Roger Scruton is the greatest living conservative thinker. Well, that’s controversial, you might say. The other great thinkers around these days are more ambivalent about being conservative. Some libertarians, after all, think of themselves as liberals opposing themselves to conservatives. And the French philosopher Pierre Manent, like most American followers of Leo Strauss, thinks of himself as a conservative liberal. But the Buckinghamshire-born Scruton defines himself as a conservative, as opposed to a liberal, although he admits that it might be impossible to be conservative all the time.
What’s a liberal? Someone who “respects . . . individual existence” so much that he “attempt[s] to leave as much moral and political space around every human person as is compatible with the demands of social life.” Liberalism so understood is “the official ideology of the Western world.” It is the ideology of “the free, self-fulfilling individual,” which is equally at the foundation of the thought of Milton Friedman and Karl Marx. For the libertarian and the Marxist alike, utopia, when it arrives, will be marked by perfectly individualistic spontaneity or the immediate and unobsessive gratification of personal preferences without authoritative guidance from social or relational structures, without the limitations that used to be associated with birth, personal love, and death.
For each liberal, as Ronald Dworkin puts it, “rights are trumps,” insofar as nothing trumps the absolute value of my own existence. That’s why, in our time, we talk about “human rights”—it’s a phrase that tells us that the freedom, comfort, and security of each human person is the bottom line and we don’t even have to think about or justify this. It’s also why, in our time, we see individualism, as our friend Peter Thiel explains, culminate in transhumanism. From a radically liberal perspective, being itself depends on my individual existence. Therefore, being itself is extinguished when I am. Therefore, nothing trumps deploying all available means to try to keep me around for an indefinitely long time.
Where do we find liberals these days? We find them in Europe, among those in thrall to what Manent calls a postpolitical, postreligious, and postfamilial fantasy. The fantasy, of course, is that it’s possible to live as a being with a body detached from those institutions or forms of embodiment we designed for beings who were born to know, love, die, and be from somewhere in particular. That fantasy now confronts a stiff challenge from populist parties on the one hand, and the problems of accommodating all those immigrants on the other.
We also find liberalism triumphant in what some call the libertarian convergence of America’s two political parties. That’s a combination of economic freedom and personal freedom that’s tied to the sham diversity of globalization characteristic of Hillary Clinton and our oligarchic crony capitalists (such as the ones we find in Silicon Valley). Anti-liberalism, in this sense, fuels the campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. That’s not to say the anti-liberalism of either Trump or Sanders is actually conservative, insofar as neither candidate is focused on the sustainability of American families or churches or civic or community spirit.
Still, Trump’s beginning point is a conservative rejoinder to liberal cosmopolitanism—“a country is a country”—even if everything he deduces from that first principle is either wrong or obsessive. And Sanders is right that the idea of opening the borders to flood our country with guest workers isn’t an American idea, but one that can be traced to the Koch brothers and to libertarianism. It converges uncannily with President Obama’s boast that he is a citizen of the world more than of any place in particular.
Are most Americans either conservatives or liberals? The answer, as Manent tells us, is that they want to be both. They want to be what he calls human individuals or what Scruton calls both relational and unrelational persons. Strictly speaking, the human individual or unrelational person is an oxymoron, the conservative knows. The contents of human or personal life come from being relational or not experiencing oneself as individual who’s connected to other individuals only through the calculated modes of contract or consent.
We Americans want all the allegedly autonomous benefits of free individuals while living in a world full of rich and satisfying human contents. We want Lockean freedom—including uninhibited techno-progress and the detachment of even marriage from natural imperatives—but without being restless and lonely workaholics for whom God is dead and sex has become meaningless recreation.
And there’s no denying we do better at achieving both goals than the other sophisticates in the world. Marriage, for example, is actually getting more stable and stronger among rich and well-educated Americans, and the combination of egalitarian autonomy and parental duty is displayed in child-centered marriages, even if there are only one or two kids.
