Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Foundation of Conservative Thought

Since we just got through an election and most are still somewhat in a political mindset, I’ve wanted to write a little something clarifying just what the Conservative position is. Of course, immediately we have to acknowledge that there are many different people with many different political philosophies who all try to take the mantle of “Conservative” upon themselves. That is because, as polls during the latest election bear out, “Conservativism” is a “winning” label whereas “Liberalism” is a “losing” label. Indeed, more people claimed to be Conservative than claimed to be Republican in this election; however, far more people claimed to be Democrat than claimed to be Liberal. In other words, in terms of self-identification, Conservative and Democrat are both viewed favorably but Republican and Liberal are both viewed unfavorably.

While anyone can claim to be anything they want to be, I am not interested in those who claim to be something just because it is a winning label. So this post will examine the foundation of Conservative thought. It should be noted that it is certainly possible for someone to inconsistently hold to the major tenets of Conservative philosophy without agreeing to the foundational presuppositions that support it (e.g. many Libertarians on fiscal issues).

What is that foundation then? At first glance, we might be tempted to say it is human rights. That is, Conservativism is born out of a desire to be consistent with our Founding Father’s concepts of the rights of man. Why do Conservatives believe that lower taxes are better? It is not a pragmatic reason, such as how beneficial it is to our economy—even though it is indeed true that lower taxes are beneficial to the economy! It is because Conservatives believe that all human beings have the right to their own property. What I own is fully under my control to do with as I see fit, and no one—no government, no other individual—has the right to force me to do something with my property that I do not wish to do.

Furthermore, we can look at the Second Amendment. Why is it that Conservatives argue that the right to bear arms is something that cannot be taken away by the government? It is not simply because that’s what the Constitution says (although that is indeed what the Constitution says). It is because we have the right to life and liberty, and that means we have the right to protect our life and liberty.

But human rights need to be justified too. We cannot simply assert that they exist; we must argue for why they exist. And that means that, at its root, Conservativism is based not in human rights but upon theistic principals. And lest someone quibble, this is the actual reason given by the Fathers themselves. Before the Constitution was formed, the Colonists had to provide justification for why they threw off the yolk of England. If their rebellion was illegitimate, their Constitution was illegitimate too. That’s why they took such care to write the Declaration of Independence, to provide their reasoned argument as to why they were justified in breaking from England. The Declaration begins:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to separation.
The Declaration begins, in other words, by asserting that there are “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” that entitle us to certain rights. Without Natural Law given by Nature’s God, there are no rights. And what are those rights?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new Government, laying its foundation on such principals and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
So we see that our rights come, not from the whim of any man, but because we are endowed with them by our Creator. Furthermore, we see that Government is established “to secure these rights.” That is its primary purpose.

It should be noted that thus far we are not concerning ourselves with what aspect of theism fits. After all, while most of the Founding Fathers were Christians and the culture was definitely shaped by Christianity, there were also many Fathers who were only deists, and there were even some atheists who signed on. It is beyond the scope of this post for me to go into the reasons why Christianity provides the strongest rationale for these rights in comparison to other religions. Instead, I will focus briefly on why atheism cannot give us these same human rights.

If we take away rights endowed by our Creator, how do we establish those rights as actual rights? We cannot do so in any manner that escapes arbitrary decrees. For example, it might be argued that our intellect is what gives us those rights; that because man is the rational animal, he has human rights. But if we say that, then those who are more intelligent must have more human rights than those who are less intelligent. If the foundation of our rights is based on intellect, then this is inescapable: the geniuses have more rights than the imbeciles.

Yet we instinctively know that it is not the case that smarter people have more rights. We know that intellect is not a philosophically meaningful distinction when determining rights. We cannot keep someone enslaved, away from education, and claim that we have not violated his rights because we are smarter than he is.

If we instead argue that just as the Fathers said that Government derives its power “from the consent of the governed” our rights come from the consent of humanity as a whole then we still have not escaped the problem. After all, not all humans give the same consent. To cite the overly-used, yet crystal clear analogy: Nazis did not consider Jews to have human rights. We did not consider the Nazis to have the right to act consistently with those principals. Which view is right?

Under the position that the consent of the people determines human rights, neither position is right or wrong. We have two groups of people who disagree; there is no consent as to whether Jews have rights. Therefore, what prevails is nothing but might makes right. Nazis were wrong not because they were philosophically wrong but only because they lost World War II. If the Allies had been weaker, the consent of the world would have been that Jews are not human.

