Part The First

The principles--natural law--good and evil--where morality comes from

[info]earth_wizard responded to my previous post with a much more complete and discursive piece on what conservatism is, and it has provoked some thoughts, as his comments usually do.
He defined the basic principles of conservatism briefly as follows:

1. Belief in natural law
2. Belief in established institutions
3. Preference for liberty over equality
4. Suspicion of power—and of human nature
5. Belief in exceptionalism
6. Belief in the individual rights

Put this way they all sound perfectly reasonable, and in fact they must be, or reasonable people could not be conservatives. However, this puts a further onus on me to define what it is I disagree with about them that makes me a liberal, without inadvertently admitting that in fact I am being unreasonable.

Let's take 1, belief in natural law, for starters, because that is the one I had most trouble with. The expanded definition talks of "a higher order of things. Good and evil, justice and injustice, rights and responsibilities are not subjective concepts to conservatives. Human beings do not make the laws of morality, nor are rights conferred upon us by governments but rather by a higher power."

I definitely don't believe that good and evil are subjective concepts, in that everyone should decide for themselves what they are. Believing this shows a degree of trust in human nature which conflicts with principle number four as briefly stated; more on this later. But I also don't think I believe that God or somebody gave us the rules by which we live, especially not the ones about stoning disobedient children or not touching pigs.

Let's make a differentiation here. As I understand and use the terms, "ethics" describes the principles by which the individual relates to the collective, and "morality" the rules by which the collective relates to the individual. (If I'm misusing the terms, sorry, but that's what works for me.) "Ethics" are subjective but are usually based, one way or another, on the morality one has been taught. "Morality" is objective but is formed by a sort of involuntary consensus of people's ethical principles. Thus, when a generation in forming their ethical systems rejects a particular moral principle of the previous generation, that in turn shapes the morality on which the next generation bases their own ethical systems.

Thus, morality is in a sense formed by a higher power, if only mathematically; and thus, it wobbles backwards and forwards over time rather than steadily progressing towards a defined goal. Where the society is more stringent in its moral teaching it wobbles less, and this is I think the preferred state for some conservatives, harking back to the original meaning of the word. Those who think the prevailing morality deficient in some ways, either too lax or too restrictive, identify either as liberals or as that other sort of conservative for whom there isn't a satisfactory word except possibly "puritan."

Do I think there is an absolute Platonic ideal of morality? Yes, I do, or at least I think there could be if we choose to acknowledge it. Do I think it was handed down by God and we fell away from it? I do not. I think we're working towards it, or we could be if we wanted to. But all societies have priorities which conflict with it, and all new generations want to decide some things for themselves and can't be relied upon to decide the way I'd like them to, and in the end your subjective idea of the Platonic ideal of morality may differ from mine. Mine might be wrong. In any case, as a species, we're not really cut out for Platonic ideals.

But no-one is going to make it better for us; there is no higher power guarding our morals. So I disagree with principle number one, and remain a liberal, for the moment.