That means that sophisticated Americans don’t have the words that correspond to their longings; what they do is often better than what they say. They don’t understand, Scruton points out, that their irreducibly conservative inclinations are undermined by liberal platitudes. They really believe, for example, that when the Supreme Court talks about relational autonomy, it’s actually making sense. It’s to Scruton that they should turn to discover that our autonomous pretensions are irreducibly dependent on their relational context, and that liberal means inevitably serve conservative ends in some way.
I am a liberal, Scruton explains, insofar as I look at the world from the point of view of the first person — or more precisely, the first person singular. The truth about the first person is reflected in self-consciousness. I have an irreducible perception of my personal identity. Neither any person nor any doctrine—certainly no impersonal neuroscience or evolutionary psychology or other impersonal reductionism, or, for that matter, any modern political ideology—can take my “I” away from me.
The “I ” is the experience of the person. Our scientists can explain a lot about us, but not this. Scruton thinks it plausible that even the highly abstract and rational Kantian view of the autonomous “I” could legitimately be explained as an evolutionary advantage, and that self-consciousness could legitimately be explained as a mechanism given to members of our species to adapt to change. Its main job is not to foment disruptive innovation, but to manage reform in the interest of social stability. So self-consciousness is a personal quality acquired by members of our species alone, and it’s the emergence of the person that causes liberals to err in thinking that each of us can be viewed as a rational “whole” detached from nature. Scruton seems ultimately not to believe that personal identity is a mysterious birth of freedom, although it remains the case that scientists typically err in trying to account for the person as some impersonal mechanism. Let’s leave it at wondering whether it’s possible to give a non-Kantian account of personal autonomy.
The truth, Scruton concedes, is there are two ways human beings can be viewed as wholes: 1) We are animals, in other words the whole organisms described by the impersonal natural scientists, or 2) we’re also whole persons, with experiences that can’t be reduced to those of animals. We’re stuck, Scruton thinks, with this cognitive dualism. Neuroscientists who describe us from their third-person point of view can’t incorporate the personal experience of the “I” into their descriptions of what each of us is. Their accounts of the “what” don’t account for the “who” — the particular being with a name, a personal identity.
Still, Scruton also thinks that the whole that is the person can’t be detached from our natural being as social animals, even as, for us, social is transformed by self-consciousness into relational. Persons exist in an interpersonal world — a lifeworld (as per Edmund Husserl and Vaclav Havel), a world of customs, conventions, traditions, and other shared historical understandings of interrelated persons that can be distinguished from the environments inhabited by animals. Being personal depends on a world not of one’s own making. Consciousness, including self-consciousness, is always consciousness with others.
The liberal experience of freedom depends on belonging to a particular home. This home can’t be understood as natural in the sense of natural science or as a mere social construction unrelated to our natural capabilities. It is a characteristic of beings such as ourselves, beings with the natural capability for self-consciousness and so for being personal. It’s the self-destructive project of scientism in theory, and of ideologies (including liberal ideologies) in practice, to deprive us of the home or lifeworld that is the condition of personal being.
Is the lifeworld a world of “seeming” or is it one of “being”? Does it depend on what most philosophers and scientists—save Georg Friedrich Hegel, Immanuel Kant, and Husserl—regard as illusions? Scruton does not pretend—and, in his eyes, no real conservative would pretend—to have the authoritative answer to that question. The lifeworld depends on premises about love, personal responsibility, free will, and so forth that are questionable or invincibly open to reductionistic explanations. But the world of seeming or being on the surface is that upon which the “I” depends to live well, even to live in the light of the truth. And it’s a world that produced all kinds of noble and wonderful and aesthetic and reasonable and religious thought and behavior that the scientists can’t explain as characteristic of an organism in an environment.
