nature of the act

Conservative Interpretations of
Politics and the Liberal Response
I. Traditional Conservatism
A. Principles
Naturalism – What is natural is taken to
be good. Example: Both Plato and
Aristotle tried to show that virtue as
they understood it was natural, not just
a product of human imagination. Vices
were condemned as “unnatural.”
2. Normative Functionalism – Everything
is taken to have a single proper
purpose. Example: Aristotle described
slavery as serving the purpose of
reason ruling over those without it.
3. Virtue Ethics
Defines good acts in terms of what a good
actor would do. The goal is not to identify
justice in particular situations, but to
develop the character trait of being a just
Example: Plato said that justice consists of
reason allying with the spirit to rule over the
appetites. Social justice is the reasoned
element (philosophers) ruling over the
spirited element (courageous soldiers) to
rule the appetitive element (the rabble).
4. Hierarchy
Inequality is viewed as the normal
state of affairs, requiring those who are
more virtuous to rule over the less
virtuous. Democracy is thus
inappropriate for societies in which the
majority is not virtuous.
Example: Burke describes English
aristocracy as having “inherited”
wisdom through many years of
governance, giving them some
5. Incrementalism / Stability
If change is thought to be desirable,
then it should be implemented one
step at a time. Revolutions are
seldom justified. (Burke makes an
exception for “restoring” revolutions)
Example: Aristotle’s Politics contains
a chapter on how to make tyrannies
more stable (incremental reform)
6. Faith-Based Revelation
Emphasized much more by some
traditionalist conservatives than
Burke argued that ignoring everything
but reason led to abstractions
removed from the real world.
Modern Evangelical conservatives
place much more emphasis on this
than incrementalism
B. Liberal Responses
Early liberals attacked every one of these
principles (although not all liberals attacked
all of them)
Naturalism was opposed by Progress
Normative Functionalism was opposed by Utility
Virtue Ethics was opposed by Act-Based Morality
Hierarchy was opposed by Egalitarianism
Incrementalism / Stability were opposed by
Reform and elite-led Revolution
Faith-Based Revelation was opposed by
II. Statist Conservatism (aka
Law and Order, Realism)
A. Principles
Human Nature – People’s natural state
is to be selfish egoists. Example:
“State of nature” theory of Hobbes
argues that natural life is “nasty,
solitary, poor, brutish, and short.”
2. Hierarchy – Only a strong state can
protect people from each other and
from outsiders. Machiavelli urged
leaders to forget about “virtue” if it
impeded the welfare of the “patria”
3. Individualism
Autonomous individuals make
decisions. Individuals may have
natural rights, but these rights are not
realizable in practice. We must limit
some rights to preserve the most
fundamental right of all – life.
Example: The “social contract” theory
of Hobbes stated that individuals
surrender every other right when they
make a polity.
B. Differences from
Naturalism is abandoned
Revelation is downplayed in favor of
Individuals, not groups, become the
unit of analysis.
The concept of rights is incorporated
into the analysis, providing a reason
to support statist/realist solutions
Virtue-based ethics is abandoned in
favor of consequentialist ethics
C. Similarities to Traditionalism
Both emphasize the importance of
hierarchy for controlling unwanted
behavior, although statism tended
towards absolutism while
traditionalism tended towards
constitutional monarchies or limited
Both emphasize stability as very
important (traditionalism) or the most
important end of government
D. Liberal Responses
In many ways, statism was closer to
liberalism than to traditional
conservatism. Liberals agreed with
Individual rights
A government capable of protecting those
Basing arguments on reason rather than
D. Liberal Responses (cont.)
Human nature was seen as containing
both good and bad elements, and
education could develop the good ones
 even “human nature” is not natural
but learned (Rousseau)
Hierarchy was seen as corrupting,
requiring checks on the state
Rights were viewed much more broadly
(including speech and conscience)
III. Conservative Libertarianism:
A Reaction to Statism
Sometimes referred to as
“propertarianism” because property
rights are privileged over all other
rights. Example: Locke sees the right
to life as being justified by the fact
that we own ourselves, opposing
slavery for the same reason.
So close to liberalism that it is often
referred to as “classical liberalism”
A. Principles
1. Human Nature: The same basic
understanding as statist
conservatives  humans are selfish
egoists and always will be. Seeks to
harness egoism. Example: Locke’s
support for capitalism and opposition
to communal (tribal) landowning
2. Individual Rights
Natural rights, including life, liberty,
and property, are paramount
Individualism over collectivism:
rejection of any normative standing
for big government, tribes, organized
religion, etc.
