Postmodern Conservative

Roger Scruton on Liberalism

So I’ve been busy and haven’t developed new opinions on the big issues of the day.

I don’t know what to make of the decision by Pope Francis not to criticize (from the point of view of freedom) the tyrants in Cuba. Or, for that matter, what to make of his visit with Kim Davis. I do think he meant to highlight in various ways that religious freedom is becoming a real issue in America. I agree with Ross Douthat that he shares certain opinions with liberal Protestants, and that even he’s trying too hard to be agreeable to sophisticated Americans. But his personal piety and his devotion to the family still make him a countercultural dissident, and, as the overreaction to the Kim Davis thing in the MSM shows, our sophisticates aren’t about to forgive him for his dissident behavior. I certainly was charmed by his repeated reminder not to forget to pray for him.

And now the Vatican is denying that the meeting with Ms. Davis was intentional and really meant anything. Well, there is a powerful argument for not identifying with her particular cause. Still, what wimps! Shouldn’t Pope Francis be able to meet with whom he pleases?

Speaking of overreactions: Conservative public intellectuals are still relentlessly attacking Trump as if he were a real threat. He’s clearly peaked out; his negatives are climbing, and he’s already talking about dropping out if he actually drops in the polls. Not only that, he’s proclaimed he’s reconstructing his brand as more kind, gentle, and full of empathy. What a wimp!

I also agree our Peter Spiliakos that Fiorina is now viewed by some as the goddess or the Superwoman who can save us, and that the Republicans really do need a savior rising from our streets. Pray for John Boehner too, but even more for his successor, who’ll have to close that gap between the rank and file and the establishment donor class

But our friend Henry Olsen goes in a different direction: He’s touting Rubio’s “surge” to the top not-outsider candidate. It’s a very specific and modest kind of surge; Rubio is closing in on 10 percent. Still, it’s easy to see that this Republican-nomination process might well mirror others. The voters long for an outsider, the outsiders flame out, and then the most obvious darling of the establishment is nominated. It is a bit disconcerting to see the whole process play out before anyone has actually voted.

Here’s what I’ve been working on — a talk I’m going to give next week at Rhodes College in Memphis on the great British conservative thinker Roger Scruton.  These are very rough and tentative comments.

What’s a liberal?  Someone who “respects . . . individual existence” so much that he “attempt[s] to leave as much moral and political space around every human person as is compatible with the demands of social life.” Liberalism so understood is “the official ideology of the Western world.”  It is the ideology of “the free, self-fulfilling individual,” which is equally at the foundation of the thought of Milton Friedman and Karl Marx. In the case of both the libertarian and the Marxist, the utopia to come will be marked by perfectly individualistic spontaneity or the immediate and unobsessive gratification of personal preferences without authoritative social or relational direction, without being bound by the inconvenient truths of birth, personal love, and death. For each free individual, as Dworkin puts it, “rights are trumps,” insofar as nothing trumps the absolute value of my own existence. That’s why, in our time, we talk about “human rights,” which mean that the freedom, comfort, and security of each human person is the bottom line and we don’t even have to explain why. That’s also why, in our time, we see individualism, as our friend Peter Thiel explains, culminate in transhumanism. From a radically liberal perspective, being itself depends on my individual existence, and so being itself is extinguished when I am. So nothing trumps deploying all means necessary to keep me around by freeing me — the autonomous individual — from depending on the contingencies of social and biological life.

I am a liberal, Scruton explains, insofar as I look at the world from the point of view of the first person — or maybe better, the first person singular. The truth about the first person is reflected in self-consciousness. I have an irreducible perception of my personal identity;  nobody — certainly no impersonal neuroscience or evolutionary psychology or anything like that, or, for that matter, any modern political ideology — can take my “I” away from me.

The “I ” is the experience of the person, what our scientists can’t explain to us but is nonetheless an emergent property of beings such as ourselves. There are two ways human beings can be viewed as wholes: We are animals or the whole organisms described by the impersonal natural scientists.  But we’re also whole persons, with experiences that can’t be reduced to those of animals. We’re stuck with this cognitive dualism. Neuroscientists who describe us from their third-person or detached points of view can’t incorporate the personal experience of the “I” into their descriptions of what each of us is. Their accounts of the “what” don’t account for the “who” — the particular being with a name, a personal identity.

But to be personal, as Scruton explained, is to be relational. Persons exist in an interpersonal world — a lifeworld (Husserl, Havel), a world of of customs, conventions, traditions, and other shared historical understandings of  interrelated persons that can be distinguished from the environments inhabited by animals. Being personal depends on a world not of one’s own making. Consciousness, including self-consciousness, is always consciousness with.

The liberal experience of freedom depends on belonging to a particular home. This home can’t be understood as natural in the sense of natural science or as a mere social construction unrelated to our natural capabilities. It is a characteristic of beings such as ourselves, beings with the natural capability for self-consciousness and so for being personal. It’s the self-destructive task of scientism in theory and ideologies (including liberal ideologies) in practice to deprive us of the home or lifeworld that is the condition of personal being.

Is the lifeworld a world of “seeming” or one of “being”? Does on it depend what most philosophers and scientists — save Hegel, Kant, and Husserl — regard as illusions? Scruton — and, in his eyes, no real conservative — pretends to have the authoritative answer to that question. The lifeworld depends on premises about love, personal responsibility, free will, and all that are questionable or invincibly open to reductionistic explanations. But the world of seeming or being on the surface is that upon which the I depends to live well, even to live in the light of the truth. And it’s a world that produced all kinds of noble and wonderful and aesthetic and reasonable and religious thought and behavior that the scientists can’t explain as characteristic of an organism in an environment. And so the third-person point of view of the scientist fails the distinctive truth about being personal; his homogeneous theory of evolution explains the behavior only of plants and animals, but not of persons.

The problem of the relationship between the lifeworld and the Kantian or liberal theory of autonomy is, Scruton explains, that “it is impossible that I should be a transcendental self; but it is necessary that I should suffer the illusion that I am.” That means, the conservative “functional anthropologist” observes, that “I must belong to a world in which this illusion can be sustained, so that my projects are also values for me, and my desires are integrated into a vision of the good.” So, from the third-person perspective, the benefits of the illusion of the autonomous “I” can be experienced only in a world where they are – by being relationally embedded and so, in truth, not really so autonomous at all – not experienced as an illusion.

Peter Augustine LawlerPeter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...


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