ETHICAL ISSUES: CONSERVATISM
Conservatism is not a political issue, nor is what follows a political treatise; it’s more basic than that. The foundation for conservatism is history and original intent—a return to the basics, ethics being the most basic. Anyone can do it.
Any society needs a system of rules within which its members can operate to the general benefit. These rules are founded in its values and articulated in its privileges. The rules of all successful societies including our own begin in ethics and are adapted to the society’s needs and wishes.
Our own rules trace their origin to a paramount need for freedom. Our laws are founded in a Declaration of Independence from our mother country and empowered by a Constitution written by individuals with a strong moral and ethical base “in order to form a more perfect union.”
Drawing upon the experience of past cultures and societies to weave the strongest, most equitable and serviceable fabric possible at the time, a document creating a republic representing the best the world had to offer was codified in a few short pages. Its first ten amendments spelled out what the government was and was not empowered to do with regard to its citizens—this Bill Of Rights clearly maintains the primacy of the individual. While not perfect (it was known not to be, hence the modifier more to the absolute perfect), it was a job well done that has served to elevate our nation to the pinnacle of society.
But the laws and rules of our nation do not apply globally. Other societies and cultures are free to exist and govern as they please. Enlightened as it is, our society cannot empower itself to intrude on others at its option. Nor is it empowered to go beyond its own limits, even within itself.
And here’s the key: Any group—our nation included—has limits even within itself beyond which it may not dictate what its members may or may not do. Ethics—truth—is one of these. No government, however well-founded or well-intended, may tamper with truth or define it in any way other than the absolute. No nation’s laws may conflict with Natural Law and First Principles, the first of which is truth. While our society may pass laws that ignore or disregard truth even if they would benefit its members, those laws cannot stand within the whole of mankind, and therefore cannot apply to mankind or any of its members. And, since each of us is a member—an equal member—of humanity, such laws cannot stand with any of us in spite of what any government may proclaim. The first principles of nature always trump the posited law of society.
Nor is this a new or original concept. Alexander Hamilton wrote (1775): “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature…and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”
So, in addition to any powers granted the individual by civil law, the individual retains certain powers granted by virtue of his humanity and natural law. When there is a conflict, the individual must look first to his rights (granted by his very being), and he is not only empowered but obligated to resolve the conflict in the interest of mankind, not the State. If the conflict involves ethics, there is no contest. Ethics is the only choice. At this point, a few definitions may help.
First Principles (Natural Law) are universal truths numbering among our innate rights. All of humanity is beholden to them—they’re ours simply by virtue of our being. They needn’t and can’t be bestowed on us because we already own them.
In addition to open access to sunlight, air, gravity and natural phenomena available to all of mankind, we own the right to be (and to become). We own the right to enjoy our own senses and motor skills (within ethical limits), the right to make choices, the right to employ our own intellect and the right to be the unique and private individuals that we are, and the right to protect those rights. But these rights (and others), being universal, are equivalent. While you own yours, so does everyone else own theirs, so it’s incumbent on you to regard them as the unique individuals they are and not infringe on their rights which are the same as—equal to—yours.
It may be of interest to note that “these truths that we hold to be self-evident”: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, are precisely that—truths, givens, rights, and not incidentally, underpinnings of morality.
Because those rights include as well certain responsibilities—obligations—nothing more than the other side of the same coin—rights from the perspective of humankind. Our responsibilities (and the duty to perform them) are as much a birthright as the rights we covet.
So you also have the right (are obliged) to uphold humanity, to accept full responsibility for the consequences of your choices and actions, and to permit others to do the same. That’s ethics—just the way it is. No group, society or nation, no matter how benevolent, can cause it to be otherwise. These responsibilities are as much ours as our breathing and our heartbeat, whether or not we choose to accept them, and no group has the power to change that, or parcel them out to others.
And by discharging those rights (and obligations) morally, individuals would automatically enable and expand the free society that we all seek. Humanity is, in effect, an entity that lives in spite of any one of us. The world is, after all, an ethical whole from which it is impossible to entirely banish morality, because morality is founded in natural law. No government or its laws can prevail against it in the long run.
But we haven’t satisfied our part of the bargain. And by not doing so—by not exercising our rights and discharging our obligations—we have effectively abdicated to society and its government our rights in exchange for mere privileges.
In writing its laws, society necessarily employs definitions appropriate to its aims. Just as with equality, it has in fact done exactly that with the word rights. The law tells us that we have, for instance, “the right to remain silent.” But we already own that right and certain others as well, independent of society and before its law. What society’s law bestows are more properly privileges. Privileges, like any group rules, may be changed, deleted, or added at the pleasure of lawmakers. But when society tampers with our rights (or definitions thereof) either deliberately or accidentally, it risks fouling the system.
Privileges include the freedom to pass relatively unhampered through and about our society while enjoying our rights in the group context, and to abide by (and benefit from) group rules. We also ostensibly have the privilege of speaking our mind within the group. Many societies (and some groups within our own) do not bestow that privilege.
The confusion of privileges with rights is a function of a widespread misunderstanding of the relationship between ethics and values.
Values, like privileges but unlike ethics, are not absolute. They may be defined by a group or by an individual. But whatever they may or may not be, values, like morals, are not universal.
Values are defined ideals, customs, mores and morals. Values may be described, delimited, designated or interpreted by an individual, community or society. They may be either positive or negative. Ethics, on the other hand, can only be positive.
To put the difference between ethics and values in perspective, consider the difference between morality (honesty) and morals (that in spite of being generally-accepted societal customs, need not always be strictly moral), and consider the sociological aspects of everyday living in a society dominated by groups.
If a society’s morals (values) are not universal, the ethical individual may have difficulty dealing with them. But society does not persuade us to be perfect, only to “go long to get along” for the good of the many. (In fact, society persuades us to be alike, not unique, because it is easier to deal with and regulate similar entities.) It is within this framework that society’s rules and laws are written: just accept society’s values and obey its laws, and you’ll be all right.
Well, maybe…To put values into even clearer perspective, consider that one of its synonyms is utility. Others are benefit and caliber. Go figure.