the basis of the action's rightness or wrongness -- an intolerable restriction on God's"freedom." Hence such conservatives are as hostile as any relativist to the notion of a rationally intelligible moral order. They too regard morality as being a matter of groundless whim; they just think the whim is God's rather than ours.

Despite their surface opposition to socialism, they typically embrace both a socialistic ethics, subordinating the fulfillment of the individual to the collective good of society, and a socialistic cosmology, denying the possibility of order emerging except through top-down control. Such commitments must inevitably corrupt one's politics in a socialist direction. (This is why it is a mistake to suppose, as many paleolibertarians do, that religious conservatism can be combined in a stable fashion with political libertarianism. Where their treasure is, there will their heart -- and sooner or later their politics -- be also.)

Religious conservatives also take biology-worship to grotesque extremes. They often regard gender roles as fixed by sociobiology, thus denying free will and treating hormones as having greater normative weight than reason. They debase the concept of marriage by subordinating its spiritual meaning to a merely biological function. In opposing abortion, they appeal to a definition of personhood in terms of material, biological characteristics rather than in terms of the nature of rational agents; that's how a clot of protoplasm gets elevated to the status of a legal person by the mere possession of human DNA. (And then they propose to enslave women to the incubation of such protoplasm.)

One would think they had never heard of the idea that human beings possess a spiritual dimension which transcends their merely animal functions. Yet this is precisely the idea for which they have always claimed to stand.

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Nathan Shepperd - 7/20/2004

I like that comparison between accepting emergent orderly market systems for society on one hand, and usually denying evolution, which is a process in another emergent orderly system.
I suppose you could raise the point that humans are acting beings, as opposed to proteins or bacteria. But then, the laws of human action are like the laws governing the actions which result in evolution. I'm not sure how a really convincing distinction could be made.

chris l pettit - 7/19/2004

if this is permittable...

I would recommend a fantastic text by Matthieu Ricard entitled "The Quantum and The Lotus" The quantum theory can be a bit hairy for those not familiar with it, but there is aan absolutely great chapter that explores the question of a higher power from the Buddhist and quantum theory perspectives and comes up with a resounding no in each case, unless one resorts to blind faith. The Dalai Lama also has a text entitled, "Quantum Physics and the New Cosmology" that is pretty good reading, but even more physics based. I would recommend the first for those not versed in Quantum Theory as it is an easier read.

I like to think I always approach things skeptically, especially arguments I have not seen before, but I could not come up with a logical counter to the logical and rational arguments made against the existence of a higher power...and on several other related issues.

Sorry, I know it is a bit of a tangent...but an interesting discussion.

Are there any more than a few religious figures who are not hypocrits at their core? I can only think of a couple...


Jason Pappas - 7/18/2004

Thanks for reminding me of the Thomist position. I actually run into a surprising number of Thomists while arguing on the Internet.

Yes, George Carey is the editor of Freedom and Virtue. I've only read the second edition (“the revised and updated edition 1998”). I was under the impression that it was only an expanded version of the first. I'll have to track down the first.

You make some worthwhile comments on the religious use of love and fear as a motivation.

But more importantly, your comments of the libertarian’s ethical underpinning of liberty raises the important issues, which I shied away from actually tackling, concerning the relation between liberty and virtue. If you’re raising to a central position the idea that violating another's liberty has harm on one's own soul/character/virtue, I'd be very sympathetic to that line of reasoning. Recalling the libertarian entries in Carey's book, I wasn't satisfied with the argumentation and exposition of the authors (who I respect, by the way). Perhaps the book needs an article written by you. Or perhaps we need a book focusing on and comparing the ethical foundations advanced by libertarians. (Is there one that I'm not aware of?)

Jason Pappas

Roderick T. Long - 7/17/2004

Re religious ethics: For what it's worth, there is also a third religious option, which avoids divine subjectivism while still allowing God to be the source of morality; that is the view, held by Aquinas among others, that God is Goodness personified, so that it is his nature, not his will, that is the standard of morality (and he can't change his nature).

Re freedom and virtue: I've read that book. (George Carey is the editor, right?) In fact it comes in two editions with rather different contents; they're both worth tracking down. (I prefer the first edition.)

Re virtue and motivation: I think religious conservatives have a split personality on this. On the one hand, if pressed they'll say that the real motivation for being moral should be love of God, not fear of Hell. But then they'll turn around and say that people won't be moral unless they fear Hell.

Perhaps, to be charitable, they think something like this: the fear of Hell is a background condition that prevents the better, love-of-God motivation from being eroded? This is something like Aristotle's argument for paternalistic legislation: the virtuous person will act morally for its own sake rather than from fear of the law, but the laws, by compelling people to act morally, reinforce the habits which sustain the virtuous person in his virtue.

I certainly think it is a mistake to argue, as some libertarians do, that actions can't be virtuous if they're legally mandatory. Because if I was going to do the right thing anyway, the fact that it's also mandatory doesn't make my action any less virtuous. The argument's on a bit stronger ground if it's saying that the freedom to make mistakes is necessary in order to build independence and self-responsibility. But I think the REAL connection betwene virtue and liberty is not so much that you can't be virtuous if your liberty is curtailed but rather that you can't be virtuous if you're curtailing other people's liberty.

Jason Pappas - 7/16/2004

Dr. Long, your post just about sums it up.

The first point is excellent. Divine subjectivism is the standard religious conservative alternative to the false alternative of divine subjectivism vs. individual and social subjectivism. “You don’t get to say what’s right – God does.” It’s a blown up version of children being told by their parents to obey authority – arbitrary authority. Hmmmm.

However, there is an alternative which you are well aware. The Deist alternative attributes existence (and thus identity) to God and allows a naturalist ethics (eudimonian or life/flourishing standards) as derivative of the nature of things. God is just credited with a cosmological historical function. But conservatives don’t take this option. They insist their antithesis is a crude form of naturalism, materialism, which is devoid of teleology, values, etc. Of course, it’s laughable and ironic that they have a crude materialism - in the abortion, marriage, and euthanasia debates. You’ve got their number on that account.

Now there is one area I’d like you to comment further. I’ve been looking for the conservative argument for liberty. I’ve recently read an ISI book called Virtue and Freedom (or is it Freedom and Virtue?) which has papers from the historical debate by both conservative and libertarian figures. You know, the usual guys: Frank S. Meyer, Russell Kirk, on the conservative side and Murray Rothbard, Tibor Machan, Paul Kurtz on the libertarian/secular side.

The conservative argument seems to be that freedom is required for morality. But there is usually not much exposition to flesh this argument out. There seems to be an equivocation between free will, which is required for morality, and political freedom. I believe one author put it well: an imprisoned person can still reach salvation and enter God’s kingdom - why the need for liberty? The conservatives seem to hint that you do not get credit if you act under duress and coercion. But if God’s threat of eternal damnation is accepted, what difference does it made to threaten a person with a few weeks in jail? Clearly threat of arbitrary punishment does not prohibit salvation. For conservatives, virtuous acts don’t have to flow from a person’s character and disposition. Indeed, it is assumed that man’s disposition is evil.

Is there a good book that argues the conservative case for liberty? Or at least presents the case?