ETHICAL ISSUES: CONSERVATISM
Conservatism is not a political issue, nor is what follows intended to be a political statement. 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 ethical and moral base “in order to form a more perfect union.”
Drawing upon the experience of past cultures and societies so as 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, arguably a high-water mark of the world’s civilizations, 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 be in conflict with Natural Law and its 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 mankind 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 beyond his privileges (granted by the group) 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 the 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. 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 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 society. 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 relative, 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.
To put values into even clearer perspective, consider that one of its synonyms is utility. Others are benefit and caliber. Go figure.
The preceding discussion provides a background to the current state of affairs, which are not congruent with the way it’s supposed to be. What follows describes the current state of affairs.
THE WAY IT IS, and WHY
Our complex culture has inexorably been redefining humanity in its own image, leaving the individual at the mercy of groups, technology and ever-accelerating “social progress.” The tail has come to wag the dog; what we’ve built is running us.
What’s happened was that we have, over the course of time, effectively subverted the natural process in the name of the way we think (or are led to believe) that things are. The rapid growth of knowledge and technology has persuaded us to delegate the responsibility for progress to groups. We have effectively signed over our own creativity, imagination and ingenuity to others, giving them permission to tell us what to think and accepting what they tell us as the way it is. Instead of sharing the load according to our ability to handle it, we have become caught up in self-interest and neglected our vital link with humanity. In the process we have drawn further from the principle, the reason for it all—to be, to live, to create, to become all that we can be—what humanity and life itself is all about. We have come to believe, perhaps even with good reason, that we cannot trust others to do the right thing, thinking (or worse, never even considering) that others feel the same way about us. We forget that the vital connection includes more than shared interests and abilities. It includes, in fact, everything that makes us human, and it begins in truth.
As we developed stronger and stronger group connections we developed as well, group by group, a system of laws that has tended to mask our vital link with humanity. We tended to forget that, even if the high-water mark of mankind, our society is still a group, and as a group it’s disposable. We tended to forget that humankind remains the vital and overarching entity to which each of us is vitally connected. We tended to forget that groups, however large and pervasive, remain groups that do not and cannot replace the individual, family, community or humanity, no matter what they tell us or what we have come to believe.
And when we permit group relationships to displace the vital one in importance, we permit groups (including society itself) to appropriate greater authority, and some members greater influence, than they are due. In this process, group rules corrupt the basic ethical precepts of mankind. Groups have written their own rules in order to accomplish their own ends, and these rules have found their way into law that may (and often does) misrepresent the relationship between the group and the individual. We have allowed, even encouraged, this to happen, and in the process we’ve subverted ethics in favor of law (group think) by assigning our own ethical responsibilities to groups that by definition cannot handle them. The effect has been devastating on both levels that really matter: the individual and the whole of mankind.
The ‘global community’ aspired to by many is a worthy and achievable goal, but only by way of first principles and natural law. It is, in fact, the way things should be, but it is not possible under the aegis of a government (or governments) that takes liberties with truth (anyone needing examples of this either has not been paying attention or is in moral denial). Only an ethical and moral entity can achieve this goal. Such a government is possible, but not under the current conditions resulting from servile deference to special interests. It is possible using a truly conservative approach.
To me, conservative means a return to the original premises of our nation and of humanity generally. This process begins with truth and the primacy of the individual freedom guaranteed by our Constitution and implicit in natural law.
This is not a political issue. It merely requires that all parties revert to the truth. Ethics and morality are not subject to party lines.
Do you think it’s political? Sorry—not from my point of view. Conservatism, by political definition, champions the Constitution and rights of the individual rather than the power of government. Should someone favor governmental power over the primacy of the individual, that someone would be in political opposition to conservatism. However, so long as he demanded truth in politics and compliance with natural law, we would be in essential agreement ethically. Any political differences would be his choice, not mine.
I am in favor of individual freedom and people helping each other. I do not and never have relied on government for help to run my life—I alone am responsible for it. I also am a professional, one who speaks for himself without an intermediary. That puts me in opposition to unions, and especially public unions, which are made up of people who delegate to others the power to speak for them (and therefore are not professionals). As an individual, which like it or not we all are, I accept the responsibilities of my actions and will sink or swim with my decisions. Parenthetically, I’ve done both.
…open for discussion…