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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.

Reader Discussion

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on September 26, 2019 at 09:46:47 am

[…] are just accidents of cultural evolution or history, then we’re back to full blown relativism. Pitting Conservative Empiricism Against Reason and Revelation syndicated from […]

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on September 26, 2019 at 10:30:45 am

Yes, we conservatives must eschew change and embrace tradition!
And our religion is our tradition!
And therefore there should be no more religious conversions, because conversion would require change and rejection of tradition!

Let's see how well this argument plays with conservative Christians....

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nobody.really
on September 26, 2019 at 11:29:57 am

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.

I've made this same argument. But never been quite persuaded.

What percentage of slaveowners professed a religion? What percentage of crusaders? Indeed, what percentage of warriors? Traditionally a conquering army would lay waste to the people conquered--raping, looting, torturing people until they disgorged their wealth, taking nobles captive for ransom, taking commoners captive as slaves.

How prevalent was religious faith during eras when people would gather to watch public executions for fun? Or watch gladiators? Bear baiting? Bull fighting? Boxing? Other forms of recreational cruelty?

In short, can we find ANY correlation between rates of religious profession and "cruelty"? Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature suggests that any such correlation is negative. As far as I can tell, compassion is a "superior good"--that is, as people get richer, they expend more resources for it. Evidence suggests to me that a wealthier world is a kinder world--not because the rich can't be cruel, but because they tend to have different preferences.

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nobody.really
on September 26, 2019 at 13:17:53 pm

One thing that makes political philosophy hard is the extreme ambiguity of abstract but common terms such as “reason,” “relativism,” and “conservatism.”

Start with the honorific noun “reason.” Everybody wants to claim it. In the usage of empiricists such as David Hume, the ancient sophists, and Professor Rogers, reason and faith are mutually exclusive; all reason is empirically based, while faith is belief lacking a basis in empirically known facts. As for morality and law, empiricists believe that both are social conventions and customs observable in words and deeds, so knowable empirically, not a priori. By contrast, in Catholic usage since at least Thomas Aquinas, the highest form of reason has been faith-based reason; no Catholic thinker since Tertullian has rejected reason as being inherently incompatible with faith.

Admittedly, Catholic reason has less to do with observed facts than with abstract truths, the most important of which are moral truths thought to be knowable a priori because God planted them in all our minds at birth, making them self-evident, like 2+2=4. This understanding of morality and law, which derives from Plato by way of Stoicism, was also espoused more recently by the Chicago political philosopher Leo Strauss, for whom moral reason was innately known natural law.. In still a third understanding of reason, also deriving from Plato, it has nothing essentially to do with either facts or faith; it is merely a faculty for deducing conclusions from both. So, its purest expression is a priori mathematics and logic.

Now consider the pejorative term “relativism.” For many Catholic moralists, it is a term of abuse to be hurled at empiricists like Professor Rogers and me, who hold that, while there is overwhelming empirical evidence for the reality of socially variable, because man-made, laws and morals, there is no such evidence for the reality of universally binding, because God-made, laws and morals. Furthermore, no moral rationalist has ever been able to state a moral truth the self-evidence of which was as clear to every rational person everywhere as the proposition that 2+2=4. Therefore, the only conclusion to be drawn is that there are no such a priori moral truths; moralities are not laws of nature embedded in every human intellect by God. What exist are, rather, practices and rules that vary from society to society. These practices have been developed over a period of time in particular places by particular people with particular circumstances calling for particular forms of behavior. They would not have worked elsewhere at other times and places for other peoples.

So, which of these various moralities is THE right morality or law? It is a meaningless question. No doubt, some moralities can be judged better than others in making life better for those who live by them. Such judgments are made all the time; so we have some idea how to make them. If these judgments are affirmative because the practices have been successful, these practices will be imitated by others; if not, they will be changed by those who have become dissatisfied with them and replaced with practices that promise for various reasons to be better. Such is how moralities come into being, die out, and develop.