Once again, that concept is alien to us. Philosophically, our rights do not change simply because the whims of a group of individuals have changed. This is not a meaningful reason for our rights to change. Or rather, if it is a meaningful reason then our rights are worthless.

Human rights require a transcendent truth. They require objective truth that all men are, as part of their very being, deserving of specific rights. These rights cannot arise from nature alone. Evolution cannot explain how these rights got there, for man is but one evolutionary branch of billions. There is nothing that distinguishes man amongst the animals other than intellect, and as we’ve seen that would result in the smarter people having more human rights than the unintelligent. The only possible way we can have unalienable rights is if something higher than ourselves has given them to us.

Human rights come about because of the ontology of the human. We recognize them because of our being, not because of anything granted by any government or any group of people. It is precisely because these things do not depend on our size, location, level of development, sex, race, or beliefs that “all men are created equal” is true. That equality is found in our human ontology, and that comes about because man is created in the image of God.

With this in mind, we can sum up the basic Conservative ideology. Man has been endowed with the rights of Life, Liberty, and property (understood as the pursuit of happiness). These rights are God-given rights, not Government-granted rights. As such, any Government that would deprive anyone of those rights without proper justification is an unjust Government. The role of Government is to secure those rights for those who are governed. This means that the Government does have the right to tax its citizens consistent with securing those rights; but any taxes that are not consistent with securing those rights are unjustly depriving citizens of property. This means that Government has the right to defend our country from enemies, both domestic and foreign, by creating a police force and army; but it also means that Government cannot interfere with our own actions to secure our freedoms too (such as our right to bear arms).

Unfortunately, life is never as cut and dried as bare-bones philosophy will make it. To use an easy example, was the War in Iraq based on Conservative principals? It depends to a large extent on whether you believe the War is an attempt to secure our right to Life that terrorists seek to deprive of us. Insofar as we have not had another terrorist attack on America since 9/11, it is quite possibly due to the fact that we are engaging the enemy overseas. This would be consistent with the Government defending us from attack. On the other hand, it is also possible that the terrorists would not have been capable of another attack even had we left Iraq alone. That would make the War in Iraq unnecessary to secure out freedoms in America.

The net result is that it is quite possible for Conservatives to support or not support the War in Iraq and still remain Conservative.

On the other hand, consider abortion on demand (as opposed to abortion to save the life of the mother). Since human rights are based on our humanity, not any concept of “personhood” or the location of the human being or the developmental status, then the Conservative position must always be against abortion on demand. The unborn is a human being; that is the only thing that human beings can create via reproduction. The unborn therefore has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

On the other hand, abortion to save the life of the mother is not against Conservative principals because in that case the objective is not to deprive the life of the unborn, but to save the life of the mother. The unintended consequence is the unborn child also dies. We ought to do whatever we can to minimize the possibility of the death of the unborn, but when it is inevitable it is not against Conservative ideals to support abortion in those cases.

One final word should be noted. It is certainly possible for someone to be Conservative on some issues and not on others. People are, by and large, inconsistent. They tend to have a hodge-podge of beliefs, many of them contradictory, that they subscribe to. So it is possible that someone can be a fiscal Conservative while not being a social Conservative. But the logic of Conservative thought does boil down to our God-given rights, and therefore one is justified in weighing whether any particular issue coheres to those presuppositions. Since people can be (and often are) inconsistent, it should be no surprise at all that there is a wide range of belief amongst those who would call themselves Conservative; but that is no grounds to say that we should accept all those positions as being equally Conservative. Nor is the existence of those contradictory people evidence that Conservativism itself is incoherent or lacks a real presupposition.


  1. We all have a "right to life".

    What does that mean in practical terms? Yes, we are forbidden from actively taking the life of another (at least unless we can summon enough reasons or "evidence" that it is warranted), but beyond that .. what?

    Does that right imply that society has a moral and/or legal obligation to preserving that life? Say, for instance, that a man comes to a hospital with some form of trauma that will end his life if some form of action is not taken. Unfortunately, that man has no insurance.

    Now, are you saying that there is or is not a moral obligation for society to do what it should to preserve that man's life? If there is a moral obligation, is there also a legal obligation?

    It seems that the conservative opinion is "no" to both. There is no "right" to free health care, no matter what the situation. If you're among the unfortunates who couldn't land a job with coverage, tough luck. This is evident from the barrage of criticism leveled at "Hilary care" which has been labeled with the most evil and malevolent of terms.

    So, the conservative thought is that one has a "right" to life only insofar as that one can keep oneself alive. Otherwise, society has no moral or legal obligation to extend your life in any way just because you don't have the means to keep your heart beating yourself.

