Thursday, September 19, 2002

Some Recent Nonsense and Being Conservative

A couple of things on our plate today.

The idea that not stopping foreign famines is morally equivalent to murder is in the news again. Some academic philosopher thinks that we we had it coming on 9/11 because we are murderers, having not given our money to the starving in Africa.

We give plenty in foreign aid. Much of it is wasted because the recipients cannot solve their problems. In some cases we're throwing good money after bad, and, a la Malthus, creating even more suffering by perpetuating the dysfunction.

But leave all that aside. The point is that there is a vast moral difference between not acting to save someone and murdering him. It's common sense, but many academic philosophers deny it. They demand some grand theory by which to make the distinction valid, but none is to be found. And there are odd cases in which not saving someone is as bad as murder. Imagine staring and laughing at a child who has just been hit by a car. You could save him, but you just watch him bleed to death. That's close enough to murder. In the vast majority of cases, however, allowing harm is not as bad as doing harm. There is no grand theory. Philosophy professors are handsomely paid to think there needs to be one and to seek it. Instead, just use common sense. (I am a philosophy professor, and I can assure you that you are at least as well prepared to make a sound moral judgment as any philosophy professor.)

Here's the deal: In our society we uphold the values of self-reliance and the right to keep what you procure. If we made the duty to help others as stringent as the duty not to harm them, we would have to give up those values. You'd have no right to your property; you'd have to give it to others. You wouldn't have to rely on yourself; you'd just rely on others. Instead, we uphold a duty to help others to some degree (libertarianism is false, as I've shown below), and we maintain the values of self-reliance and private property. Our values are coherent. We rightly stand by them.

Leftists reject our entire system of value. Leftism is not just one moral standpoint amongst others; it's a rejection of the morals we hold dear. Don't do it. Be conservative:

Being Conservative

Forget all that jive nonsense. Let's talk about something that really matters: being conservative. Philosoblog has already given good reasons to avoid leftism and full-blown libertarianism. So, just uphold the tried and true traditional moral values of the Western tradition. Let fall by the wayside only those values that have been shown to be faulty. Uphold the rest. That's conservatism.

What if there are values that you don't have any reason to think faulty, but don't have complete evidence to believe true? Uphold them with utter devotion. That's the heart of conservatism. Unless you're a genius with a vast sea of social experience under your belt, you don't know everything about humanity. Why say "please" and "thank you"? Why go to funerals? Why get married? Why is it worse to hurt someone than to fail to stop someone from being hurt? You don't know. You just trust that these things are right. You don't have time to check all the values you're given to see whether they are fully grounded in good reason. So, you must uphold the ones that have stood the test of time and been found by thousands of your forebears to be worthy of living by. The guts of conservatism is this: take these traditional values very seriously.

Here are some values: hard work, self-reliance, education, helpfulness, developing talents that fulfill you and are useful to society, the duty to help the unfortunate, monogamy and staying together for the sake of the children, praising and instilling discipline in your children, tolerating dissent but arguing against it when it's wrongheaded, etc. There are others you can think of. None of these values has been proven to be incorrect. It hasn't been proven that disobeying them leads to good lives and respect for others. Better be conservative about these.

But don't be undiscriminating. Here are two traditional values the violation of which has been shown to be perfectly consistent with leading a good life and respecting others:

1. Don't be homosexual.

2. Be religious.

People have tried being unreligious and homosexual, and many of them have had good lives. The jury is in; these two values have to go. (This is not to say that being heterosexual and being religious are not things to value, as well, of course.) Conservatism has a duty: to monitor the traditional values and be sure that none of them has been impeached. (Would someone please tell National Review that it's okay to be a gay atheist? Nevermind, I don't think they care.) When you find a rotten apple in the bunch, cast it out. That's what Abe Lincoln did to the old value that said, "It's okay to enslave blacks."

An alternative: be progressivist or radical. If you think you don't need thousands of years of tradition to help you figure out what is right, if you think you're smart, you can invent human values from scratch. Yes, go for it, be a progressivist. Join in with Mao, Stalin, Lenin, the Terror, Pol Pot, and the postmodern, and socialist professors of the contemporary university who claim that the U.S. murders every Arican who starves to death. You never know what sort of exciting terrain you could come into by letting your mind wander free of traditional values. I'm stacking the deck? Surely there has been a success story in progressivism? Name one. I'm not talking about abolition, women's liberation, or the improvement of labor conditions. These are all cases of conservatively applying our values to cases where something was found to be amiss in our tradition. It was conservative values on freedom, equality, and decency that accomplished these things. All that was called "progressive" back in the old days. But the progressivism of today is radical stuff. It yeilds only Stalin, Mao, and befuddled professors.

Another alternative: be a libertarian, instead. Forget tradition; liberty is the only value. It trumps all others. If you could just eliminate authority, you'd be happy. You just want to be left alone. Being left alone to do what you want is happiness, no matter what tradition says. There is no duty to others or to the maintenance of traditional values. If the millions of people in our tradition had not sacrificed much of themselves to the tradition as something higher than themselves, something worthy of being nourished and sustained, we would be just fine now, right? "That was their choice. I have my choice." Libertarianism means freedloading on a tradition of value. Sure, it's possible to be a libertarian who devotes himself to traditional values. Such a person is just like a conservative, except he believes in a strictly free market and no duty to help the unfortunate. But how many libertarians like that have you heard of? No, libertarians usually have it in for authority all around.

The moral of the story is that we may relax and stay the same. We should uphold our values and not change them. It would be wrong to go against our values. Use common sense. Don't listen to academic philosophers who tell you your values are deeply wrong. These are idiotarians. Study your tradition and cultural heritage of value. Embrace it and take it seriously. Don't just relax; this tradition is under fire. It is the only important thing there is besides being alive.