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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Social conservatism and libertarianism

I met Joseph Quesnel at last year's Liberty Summer Seminar. He was thoughtful, erudite, and a nice guy all-around. So it comes as no surprise that he would be the author of this magnificent essay on social conservatism and libertarianism in the C2C Journal of Conservative Ideas.

An excerpt:

"Thus, it would be illogical for a social conservative to declare that they want to impose their beliefs and morality on society.  That would be a violation of the right of religious conscience. Within the New Testament, Christ spoke often of the Kingdom of God in the future tense and as distinct from the earthly realm.  His will was that individuals come to repentance and change their individual lives. There was never any mention of imposing the Kingdom of Heaven on earth or forcing people to accept beliefs they disagreed with.  After all, most of the sins and sanctions mentioned within the Bible are applicable only to Christians who voluntarily accept them. This is one area social conservatives need to work on.  Without compromising their beliefs, their judgments could be better spent in making existing believers more committed than in judging those who do not come under their moral code.  This would entail social conservatives disentangling their morality from the justice system, which may prove a problem with some.

"This social conservative belief in individual conscience is what allows it to enter into conversation with libertarianism.  If religious conviction is ultimately private, there is room for other conceptions of the moral good life in society.  It would be immoral to impose a religious vision on another. It stands to reason within most religions or moral codes that they are more meaningful if they are arrived at through genuine faith coming from the individual.

"Therefore, there is absolutely no contradiction between holding social conservative beliefs and being libertarian as a matter of policy. As long as social conservatives do not try to legislate their values or impose them on others, they are following the libertarian commitment of respect for individual rights."

Bravo! There is more to be said about this, and Joseph spends a lot of his essay saying much,  much more. Do head on over, and read the piece in its entirety. It is worth the time it takes to read it.

I should note that I'm always surprised by how much content some want to stuff into "libertarianism." At bottom, libertarianism is a commitment about what government institutions should look like, the concept alone does not tell us exactly why government institutions should look like that. As Joe makes plain, you can be a thorough-going social conservative, and still have a commitment to liberty and small government; a commitment to generating social conservative outcomes through persuasion, rather than at the point of a gun.

Posted by P.M. Jaworski on January 29, 2008 in Religion | Permalink

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Comments

"As Joe makes plain, you can be a thorough-going social conservative, and still have a commitment to liberty and small government; a commitment to generating social conservative outcomes through persuasion, rather than at the point of a gun."


That is a method that is lost on the Left side of the fence. It is the Socialist thug who is quick to employ violence to have his way. History proved that time and again.

Posted by: John West | 2008-01-29 1:29:39 PM


I briefly scanned Quesnel's essay and he doesn't mention John Rawls, but the excerpt you present here certainly has a Rawlsian flavor to it. More than a flavor, in fact.

According to Quesnel, "It would be illogical for a social conservative to declare that they want to impose their beliefs and morality on society." He suggests that social conservatives should "disentangle" their morality from the justice system. But no one really thinks that morality _as such_ should be disentangled -- separated -- from the law.

What he means is that morality should be partitioned, with one part having a proper role to play in the formation of the law, and not the other part. Most people divide up the demands of morality along these lines.

So how does Quesnel think this this partition should be drawn? He tells us:
"If religious conviction is ultimately private, there is room for other conceptions of the moral good life in society. It would be immoral to impose a religious vision on another."

So basing law on a particular "religious vision" does an injustice to those who do not share that vision. This is how the partition should be drawn: only morality that is commonly affirmed should inform the law.

This is the dilemma I see for Quesnel: if he really believes that the only moral judgments that should inform the law are those that are commonly affirmed, then I don't know how he can be called a social conservative. From what I know, social conservatives think people are corrupt, and that there is no guarantee that common attitudes will track the moral truth. Sometimes, morality will have to be imposed on people. Disagreement about the morality of X is not a reason, in itself, to refrain from prohibiting X.

Of course, conservatives tend to believe in moral truth, and I'm not sure Quesnel does. But suppose he does. How do we make sense of this distinction between the kind of morality that can be imposed via the law and the kind that can't? If X is truly immoral, I may still think it a bad idea to prohibit X for several reasons. I could believe that prohibiting X would create even more evil than allowing it to go on. I could have a kind of threshold view, and believe that only truly wicked behavior should be prohibited. And so on.

At no stage is the decision of whether or not to enforce X via the law contingent solely on the fact that some people think X is perfectly all right to do. Nor should the decision be based on that fact.

What Quesnel says at one point is true: it probably is an injustice to force a person to act according to moral precepts they do not share. Sometimes, this injustice may even be enough to obliterate the moral gain that might accrue from securing their compliance through law. But this is not a certain thing. Sometimes, as in the case of abortion, the injustice of forcing someone to act against her conscience is not as bad as the injustice of allowing the deaths of millions.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2008-01-29 2:38:44 PM


"Sometimes, as in the case of abortion, the injustice of forcing someone to act against her conscience is not as bad as the injustice of allowing the deaths of millions."

This statement was made from the point of view of an anti-abortion person. It is, from within their point of view, based on their morality, a matter of comparing the injustice of forcing a person to act against her conscience versus allowing the deaths of millions.

If one does not believe that abortion is equivalent to murder, then no problem exists, as the injustice of forcing a person to comply with an unjust law is obvious.

This is my view, but I don't pretend that the injustice lies solely in the fact that lots of people disagree about the morality of abortion.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2008-01-29 3:24:37 PM


I enjoyed the article, and agree that libertarians need not be libertines or social liberals, and that libertarianism is simply a philosophy of what law ought to be not an all encompassing moral theory which precludes social conservatism. As a libertarian individual who mostly uncommitted in the 'culture war', I also share Quesnel's vision of a Nozickian "utopia of utopias" or market panarchy.

I am curious however why Quesnel's analysis of prostitution as something which though immoral or undesirable ought to be legal does not carry over to same-sex marriage. If Quesnel has a libertarian notion of law where individuals have equal rights and are not treated as members of classes or genders, it seems that either any two (and perhaps more) individuals can enter into a legally recognized marriage contract, or the state should not recognize marriages at all, but rather should leave that to churches and other voluntary associations and focus only on enforcing contracts. Is Quesnel being inconsistent or am I missing something?

Posted by: Kalim Kassam | 2008-01-29 3:49:37 PM


Terrence wrote: "If one does not believe that abortion is equivalent to murder, then no problem exists, as the injustice of forcing a person to comply with an unjust law is obvious."

Only if you believe that public policy should predicate on belief rather than fact. Of course, a great many people believe that. That doesn't make it just.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2008-01-29 3:52:12 PM


Shane,

In the situation I was describing, the person takes it as a moral fact that abortion is much less evil than murder. It wouldn't make a lot of sense for this person to say, "Abortion is morally equivalent to murder, but I don't believe abortion is morally equivalent to murder." That would be an instance of Moore's paradox.

I was assuming that the person believes his beliefs track the facts, most of the time, as I hope most people do. Thus, I don't really see the importance of your distinction between basing public policy on facts versus basing it on beliefs. Hopefully everyone is trying to propose policy on the basis of their beliefs about the facts (including moral facts.)

Maybe what you're saying is that the belief that abortion is not morally equivalent to murder is _merely_ a belief, while the opposite belief is well grounded and justified based on the evidence? Is that the idea?

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2008-01-29 6:53:11 PM



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