Room for Conservatives? by Hugh Taft-Morales

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?

When trying to answer the question, “Does Ethical Culture provide a place for people who identify themselves as conservatives?”, the devil is in the details. Hoping to nurture an Ethical Culture that is both progressive and diverse, I want to answer immediately, “Yes!” In an attempt to honor the unique worth of everyone, I want to include conservatives who also want to honor worth. Can a conservative honor worth? It depends on what you mean by “conservative.” Terminology can trip us up. Ethical Culture Leader Percival Chubb counseled, “we should free ourselves from the tyranny of catch words and popular classifications.”

It may seem odd to refer to Chubb’s 119-year-old essay, “The Conservative and Liberal Aspects of Ethical Religion,” since the terms “progressive” and “conservative” have changed greatly. But Chubb emphasizes what is still true: there are many forms of “conservatism.” Two of the types of conservatism that he describes I will discuss. They are “…the Conservatism of Selfishness, which fears change because it may endanger vested interests or personal convenience,” and “…the Conservatism of Disenchantment, which has resigned itself to the second best as alone attainable by man.”

I have little sympathy for the conservatism of selfishness that fears change. First of all, change is inevitable—what matters is how we handle it. Respecting tradition “for tradition’s sake,” makes little sense to me. Some level of predictability and routine may be useful, but not in and of itself. We should not idolize resistance to change.

But more importantly, I don’t promote selfishness—which I define as advancing of one’s self-interest at the blatant expense of others—as a political stance. I may act selfishly at times, but I am not proud of that fact. I aspire to serve others because I choose to view them as being of inherent worth.

I also dispute a common assumption underlying conservatism of selfishness: that one’s interests are naturally opposed to the interest of others. I believe that by serving others, I can nurture the best of myself and live a more rewarding life. This enlightened self-interest arises from our nature as social beings, integrally related to others. This paradigm is a part of Ethical Culture. As a result, someone who identifies with the conservatism of selfishness may not fit in well at an Ethical Society.

This is related to what Chubb calls “the conservatism of disenchantment.” This conservatism is skeptical of idealism and wary of grand schemes for social engineering. This type of conservative sees the darker side of human nature, especially when compounded with mass psychology and stifling bureaucracy. This type of conservative thinks that our species can only attain what is “second best.” It rejects notions of the “perfectibility of humanity.”

I believe that Ethical Culture must make room for this type of conservatism. Out of respect for reason, we must admit that history teaches about the excesses of radical idealism, from the failure of the French revolution, to Soviet repression, to the stifling paternalism of some collectivist strategies. While I embrace collective solutions to social problems, I can’t deny such episodes of political hubris. I may disagree with the conservatism of disenchantment, and have faith in the idealistic vision of progressivism. But Ethical Culture, in its contemporary form, balances idealism with realism – it urges us not “bring out the perfect,” but to “bring out our best possible.”

Some people—both conservatives and progressives—may be suspicious of the phrase about “bringing out the best,” and ask, “Who determines what is ‘the best’?” For some socially or religiously conservative people, the best is determined god or natural law. Often they are overly rigid and essentialist, inappropriately intolerant of many expressions of what it means to be a human. Although the founder of Ethical Culture, Felix Adler, held some essentialist views forged in his Victorian sensibilities, we have moved away from ridged definitions that inhibit individuality. Contemporary Ethical Culture more fully embraces autonomy and agency, distancing itself from essentialism.

For example, if you are overly attached to certain essentialist concepts, such as believing that there are strictly defined proper roles for women and that homosexuality is a sin, it would be more difficult to treat all people as being of inherent worth. Sometimes “natural law” is used to label some people as deviant. “Sinners” are treated as being outside of the realm of ethical concern. They can be ostracized and thrown away, violating Ethical Culture’s commitment to treat all as being of inherent worth.

I have become more skeptical of conservatism given the profound and growing economic inequality since the economic collapse of 2008. The gap between rich and poor has increased dramatically. As Michael Sandel points out, in 1980, CEO’s earned 42 times what their workers did. In 2007, CEO’s earned 344 times what their workers make. Today the richest 1% of the population in the United States owns 33% of our nation’s wealth. Thanks to people like Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman, more people deny that poverty is the government’s problem. They argued that the “undeserving poor” are lazy leeches on the public dole. At times like these, as an Ethical Culture Leader I must condemn the conservatism of selfishness.

I think there is room for “conservatives of disenchantment” in Ethical Culture. Current inequalities, however, leave on their shoulders the burden of proof. They must explain how conservatism honors the inherent worth of all people. I agree with Percival Chubb in saying that what Ethical Culture needs is “the intensely real love of man for man; love of those nearest—wife, children, kindred, neighbors – broadening out in ever widening circles until it includes mankind.”

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  1. Dick Reichart Reply

    Actually, it appears that after much internal struggle Adler himself defined the virtue in “striving to bring out the best” not as achieving change in the other (because trying that regularly leads to failure) but as a moral devotion that will tend to bring out one’s own best. It is instructive to watch a self-identified political conservative reacting to Trump by criticizing the latter’s manners and inconsistency rather than his beliefs.

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