Note that pre-1789 libertarian views had
little to say about the emergence of
monopolies or unions
B. Differences from
Essentially everything:
Conservative libertarians accept natural
inequality, but substitute meritocracy for
hierarchy as a response
Propertarianism violates traditional
values – i.e. commerce is praised rather
than viewed as a necessary evil
Revolution is quite acceptable as a
remedy for rights violations. No
incrementalism here!
C. What Makes Conservative
Libertarians Conservative?
All three variants of conservatism take
some form of inequality to be normal
(if not natural) and desirable
All three variants oppose liberalism,
particularly its emphasis on
All three variants rely on “natural law”
and the idea that most people are
V. Key Problems for post-1789
political theory
A. The problem of act-based ethical
Traditionalists accept agent-based moral
theories (virtue ethics), but what do these
have to tell us about specific policies?
Most modern political theorists – both
Conservative (statist realists, libertarians) and
Liberal -- accept act-based moral theories.
But these theories were poorly-developed
during the Enlightenment. How do we know if
an act is right or wrong, without resorting to
traditional virtues?
3. Moral inconsistency before 1789
Example: Hobbes on honoring the social contract
Hobbes says breaking it leads to anarchy, which
is a practical death sentence (consequences
determine morality)
Hobbes also says that breaking a contract is a
form of contradiction, and therefore irrational
(nature of the act determines morality)
Problem: What should we do if contradiction
(lying, breaking a contract, etc) leads to good
consequences? Which standard is more
Problem is common: Plato/Aristotle say virtue is
good in itself, good for you, and good for society.
What if one of these statements is false but the
others are true? How should one choose?
4. Why do we care?
Most interesting political disputes involve conflicts
between values: liberty vs. equality, good ends vs.
unpleasant means, good intentions vs. bad
consequences, etc.
Should we torture suspected terrorists to extract
Should we threaten to destroy cities full of innocent
civilians in order to protect our own innocent civilians?
Should we execute people if doing so fails to deter
Should we respect property rights if property owners
want to discriminate against other races?
Is it OK for the US government to lie to its citizens about
whether it is testing biological weapons?
If gays want to marry, how to we know how to respond?
B. Paradoxes of liberalism
1. Basic assumptions of liberalism
Rationalism: The world can be comprehended through the
use of reason, as opposed to revelation, intuition, or
Teleology: History moves in a progressive fashion – new is
usually better than old and natural is not necessarily good.
Rejects myths of a “golden age”
Individual Autonomy: People have autonomous wills and
are capable of rational choice to fulfill their preferences.
Implies that society should be structured on the basis of
mutual respect for some fundamental list of rights, to
include being treated as rational, autonomous, and equal
Egalitarianism: People have equal worth and more or less
equal basic abilities. Implies that any inequality we
observe must be the result of policy or choice, not natural
Pluralism: Society is best served by having multiple,
competing points of view (the marketplace of ideas) and
multiple ways of living
2. Opposing tendencies in
a. Paradox of liberal democracy:
Natural equality of autonomous
individuals means we all have equal
rights, so a majority cannot justly be
ruled by a minority. BUT what if the
majority wishes to violate the rights
of a minority?
b. Paradox of Pluralism
If having multiple views is necessary
and good, then how can liberalism
claim to be the best political
viewpoint? If everyone was liberal
wouldn’t that destroy pluralism?
How should liberals react to nonliberals who don’t share the ideal of
pluralism? Limiting their speech or
political participation would be antiliberal.
c. Paradox of Egalitarianism
Society is characterized by hierarchy
and inequality. According to liberal
assumptions of egalitarianism, this is
neither “natural” nor desirable. But
what if inequality is produced by
rational human choices? Efforts to
limit inequality would limit individual
autonomy (rights) and pluralism.
d. Paradox of Cosmopolitanism
Since all people are worthy of equal
respect, we must treat all people as equal,
but this raises a contradiction:
A one-world government where
everyone enjoys equal rights may fail to
respect people with patriotic (nationalist)
views or destroy pluralism.
But the present division of the world into
nation-states must violate autonomy or
egalitarianism – either by governing
citizens in the interest of non-citizens or
by treating citizens and non-citizens
3. Unanswered Questions
a. Are political rights more deserving of
protection than property rights?
b. Does the greatest danger to liberty come
from government power or discrimination
by our fellow citizens?
c. How can democratic self-government be
reconciled with the rights of economic,
racial, or religious minorities?
d. Does a community owe duties to
individuals? How might social welfare be
e. Should government work to ensure equal
opportunities – and not merely equal
rights -- for all citizens?
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