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A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism by Roger Scruton

Floris van den Berg criticises Roger Scruton’s splendid isolation.

I have never understood conservatism, and after reading Scruton’s Arguments for Conservatism, I still don’t. The same with the ideal of progress. What would be the word for the opposite of conservatism? Progressivism? Conservatism says: ‘Old is good’. Progressivism is its antithesis: ‘New is good’. Here (and I presume only this once) I ask for a Hegelian synthesis: some old things are good, and some new things are good.

But a criterion is needed in order to evaluate goodness. Conservatism does not give a criterion; conservatism is an appeal to authority – the authority of the past. Scruton is precise in what he means by the past: it is ‘good old England’. Reading this book I tried to imagine what Scruton’s England looks like. Perhaps something like the children’s series Postman Pat: a small, quiet rural society in which everybody is friendly and everyone knows each other, with modernity kept at bay. In wanting this Scruton longs for a utopia of the past that has never existed. He has been longing for it for a long time: in 1980 he published The Meaning of Conservatism.

Scruton uses religious language for a nonreligious philosophy (not secular, because he pleads for the influence of the Church of England). But what do words like ‘piety’, ‘spiritual’, ‘innocence’, ‘holy’, ‘desecration’, ‘sacrament’, ‘mystery’, ‘blessing’ etc mean for non-religious people? These words have meaning within a religious discourse. To apply a Wittgensteinian concept – Scruton uses words from one language game in a different language game. It is like using tennis terms to describe a football match. But religion without God is like a vegetarian steak.

Scruton seems to lament the waning of the religious worldview of the Church of England, without being a believer himself, as far as I can tell. Scruton’s essay ‘Religion and the Enlightenment’ does not enlighten the reader at all. He concludes that we are all deeply religious, atheists included: “we should learn that religion, properly understood, is an immovable part of the human condition, manifest as much in ‘free spirits’ who sneer at it as in the pious souls for whom it is the fount of consolation.” (p.145) Scruton seems to want to extend the influence of religion on public life. He calls believers victims of the Enlightenment:

“But we can strive to be gentle with its victims – to recognize that ordinary people, when they ask that prayers be said in their children’s schools, that offensive images be removed from TV screens and hoardings, that the outward signs of the religious life be publicly endorsed, are giving voice to feelings which we may think we have grown out of, but which, in fact, at the unconscious level where they thrive, we still experience.”

In other words, there should be prayers in schools, religious censorship of the media and burkas in public spaces. Why not also teach Creationism, withdraw sex education (which indeed Scruton pleads for), separate boys and girls, reintroduce physical punishment? Scruton’s conservative agenda has much in common with religious traditionalism. He has traditional views on sex, marriage, abortion and euthanasia, in harmony with Christian teaching. Scruton is a fervent moralizer: he wants to decide how other people should live. I wouldn’t care if his ideas about euthanasia, abortion, same sex marriage were his private opinions, but he wants to impose them on society. He is not an enlightenment thinker, because he does not take individual freedom seriously. Scruton is more a Rousseauian moralist who wants to impose his ideas and his ideals of the good life on everybody.

Scruton has good points on several issues when criticizing contemporary Western societies, but his remedies are fundamentally wrong because he goes down the road of authoritarianism – paradoxically, because he claims to be opposed to totalitarianism.

In some ways Scruton’s thinking resembles the gloomy apocalyptic visions of John Gray in Straw Dogs and Black Mass, in blaming the project of the Enlightenment and secular humanism for all social evils.

Gray is a fatalist who does not seem to believe in trying to make the world a better place. Scruton does want to make the world a better place: his panacea is ‘no new policies, let’s turn back the clock, and keep only some of the comfort of modern technological society’. Theologian Richard Swinburne who really thinks God exists, and that evil is necessary in the world for people to do good; apocalyptic prophet John Gray; and conservative moaner Roger Scruton – three prominent English academics. What is happening to academia in the UK? Fortunately there are beacons of reason as well, like Richard Dawkins, Anthony Grayling and Susan Blackmore.