The problem of the relationship between the lifeworld and the Kantian or liberal theory of autonomy is, Scruton explains, that “it is impossible that I should be a transcendental self; but it is necessary that I should suffer the illusion that I am.” Thus, the conservative “functional anthropologist” observes, “I must belong to a world in which this illusion can be sustained, so that my projects are also values for me, and my desires are integrated into a vision of the good.” So, from the third-person perspective, the benefits of the illusion of the autonomous “I” can be experienced only in a world where they are – by being relationally embedded, in other words not really so autonomous at all – not experienced as an illusion.
The “functional anthropologist,” being a conservative, is to be distinguished from the natural scientist or evolutionary psychologist. The natural scientist is not concerned with sustaining nature itself, but he too becomes an anthropologist when considering the effects of the person on nature. And a conservative has an anthropocentric or functional concern with the interdependence of natural and social ecology.
When thinking about liberals, the functional anthropologist “smiles indulgently.” The liberal thinks he is liberated enough to “question every given fact of community,” but if he really did so, he would be left entirely naked and disinherited. He would have ended up exterminating the world in which the illusion of autonomy is credible. The lifeworld in which we distinguish between good and evil and are capable of sharing joyfully in the truth is constituted by “social artifacts,” including that of “morality itself.” The truth is that people are “born into a web of attachments,” which could never all be validated by personal consent or by detached personal intention.
I didn’t choose or construct the world in which I can experience myself as a confident and responsible “I,” and so my “very existence” as a particular person is or ought to be “burdened with a debt of love and gratitude.” We are born and die debtors, and the burden of being recipients is readily distinguished from what some libertarians call the tyranny of the gift. We can escape only in a limited way from “the absolute claim of the locally given.” A full escape would be from everything that makes freedom more than, as the song said, nothing left to lose.
Not that the conservative always smiles indulgently at liberal pretensions concerning the autonomous liberation of the “I.” Scruton rails against the “oikophobia” (the “repudiation of inheritance and home”) that is the opposite of xenophobia. This ridiculing of “the unconsidered and spontaneous social actions” by which one affirms loyalty to one’s own now disfigures English and American public intellectuals. The reflexes of ordinary people are routinely disparaged or “even demonized by the dominant media and educational system.”
These habits that are mostly unconsidered and unchosen, are yet absolutely indispensable to us: they make up for what might be regarded as an instinctual deficiency in members of our species. The oikophobes have supposedly outed these habits as the behavior of thoughtless suckers. But the spontaneous effectiveness of these habits can’t really be replaced by calculated deliberation about everything or even most things. The wholesale repudiation of loyalty disarms—in theory as well as in practice—such freedom as we really do have.
The irony is that “educated derision” may be capable of extinguishing “the freedom to criticize” that makes educated derision possible. No freedom has a future without people prepared by settled relational inclination to live and die for it. The freedom to criticize, properly understood, is the source of social improvement or adaptation to changing circumstances and technologies. It ministers unto social sustainability.
The alleged sustainability experts, the liberals, do not realize this. “In his own eyes,” says Scruton, the oikophobe is “a defender of enlightenment universalism against local chauvinism.” But it is much clearer what the oikophobe is against than what he is or she is for.
To rebel against one’s own is, to be sure, a natural part of what we now call the adolescent stage of life—the time when young men, as we are told, enjoyed having Socrates expose the ignorance of their elders. These days it might be young men and women enjoying reading Ayn Rand’s tales of singularly heroic creators being dragged down by the parasites surrounding them. Neither our shrinking cadre of socialists nor our growing number of Silicon Valley transhumanists and allied libertarians, though, pauses to consider the effects on relational life that their disruptive innovations have had. They’re about the conquest of nature that makes it impossible to be at home with who we are as both animals and persons, and their obsession with the future is at the expense of loving other persons in the present.
The oikophobia of the young person ends up, in most cases, being chastened by the responsibilities and compensations of becoming a real citizen, church member, friend, spouse, parent, and so forth. They find themselves at home. Unfortunately, some modern intellectuals can get and remain stuck in oikophobic mode. And the more “educated,” the more stuck.
