James Croft

Since its founding, Ethical Culture has presented itself as a progressive organization. This is certainly true as much so today as throughout its history. Given the progressive orientation of Ethical Culture expressed through its platforms, social action, and the identification of the vast majority of its members, does Ethical Culture provide a place for people who identify themselves as conservatives? If so what is that place of conservatives in the Ethical Movement and what roles can conservatives play in our Societies?

Every now and again a member will ask the question: is there space for conservatives within Ethical Culture? Perhaps this question stems from their desire to ensure that multiple voices are heard and respected within Ethical Societies. Perhaps it comes from a feeling that there are certain liberal orthodoxies which go unquestioned within Ethical Culture, but which deserve to be challenged so that we can learn and grow. Perhaps it is because the member themselves is more conservative, and feels pushed out of the conversation and even of the community by the liberal politics promoted there. But whatever prompts the question of the compatibility of conservatism with Ethical Culture, it goes to the heart of Ethical Humanism as a worldview, because it exposes a tension between two of our core values: if we are unable to make space for dissenting opinions, we will have lost our commitment to intellectual openness and freedom of thought, and will have become dogmatic; if we are unable to assert our core values, and to identify political ideas which violate those values, we will have lost our soul.

So, how to answer this question? It depends what is meant by “conservatism.” Understood one way, conservatism is a rich intellectual tradition with roots in respectable philosophical and political discourse. Drawing insights from luminaries such as Edmund Burke (often called the “father of conservatism”) and Michael Oakeshott, philosophical conservatives stress the value of continuity over change, and pragmatism over untested idealism. This quote, from Oakeshott, captures the heart of philosophical conservatism:

“To be conservative … is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”

I believe there are good grounds to be skeptical of this philosophical “preference” (for instance, often the familiar is intolerable for many, the tried oppressive), but I don’t think that those drawn to Oakeshott’s position should in any way be excluded from Ethical Humanist discourse. There is value in familiarity, fact, and sufficiency—and sometimes liberal-minded people would be well-served by a reminder of this. This type of conservatism is cautious, empirical, and fundamentally rational in a way which should be appealing to Ethical Humanists, with our commitment to reason over blind faith.

Furthermore, this strain of conservatism is rooted in a deep skepticism of the idea that any single “grand project” should be imposed upon a people. It is in that sense anti-tyrannical, committed to the principle that individual people and families should be free to pursue their own ends. When today’s conservative pundits utter the words “social engineering” with a sneer, we are hearing echoes of old conservative principles: it is not for the state to tell you what your life is about, these conservatives say. That is for you alone to decide. This is a good principle, and a humanistic one: state power can be overbearing, and frequently the attempt to shape society to fit one “perfect” conception has led to terrible atrocities.

Finally (and perhaps more challenging for many Ethical Humanists), conservatives have traditionally advocated an economic philosophy which centers on the importance of free association, free exchange, and markets. The conservative economic argument, broadly stated, is as follows: 1) voluntary exchange of goods and services is a good in itself, because people on both sides of the exchange get something they want in exchange for something they want less; 2) voluntary exchange of this kinds harnesses people’s self-interest in ways which ultimately benefit society, because we can increase our store of goods by providing others with goods they desire; 3) governments frequently get in the way of these voluntary exchanges, introducing perverse incentives and monopolizing markets in ways which decrease efficiency; therefore 4) markets should be minimally regulated, both to preserve individual freedom and the incentive to innovate, and to grow the economy in ways which will ultimately benefit everyone.

Understood like this, we can see that there are conservative economic philosophies which are grounded in a concern for the welfare of all people in a society. Some conservative thinkers truly believe that a lightly-regulated market system will, as a matter of fact, bring about better economic opportunities and more wealth for the poorest people in society than would other economic approaches—and this position upholds the Ethical Humanist commitment to human dignity. It is possible, in other words, to hold conservative economic views while also believing in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Conservatives are not necessarily unconcerned with the vast inequalities of wealth we observe in society: they may simply believe that other available economic systems would produce worse outcomes, not better ones. This is a perspective which should be investigated with all the tools at our disposal, because ultimately it is an empirical question.

Conservatism then, as a philosophical tradition and as a strand of political thought, certainly has a place within Ethical Humanism. We should learn from it as we can learn from other such strands, like liberalism, socialism, and communism. We should constantly be learning from different philosophical viewpoints in the understanding that no one has perfect political ideas, and that political questions are often so complex as to allow for multiple acceptable responses. It would be as absurd to expel philosophical conservatism from Ethical Culture as to expel socialism or liberalism. I can imagine many political philosophies that, while conservative in the senses just outlined, nonetheless hew closely to the core values of Ethical Culture—particularly our concern for human dignity. Such an outlook should be welcomed in our Societies.

And yet.

What is called “conservatism” today, as expressed in contemporary political culture, has very few links to the philosophical tradition I have just outlined. Too often, to be a “conservative” in today’s parlance is to take a number of positions inimical to Ethical Humanism, including opposition to LGBTQ equality or a woman’s right to choose. These issues are understood by our tradition not simply as political positions, but as direct eminences from our core commitment to human dignity. We hold it simply inconsistent to claim to support the worth and dignity of all people, and yet to be against equal marriage, for instance: to oppose equal marriage is to oppose the full dignity of same sex couples, full stop—and that means such a position is inimical to Ethical Humanism.

Contemporary conservatism such as that promoted by today’s Republican Party is burdened with many such anti-Humanist positions: witness the multiple attempts of the current administration to ban Muslims from the country; its stated desire to establish laws based on religious beliefs; its assault on transgender people’s right to serve in the military; and the daily assaults on he press and on people who protest the government. (Not to mention the blatant corruption and incompetence of the President’s regime.) At every turn, it seems, contemporary “conservatives” have a radical agenda based on such things as limiting access to healthcare, denying fundamental rights to immigrants and members of minority religions, and defending incompetence and corruption to the hilt.

Given these considerations, while I believe good-faith versions of conservatism exist, I think it is simply impossible to declare oneself a “conservative” in the sense meant by contemporary political commentators, and to also call oneself an Ethical Humanist. There are so many tensions between the political commitments of today’s conservatives and the Ethical Humanist perspective that one cannot hold to both with integrity.

Ethical Humanism is committed to freedom of thought and to open inquiry, for sure. We should remain open to new ideas, and our Societies should be welcoming of all people, regardless of their political views. Our commitment to the dignity of all does not stop when we are confronted by people whose political views we find challenging or even odious. But this does not mean that Societies, as institutions (or Leaders, as representatives of the Ethical Humanist tradition), must endorse every view a member or visitor has, or even make every view welcome. Our Movement is drawn together around a set of core values, and those values must be protected and asserted—otherwise we lose our purpose. That means that conservatives, as people, should always be welcome in Ethical Societies, while some forms of conservatism should not.

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