The Conservative Virtue

In contemporary America, the most glamorous of the virtues is undoubtedly justice. On battlefields, courage will always shine more brightly, but few have experience of hand-to-hand combat today. Moral courage is in even scarcer supply. In domestic politics, on the other hand, justice still shimmers aloft for impressionable persons seeking a north star for their idealism. The other cardinal virtues, not so much. We have social justice warriors but not prudence warriors or moderation warriors.

Justice in its modern form also has the advantage of making few demands on its acolytes. Back when justice was truly a virtue, being just was a real challenge, as Aristotle and Cicero taught. Rendering to each his due required experienced judgement of men and affairs, a disposition to recognize the fair claims of others, a willingness to accept arbitration, and the habit of refraining from pleonexia, meaning the tendency to grab more for yourself than you deserve. You had to learn how to weigh claims of merit against claims to equality. Those were not easy moral skills to acquire. They required a good upbringing, practice, and careful thought.

Modern justice, by contrast, is only another algorithm to be solved. It’s an abstract and absolute “value” that can be reduced to a set of rules developed by theorists, politicians, bureaucrats, and courts, and is best enforced by state power. Successful implementation of rules can be judged by “metrics,” which will always fall short of the ideal: since perfect justice by definition can never be achieved, performance on metrics will always be suboptimal. This guarantees full employment for the populous class of social science Ph.D.s who are confident they know how society can be made more just. Once we have the algorithm, we can all (in the Marcusian phrase) “work towards” justice.

For politicians, justice always involves “fighting,” another glamorous activity. Politicians who champion justice, like my home-state senator Elizabeth Warren, are always “fighting for you” because, obviously, no one can receive justice without state intervention. The struggle for justice is impatient with delays and deliberation. Delays are caused by benighted people who want to cling to the fruits of oppression. To invoke a need for prudence shows bad faith, a lack of commitment to the cause. On the justice-seeking left, questions of prudence, at most, are about how much and how soon, never “whether”; and the answer is never “never.” It is never asked whether the correct answer to any proposed leftist scheme should just be “no.” Or maybe, “No!”

Ferenc Hörcher, a prominent Hungarian political scientist, wants to challenge the progressive empire of justice. He wants to raise up Prudence—practical reasoning, Aristotle’s phronesis—as the conservative virtue par excellence. Even more ambitiously, he wants to make prudence, along with the virtue of moderation, the basis of a political philosophy of conservatism. Hörcher is a disciple of the late, great Sir Roger Scruton, who had more vital connections with intellectuals in Poland, Czechoslovakia (as it then was), and Hungary than in Britain or America. Hörcher wants to build on Scruton’s project of giving theoretical depth to conservative intuitions, what the neo-Marxist left typically sees as mere ideological excretions of the oppressing classes.

From the beginning of his career, Scruton had to address this very question: whether conservatism could count as a legitimate political philosophy alongside materialistic political theories such as utilitarianism and Marxism and the family of high liberal theories descended from Kant and Hegel. When Scruton first began writing on politics, as he reports in the introduction to The Meaning of Conservatism (3rd edition), the very idea of a conservative philosophy was regarded as absurd by academe and the chattering classes. Conservatism was generally regarded as incapable of theoretical treatment. It was merely a timorous, emotional reluctance to make needed changes, driven by outdated attachments to the past and underwritten by dubious commitments to religion and bourgeois culture. You couldn’t make a coherent political theory out of a disposition to keep the communion silver polished or to collect royal knick-knacks. Burke was considered more of an orator than a thinker; de Maistre’s throne-and-altar conservatism was too limited in time and place; Oakeshott was a theoretical minimalist; and older philosophers in the Western tradition were regarded as irrelevant to modern concerns.

Scruton recognized that the market-driven conservatism of Hayek and Friedman that had captured the allegiance of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan would always be at a rhetorical disadvantage in the public mind. A commitment to freedom was too easily caricatured as a philosophy of self-interest and even plain selfishness. It couldn’t compete on a moral plane, especially among the young, with the glories of Fighting for Justice. Friedman and Hayek, neither of them trained as political philosophers, couldn’t compete in the academy with the formidable John Rawls of Harvard. Scruton thus set about building a conservative political philosophy that could legitimately be deployed on the side of the angels. He elaborated a non-reductive account of morality, defended religious belief, and laid down theoretical foundations for conservative versions of social anthropology, aesthetics, animal rights, and environmentalism. His goal was to inculcate a love of the goods we already possessed, a loyal affection that might help society tap the brakes and moderate the rage for Justice Now!

Scruton’s overall project requires a form of practical wisdom that involves weighing the value of present goods against prospective ones, spotting moral hazards, evaluating means and motives, and judging the likelihood that programs that have already failed will succeed when tried just one more time. Hörcher thinks that a conservative political philosophy can be built, precisely, around the kind of balanced, prudent reasoning conservatives use to make public choices.

If we wish to live well, we have to accept the limits of human knowledge, practice the virtues, and cultivate what is fine and beautiful in ourselves and our societies.