    Perhaps you think that there's a moral obligation but not a legal obligation. That's fine, but how is this obligation supposed to be fulfilled? Should someone in dire need make cold calls to individuals or their local churches?

  2. Peter,

    A brilliant overview of the foundation of Conservative thought; a tour-de-force actually.

    Peter Pike --> Pundit --?--> Politician.

    Do it! If you're in California, you got my vote!

  3. Peter, thanks for this post. As I tell my kids, "the primary demarcation among people is those who believe in God, and those who don't." But that raises a question.

    ... consider abortion on demand ... Since human rights are based on our humanity, not any concept of “personhood” or the location of the human being or the developmental status, then the Conservative position must always be against abortion on demand. The unborn is a human being; that is the only thing that human beings can create via reproduction. The unborn therefore has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

    All of us here (those of us here in good will) want to end the abortion problem. It would seem from your argument that the only way to "end abortion as we know it" is to invoke God: to work for, pray for, the conversion of those radical "pro-choice" powers that be. Those who have hijacked the very understanding of the issue by making this a question of "a woman's right to choose." That is insidious, but nevertheless, it has been enshrined in the public consciousness.

    Is that correct? Is there a "natural law" argument that could possibly turn the tide of this argument? One that would "make sense" to the atheistic mind for whom "choice" is the all-good "Liberty" (in the triad of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.")

    In talking with individuals who believe this way, I have been told that the fetus is a "tabula rasa," that is, even if it has "rights," the "rights" of this fetus (which is in essence, nothing of value) pale in comparison with a living, breathing woman whose life would be terribly infringed upon if this fetus were to be allowed to live. There truly is no remorse for the dead fetus.

    In this case, invoking "God" is meaningless to this individual.

    This is one reason why I have looked toward "two kingdoms" theology (as espoused by Michael Horton in his work, "Where in the World is the Church?" :

    His contention is that "the church must be the church," that is, Sundays must be devoted to worship of the Lord, and not to preaching about political issues as we are discussing here. The premise is that the church, as the church, is in a position to be the light of Christ in the world, which again, will be the answer that must be provided to my "tabula rasa" friend (better than anything I could say to him in an argument.)

    That is, yes, we could, by force, enact laws prohibiting abortion. But these, themselves, would not be capable of persuading those such as my atheist friend, and no matter what progress is made through the enacting of laws, it would be undone in such times as we see now, with a President Obama who believes in "choice."

    What form of persuasion would be necessary to end this pendulum swing, and persuade most people, on a fairly permanent basis, that the conceived child has a full right to life?

    This, in a nutshell, is where I am hanging.


    You have to see this.

  5. James,

    First it should be noted that many of the problems you bring up are only problems because of how Liberals have run the health care industry so far. Were it not for the excessive red tape that hospitals have to go through, were it not for the excessive malpractice lawsuits, were it not for the regulations that do not allow the medical industry to recoup their expenses via the market, then health care would not cost so much that being without insurance would immediately be a problem. In other words, you're basically asking me for a Conservative fix to a Liberal problem without scrapping the Liberal system in the first place.

    You ask if there is a moral obligation for society to do what they can to protect life. Yes, within reason. But suppose that someone jumps off a bridge in a suicide attempt and, due to internal injuries, requires a kidney transplant. Their injuries are caused by their own actions, and I doubt very much that you would be willing to pay for this person's medical care under normal circumstances.

    Or take a less extreme case. Suppose someone gets in a car accident without wearing a seatbelt. That person knows his risk of injury goes up if he does not wear a seatbelt. Why should the taxpayer be required to subsidize his idiacy because he didn't want to put his seatbelt on?

    And that brings up another point. If I am on the hook for paying for someone's health care, then I should have the right to limit what kinds of actions they can and cannot do. In other words, if I am paying for your health care, then logically I have the right to demand that you not smoke, not drink, not eat fast food, not engage in any reckless behavior, etc. So to the extent that you require others to pay for your own healthcare, you give up your right to live as you please.

    Now you can try to couch it, as you did, by saying:
    So, the conservative thought is that one has a "right" to life only insofar as that one can keep oneself alive.

    But A) if it weren't for stupid government programs in the first place, you wouldn't need to find a job that specifically provided healthcare because you could afford it yourself; and B) people have the right to liberty as well as the right to life, and if these two come into conflict, we allow people to keep their freedoms and deal with the consequences of their decisions.

  6. TUAD said:
    Peter Pike --> Pundit --?--> Politician.

    No thanks. I still have dignity!