Conservatism like any movement keeps evolving when movements are in process and keep changing. How can one know if they have gone off the rails? Is there an Archimedean point from which we can identify the deviation?
To maintain its identity a movement must have an invariant core. That core needs to be expressed in the language of today but it is still a constant. I think that invariant code in Conservatism is the moral instinct of the movement; it is not the solitary instincts of conservative individuals but a collective moral instinct. This moral instinct is expressed as a tradition rather than a code in moral communities.
1. Organic Community and Organized Society
Sociologist Emile Durkheim suggested that with the onset of modernity people live in two worlds: Gemienschaft (Organic Community) and Gesellschaft (Corporate Society)
Moral Community or its religious or secular equivalent is more central to a person’s identity than corporate society with its institutions and companies. People are more emotionally invested and willing to make greater sacrifices for the sake of their moral community.
Corporate society and its institutions are essentially instrumental, characterized by self-interest that does quite often coincide with the self-interest of others.
Since early modernity moral communities have tended to disintegrate. More and more individuals in the west do not identify with any specific moral community. Their links with such communities tend to be tenuous. Such persons move to an ethic of autonomy away from an ethic of community. Such persons do not comprehend the meaning and respect for the traditions and authorities of specific moral communities. They may see them as benign or even pointless and will wish to avoid offending them. They see no universal moral dimension in them and often consider them as arbitrary and unaesthetic.
Durkheim used the term “anomie” to refer to the growing disconnect between individuals and moral communities as gemeinschaft gave way to gesellschaft. He saw it as pathology. Jonathan Haidt suggests that this makes ethics intuitive to the human mind and not primarily embedded in community narratives and codes.
The third entity a moral community has to relate to is the State. A community is composed of members who choose to submit to its authority because they identify themselves with its ethos. The State, on the contrary, imposes obligations on all within its geographical scope.
A moral conservative tradition recognizes that people who choose to be part of moral communities have a strong sense of a community identity. Being part of a moral community, particularly a religious community is more than an ideology one chooses. It is grounded in a sense of continuity with something you belong to and from that flow obligations to affiliation and practice that are profound and not products of rational choice.
John Locke writes in his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) Religious affiliation and practice constitute mankind’s highest obligation. James Madison who drafted the First Amendment of the US Constitution wrote: Before anyone is considered as a member of civil society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the universe. Both place obligation at the heart of moral communities rather than choice or rights.
Being a member of a moral community should be distinguished from being citizen of a state. Roger Scruton writes” Citizenship is precisely not a form of brotherhood of a kind that flows from a shared act of heartfelt submission. It is a relationship among strangers, a collective apartness in which fulfillment and meaning are confined to the private sphere” from “Forgiveness and Irony” City Journal 19:1(winter 2009) The state is gesellschaft not gemeinschaft. The state must not be burdened with roles in moral affairs that it is ill equipped to carry out.
Moshe Koppel whose work I have drawn on extensively in this reflection uses the triadic hypothesis of Paul Rozen and his team of three types of moral instincts to understand the moral features of communities.
They are the Ethics of Autonomy, the Ethics of Community and the Ethics of Divinity.
The Ethics of Autonomy is centered on practices and violations of individual freedom and rights. The Ethics of Community is about the practices and violations of community solidarity and hierarchy. The Ethics of Divinity is concerned with the practices and violations of divinity and purity.
Increasingly, the ethics of autonomy with its focus on freedom and rights has taken a universal character. There is a universalistic faith in moral absolutes like fairness, justice and equality. They are considered objective, self evident and real. Rights become absolute but concepts like good and evil, sin and immorality are relative unless they can be translated into the language of rights that may give them the stature of a moral absolute.
Those who see rights as absolute tend to be relativist in relation to any other ethics and morality particularly community ethics.
Along with this is the view shaped by Critical Theory that sees power dominating cultural systems to subjugate. It attacks community ethics by considering communities moral narratives, codes and practices as designed to control, subjugate and oppress. Hugh Heclo writes in On Thinking Institutionally, “ All cultural inheritances are something to see through, go beyond and get over” P.95 Boulder, Paradigm 2008
When one turns to ethical practice the ethics of autonomy and the ethics of community are integrally connected and interdependent. Any line between them is illusory. A Libertarian conception of community makes individual choice paramount and ethics of community marginal. It privileges a narcissistic freedom and generates an unfettered greed for self expression
A moral conservatism develops equilibrium of the ethics of autonomy, community and divinity. And that equilibrium is not primarily in a code but in a collective moral instinct expressed in a tradition that is lived out. As a collective moral instinct it is expressed in a tradition rather than a code as codification forces us to frame problems in terms of discrete choices, precisely in areas where such choices are least productive— Law, doctrine and community solidarity.