So to be specific, the conservative smiles indulgently at oikophobic kids, who will, most of them, anyway, learn to know better. Nobody expects highly self-conscious or really smart modern kids to be conservatives (there are exceptions), and their default ideology might be libertarian or Marxist. I should add that it is even possible—up to a point—to indulge the liberal intellectuals displaying their arrested development. The trouble is, their pathetically truncated or, in some cases, monstrously deformed personal beings can be the source of theories and movements aimed at emptying out the moral contents of the lifeworld on which we all depend.
It’s the conservative who would interrupt what seems to be an endless modern dialectic between oikophobia and xenophobia—between globalism and fascism—with the mean between those extremes, that being the nation. The nation—and it is not to be confused with the tribe or the church, or even nationalism—is the only place where the protection of human rights can be effective, through law and also through habituation. The nation is where we learn how to treat strangers with the respect we instinctively accord to friends.
Consider how Scruton compares the third-person points of view of the scientist, and that of the conservative. The conservative, like the scientist, is detached from the world of me, we, and you. But unlike the scientist (or idealized philosopher), he’s not too detached. The conservative is the anthropologist “concerned with the welfare of the tribe (albeit a tribe which his own).” Because his tribe—as opposed to tribes in general—is the condition of his personal flourishing, he puts his tribe or community or state before himself. Without it, he, as a particular person, is not. His view is that “insofar as people love life, they will love what gives them life.” And so his anthropology is a labor of love.
That love for what gives us life is what generates patriotism, respect for law, loyalty to leaders, and a willing deference to privilege that “need not be craven or submissive.” So the third-person perspective of the anthropologist shares the “popular self-respect” that good citizens have “for the order of which they form of a part and for themselves as part of that order.” The third-person perspective affirms the common perception that each of us gains personal significance as parts of wholes greater than ourselves. It affirms that common perception while being somewhat detached from it.
Scruton has the questionable opinion that the oikophobia or alienation that appears in those who are particularly self-consciousness is a particularly modern problem. The instinct that propels “social continuity” was once powerful enough, he says, to “ensure” that the distinction between “those who rose to self-consciousness” and “the happier mortals who were never fated to question what they knew” was only over “the smallest items of belief.” The pre-modern experience of individuality was, he asserts, “an artifact, an achievement which depends on the social life of the people.” Self-consciousness was, as evolutionary nature intended, for the adaption of social life, not a derisive repudiation of it.
So his conclusion is that the first-person understanding is “a recent venture of the human spirit.” The modern and self-deceptively liberal person is a “monstrous entity” who thinks of himself as an autonomous “I.” And the conservative must use his mind and his social criticism to restore the monster to a properly personal and relational shape by returning him home. The truth recovered by the conservative anthropologist is that “The condition of mankind requires” that persons can act freely and confidently only when they identify with a particular human society “which they recognize instinctively as home.” How can the mind reinvigorate an instinct from which it believes itself to have become detached? By calling attention to anthropological evidence we can all see with our own eyes.
Along these lines, Scruton interprets religion—including the Christian religion—as one way among the many ways we have to experience the belonging of home. From a full Christian view, however, that seems to be a form of Darwinian reductionism. According to St. Augustine, each of us, through sin, is born to trouble. Each of us free and relational persons experiences himself or herself as an alien or pilgrim in every earthly city. From this view, we are so to speak hardwired for alienation, and shouldn’t try too hard to be at home in this world. And from this view, the arrogantly incoherent aim of modern ideologies has been less to enhance our alienation than to make ourselves through political revolution or economic prosperity or technological innovation fully at home.
Scruton acknowledges, after all, that the most vibrant of the modern nations is the United States, the place where citizenship is reconciled to a remarkable success with otherworldly Christianity. We are, as G. K. Chesterton says, “a home for a homeless.” But we, at our best, don’t try to be at home, our “lifeworld” is constituted, in part, by our awareness that its satisfactions don’t correspond fully to our longings. Scruton seems more conservative than any American, and, from our view, not realistic enough about who we are or what it takes to sustain our liberal life as free and relational beings born to know, love, and die.