Now consider conservatism. Such morality as has developed in a society and persisted over a long period of time must have served some needs, so is deserving of respect—at least until somebody comes up with a better idea. How will it be judged whether the new idea is better? There is just one test: the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Such is the essence of a desirable and true conservatism.

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Max Hocutt
on September 26, 2019 at 19:42:48 pm

Correction. When talking about empiricists, I meant to mention Hazony, not Rogers.

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Max Hocutt
on September 26, 2019 at 20:20:05 pm

Oh, good sir, do not fret - the PUDDING will be destroyed such as is the wont of our Progressive friends simply because it is not PERFECT.

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gabe
on September 27, 2019 at 15:47:13 pm

Although Professor Rogers makes some compelling points here, his dismissal of Hazony's empiricist method as "historical relativism" is unpersuasive. Hazony is on solid ground when he insists that we verify the truth of generalizations about human nature by testing "them over centuries and in different locales so as to learn which of them hold good and over what range of circumstances." Surely this method is driven by common sense, not relativism. A true relativist (if there is such a creature) would claim that all generalizations deserve a hearing because none of them is true in any enduring sense. This is exactly the outcome that the empiricist wants to avoid. The only generalizations that are worth considering are those that stand the test of time, or historical experience. For this reason, Burke correctly claimed that successful constitutional government depends on a variety of "pretexts" (e.g., a citizenry that actually desires this type of regime) that are demonstrable through evidence, not abstract metaphysics. If only the Bush-era neoconservatives had been more empiricist when they fantasized that democracy would easily take root in troubled climes like Iraq or Libya, without any evidence to guide them. True conservatives don't need the passage of several centuries to know that metaphysical generalizations about the universal appeal of democracy tend to be false.

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Grant Havers
on September 27, 2019 at 22:40:11 pm

Indeed, Harzony seems to misunderstand the philosophical worldview of the average conservative religious person in his putative defense of it. Most religious people may characterize their beliefs as something other than rational, but that doesn't make them empirical; they think religious truths are as absolute, timeless, and transcendent of culture as any rational truth, and this their endgame is - as with most secular ideologies - convincing everyone else of that truth.

I think most religious conservatives, at least at the conscious level, think of themselves as contextually (and in Harzony's terms, rationally) conservative: they don't favor tradition for its own sake; rather, a la CS Lewis, they think our current society has taken a particular wrong turn and is going in a specifically wrong direction.

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Mark Z
on September 27, 2019 at 22:47:40 pm

Wow, I actually agree with you (mostly) twice in a row. I think Harzony is partly right, in that I don't think there's a non-religious/materialist basis for morality, so a rational person, without religion, has no reason to be moral or to believe in such a thing as right and wrong (which I write as a non-religious person), but then moral behavior is mainly about habit (and probably genetics), not about principles. History has shown us very well that people are perfectly capable of sincerely believing in strict moral codes and violating them every day, as well as of accepting all the necessary and sufficient premises for moral nihilism while living as though they believed in a strict moral code.

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Mark Z
on September 29, 2019 at 13:32:12 pm

"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".

Question 1: Aren't non-believers who were raised in non-belief equally morally accountable as religious believers?
Question 2: Are non-believers "cruel" and more "more coarser" and believers not cruel?" How empirical is that?
Question 3: Is it "cruel" to deny a needy person help if that help ends up making them more dependent and "immoral?"
Question 4: Does "moral capital" apply to the macro-level where political leaders must sometimes use "cruelty" to bring about "morality", or at least the lesser evil? (e.g., Truman dropping A-bombs on Japan).
Question 5: Is Christianity, for example, primarily about morality or firstly about something cosmic and transcendent? (God made the world, Christ ascended to heaven, providence had something to do with history); and secondarily about morality? If Christianity is mainly about morality, then why wouldn't Marxism be superior to religion because it is only concerned with moral just ends?
Question 6: Is tradition (or conversely, relativism) transcendent over truth?
Question 7: Should humans be judged based on the empirical consequences of their actions even if those actions are cruel, or on whether they intended to be cruel?

I don't think the above article sufficiently addresses or answers any of the above questions.

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Wayne Lusvardi

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