Pitting Conservative Empiricism Against Reason and Revelation

Recently, in a two-part feature for The American Mind, Yoram Hazony argues “Conservative Rationalism has Failed” (here and here). While he aims particularly at Catholic and Straussian natural law approaches, he sweeps within these categories all of the broader natural law and natural right views articulated since the early modern era in the West.

The alternative and presumably more authentic vision of conservativism that Hazony pits against conservative rationalism is one based in “tradition,” although not exactly. Seeking to avoid obvious objections to blind traditionalism, Hazony grounds tradition in empiricism. Yet even there his argument has tensions. In recognizing the need to make judgments regarding which tradition might be good and which tradition might be bad, Hazony makes implicit recourse to Biblical a prioris, such as the imago dei. While I agree with Hazony’s broad conclusion that the American project doesn’t work when it is severed from its religious roots, the argumentative route he takes to support that conclusion actually undercuts the faiths he seeks to foster.

According to Hazony, conservative rationalism labors under several problems. The first is that it admits no place for tradition. The second is related, in that it “has not visibly retarded the progress of the revolution that has so damaged the most basic of inherited Jewish and Christian concepts.”

Hazony’s defense of tradition in these articles continues in different form the criticism of universalism he advances in his book, The Virtue of Nationalism. There it is secular (and Catholic) universalism that led to squashing distinctive national cultures, while Protestant particularism gave rise to the West with its set of distinctive, independent nations.

Sounding a related theme, Hazony defines tradition “as the inherited customs of particular nations.” Thus

If we wish for anything at all to be conserved out of the current conflagration, it will have to be through the recovery and inculcation of the particular Anglo-American political and religious traditions that were the original source of the English-speaking nations’ cohesion and strength.

All that is fair enough. But the obvious next question for a traditionalist of any sort is just how much deference ought tradition receive? For example, America’s particular religious tradition for the first century, if not the first century and a half was, distinctly Protestant. Outside of immigrant ghettos, for the most part this tradition explicitly excluded Catholics and Jews from full participation in American civic and social life.

Hazony certainly does not want a recovery and inculcation of that particular American (and British) political and religious tradition. But how would he argue this on his own grounds of deference to tradition?

Of course, Hazony is aware of the objection and takes pains to minimize its its import. He sets up the objection this way:

A conservative of the Burkean type is thus supposed not to be able to distinguish between a good political inheritance and one that is defective or evil, since there is no standard other than the tradition itself by which to distinguish good traditions from bad ones. For a tradition to escape relativism, it is asserted that it must have access to the “external,” objective, universal standards that only universal reason can provide.

Before getting to Hazony’s answer to this objection, we need to note the unfair twist Hazony slips into his characterization of the objection: “For a tradition to escape relativism, it is asserted that it must have access to the ‘external,’ objective, universal standards that only universal reason can provide.”

The thing is, “universal standards” need not derive exclusively from the exercise of autonomous reason. Many people, including Jewish scholars such as David Novak, hold their religion to provide them with universal standards that issue from the character of the divine rather than from autonomous reason.

This cannot be finessed away by appeal to religion as a part of particular national traditions: Many of the faithful would say they adhere to their faith not because it is tradition but because it is true. Divine truth provides “access to . . . external, objective, universal standards” that do not derive from autonomous human reason.

Sweeping away religious belief along with forms of secular rationalism ends up undermining the very sources of cultural health that Hazony seeks to renew in his essays.

Hazony naturally rejects the notion that adhering to tradition entails belief in a form of moral or cultural relativism. Yet here Hazony tries to sneak in by the argumentative back door what he ostensibly shuts out at the front door.

He observes, for example, that “Burke argues repeatedly that the English constitution is the best of all known constitutions because it is in closest conformity with nature.” The difference between this mode of reasoning and that of the conservative rationalists? “These conservative thinkers are not rationalists. They are empiricists . . .”

An empiricist does accept that there is such a thing as an objective human nature, and an objective good for society. However, empiricists reject the rationalist claim that every individual has access to a universal reason that is capable of arriving at the one true view of human nature and what is good for society that applies in all times and places. As an empiricist understands things, the experience of each individual is limited and different from the experience of others. This means that the general principles that one individual draws from experience will be different from those drawn by others.

This is a curious turn in Hazony’s argument given his argument against natural law is that people disagree on their ability to deduce definite conclusions from nature. His alternative to natural law is a set of ostensible “general principles” that these same people would derive from observation. Yet he admits people will disagree over just what those general principles are. As argued, it is unclear what purchase Hazony’s opaque empirical tradition now provides relative to opaque deductions from natural law.

While Hazony affirms an objective human nature and an objective good for society, these are unknowable. He writes, “The only way to know which of these generalizations is best is to test them over centuries and in different locales so as to learn which of them hold good and over what range of circumstances.”

There are two problems with Hazony’s answer. The first is that he simply substitutes historical relativism for moral relativism. He sets up the argument to suggest that it is we of today who sit at the end of this centuries-long process, and therefore we can judge what is “best” and which principles “hold good.”

But that is not what his historical principle entails. It also entails that judgments made today cannot be known to be correct until centuries into the future. Each of us needs to say, “Well, sure, I think murder is wrong today under these circumstances. But my judgment may not be true several centuries in the future.” Hazony himself writes that there would never be a “final word” on these judgments.

The second problem is that he sneaks a universal notion of the good into the very criteria he applies to judge empirical outcomes. Judging what is “best” and which principles “hold good” assumes the viability of moral criteria that are not themselves historically derived. If they were just accidents of cultural evolution or history, then we’re back to full blown relativism.

The problem is with how Hazony set up the dichotomy, as an exclusive choice between autonomous human reason or a healthy, community-sustaining tradition. In his telling, the faithful receive religion—Judaism and Christianity in particular—as tradition rather than as truth. As a result, religious principles exist only contingently in history rather than as principles that we can use to judge history.

To be sure, Hazony deploys his argument with the intended purpose of reactivating the conservative embrace of religious significance in British and American cultures. I agree that the Anglo-American form of liberty won’t work in the long run with the loss of that religious tradition. What secularists don’t understand is that American social behavior today continues to reflect the habits of (mainly) more religious parents and grandparents. Their assumption is that those social habits can be sustained despite the loss of the underlying religious beliefs that birthed and sustained them in the first place. But just as Richard Rorty could not provide a secular answer to the question “Why not be cruel?,” less brilliant secularists will increasingly fail to find a satisfactory answer to the question. Unlike Rorty, however, they will then act accordingly. A coarser and more brutal society will arise as the moral capital of America’s religious past depreciates. Non-believers who act as Christians because they were raised that way are not the problem. The problem arises with non-believers who increasingly act consistently with their non-belief. While Hazony’s conclusions may point in the right direction, his argument cuts the very legs from under the tradition he seeks to reinvigorate.