Hörcher’s book is divided into two parts. The first part presents an intellectual history aiming to show that a deep tradition of prudential reasoning already exists in the West. The second part of the book tries to argue that what is needed to preserve the Western tradition against radical egalitarian justice-mongers is a practice of political reasoning that dethrones the current scientistic or algorithmic style of reasoning in politics and replaces it with a theoretically enriched version of Aristotelian phronesis.

Hörcher’s is what I would describe as a bad good book: it lays out numerous fresh avenues for reflection and provides an outline of how practical reasoning might be reformed, but its style is leaden and it lacks the virtues of clear exposition. One sympathizes: linguistically, the road from Hungary to the Anglosphere is a long one, and the mitteleuropäisch mode of argument as textual exegesis does not translate well to an intellectual world formed by analytical philosophy and quantitative social science. Hörcher is good at showing alternatives but not at arguing for them.

The first, historical part of the book is more satisfactory. Hörcher draws attention to a real tradition of practical reasoning about politics in early modern Europe (the “golden age” of prudence) that had roots in Aristotle, Cicero, and Aquinas but comes to maturity in the centuries extending from humanist literati of the quattrocento, through Machiavelli and Guicciardini, then down to Giovanni Botero, Montaigne, and Lipsius. The theoretical elaboration within this tradition was motivated by the tension between humanist virtue politics, the amoral realism of Machiavelli, and later reason-of-state theorists who tried to subordinate Machiavelli’s science of political power to moral ends. The tradition was challenged by Hobbes’ mechanistic view of human nature and ultimately subverted by the Enlightenment Science of Man. Hörcher claims that the twentieth century saw revivals of prudentia in the work of philosophers like Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, Bernard Williams, and Raymond Geuss. These philosophers according to Hörcher bracket “highbrow notions of . . . fairness, equality, [and] justice,” and foreground the role of the phronimos in the “daily business of human communities to deliberate, decide, speak and act for the common good.”

The second part of Hörcher’s book is less successful. Hörcher explains how conservatives could theorize prudentia as the ruling principle of their political praxis. He shows how a conservative praxis could constrain the ambitious politics of the left by critiquing its beliefs about time, scientific knowledge, and human agency. History is not going in one direction and does not require us to guide it. Human agency should seek guidance in history and tradition rather than trusting to the predictive powers of human reason. (Contrast with Nancy Pelosi’s recent triumphalist statement in Ukraine that “the best way to predict the future is to make it.”) The best person to manage human affairs and rectify past errors is not the scientist but the phronimos who possesses the virtues, historical wisdom, skills born of experience, and a healthy respect for our human capacity to screw things up. A prudent magistrate will always prefer moderate government (in Montesquieu’s sense) to micromanagement.

Where Hörcher does not fully succeed is in showing how a reformed praxis of prudence can be made the basis for a conservative political philosophy, and why that political philosophy would be any more attractive to young idealists than Hayekian neo-liberalism. He fails to integrate his reconstructed phronesis into a wider theory of human nature, society, or the state. More surprisingly, he has little to say about virtue education—how political actors can be educated in prudence—a major concern of early modern prudence. Above all, and unlike his mentor Roger Scruton, he fails to spell out, on an imaginative plane, how conservative virtues of decision-making could deal successfully with problems that citizens care about today.

A more comprehensive—and more Scrutonian—theory of prudence, in my opinion, would need to mount a far more vigorous assault on the dominant forms of progressive reasoning that rely on a purblind scientism and mechanistic, algorithmic styles of calculation. The history of the last century provides a target-rich environment. The current lockdown of Shanghai, to begin with the front pages, represents a spectacular failure of practical reasoning. It displays all the vices of scientism: the algorithm on autopilot, deaf to the cries of human suffering, using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. Scientistic reasoning in general is designed to shut down debate, empower bureaucracies and implement ideological objectives, and in the case of the Shanghai lockdown it has succeeded brilliantly. But such reasoning always leads to human misery, as the history of scientific socialism, scientific race-theory, and (lately) scientific health policy amply demonstrates.

Many of the evils of the last two centuries have come from the ambition of seventeenth-century natural philosophers to reduce human beings to automata that obey mathematical laws. The reduction of the qualitative to the quantitative, of ensouled bodies to the ghost in the machine, issued from a fully conscious rejection of Aristotle’s authority. When the British Royal Society took as its proud motto, nullius in verba, “on the words of no one,” that “no one” was principally Aristotle. In rejecting Aristotle, the new natural science rejected his distinction between theoretical and practical reasoning, and his great principle—challenging Plato—that there can be no a priori science of human behavior. Human action must be guided, not by those intellectual virtues oriented to necessary (scientific) knowledge, epistemikon, but by a different kind of wisdom, phronesis, oriented to the contingent world of human action, about which we can only form opinions (doxa) and reason by trial and error (logistikon). If we wish to live well, we have to accept the limits of human knowledge, practice the virtues, and cultivate what is fine and beautiful in ourselves and our societies. That way of thinking about politics is one that Roger Scruton would surely have endorsed.