Not everything Scruton says is rubbish. One has to evaluate the topics he discusses with normative criteria. My criteria are individual freedom and (cosmopolitan) social justice. So which chapter would I most recommend? ‘Newspeak and Eurospeak’, probably: “Newspeak occurs whenever the main purpose of language – which is to describe reality – is replaced by the rival purpose of asserting over it.” (p.162) “The purpose of Eurospeak is not to protect an ideology, but to protect a system of privileges.” (p.163) Scruton warns us about large, anonymous, abstract bureaucracies which endanger individual freedom. Here is a cynical, Kafkaesque quote by Scruton on bureaucracy: “The human individual is the single most important obstacle that all bureaucratic systems must overcome, and which all ideologies must destroy.” (p.168)

The chapter ‘Eating Our Friends’ I think is the most disturbing and dishonest. It is a crusade against animal rights activists like Peter Singer:

“The conflict over eating animals has indeed become a test case for moral theory in Western societies, not least because of the vigorous campaigns by Peter Singer, the Australian philosopher who has applied an uncompromising utilitarianism to the problem, concluding not merely that much that we do to animals cannot be defended but that our entire common-sense morality, which elevates human beings above other animals, is founded on a mistake.” (p.47)

Scruton is mistaken about the core of Singer’s concern: it is not about eating animals primarily, but about how animals are treated by humans. Scruton argues that if we still had 19th century farming methods there would not be a moral problem. As long as there is a straight, ‘honest and loving’ relationship between farmer and animal it is not wrong, according to Scruton, to kill and eat ‘our friends’: Peter Singer would not be as concerned as much as he is now if there were animal-friendly farming methods.

Sometimes Scruton seems to understand:

“To criticize battery pig farming as violating a duty of care is surely right and proper.” (p. 58)

But he also writes:

“And I suspect people become vegetarians for precisely that reason: that by doing so they overcome the residue of guilt that attaches to every form of hubris, and in particular to the hubris of human freedom.” (p. 62).

I happen to be a vegetarian, but I’m not sure that I am trying to “overcome the residue of guilt.” As far as I can tell I do not eat meat because meat-eating involves animals having to suffer unnecessarily. I am a moral vegetarian.

Scruton has taken up some of Singer’s critique of factory farming and plea for animal welfare. I don’t think he would have given a thought about animal suffering if Singer and other animal welfare activists had not drawn attention to this moral problem. Conservatism is not concerned with animal welfare. In the many books Scruton has written he has failed to notice the way we mistreat farm animals, which is one of the biggest blind spots of our societies. Scruton is wrong to attack vegetarians whilst agreeing with them that farm animals should not be mistreated. Scruton is deeply confused and inconsistent here.

The chapter ‘Eliot and Conservatism’ is also highly disturbing. T.S. Eliot is a hero for Scruton. I see Eliot as a critic of the Enlightenment and modernism. It seems Scruton agrees with Eliot about his gloomy view on modernization, in contrast to the rational critique of society by Bertrand Russell. This is a fundamental choice: Russell or Eliot. It is like choosing between religion and atheism. In his chapter ‘Extinguishing the Light’ Scruton criticizes postmodernism, but partial blindness makes him close his mind and appreciate Eliot as a political and moral philosopher. Scruton writes about Eliot’s thinking, and one wonders whether Scruton personally agrees with it (it seems he does):

“Eliot’s deep distrust of secular humanism – and of the socialist and democratic ideas of society which he believed to stem from it – reflected his critique of the neo-Romantics. The humanist, with his myth of man’s goodness [this is a straw man fallacy: very few humanists hold this view – FB], is taking refuge in an easy falsehood. He is living in a world of make-believe, trying to avoid the real emotional cost of seeing things as they are [this is upside down – does religion see things as they are? FB].” (p.199)

Scruton’s oracular utterances about the wisdom of Eliot sound deep – in fact they’re so deep they’re beyond my ability to fathom:

“The paradox, then, is this: the falsehoods of religious faith enable us to perceive the truths that matter. The truths of science, endowed with an absolute authority, hide the truths that matter, and make the human reality unperceivable.” (p. 203).

And he says: “The religion is the life blood of a culture.” (p.204) Does that mean that in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia Islam is the life blood of these cultures? Perhaps in practice it is, but should it be? It’s hard for conservatism to credibly answer this question. To me it seems conservatism does not care for the victims in society – conservatism does not seem to care about changing society for the better for women, nonbelievers, homosexuals, animals, etc.

Scruton is evasive. Sometimes he is a naive conservative, at other times he seems to be some kind of liberal. Scruton ends his essay on Eliot with a muddled remark: “The conservative response to modernity is to embrace it, but to embrace it critically, in full consciousness that human achievements are rare and precarious, that we have no God-given right to destroy our inheritance, but must always patiently submit to the voice of order, and set an example of orderly living.” (p.208) But what does Scruton mean by ‘orderly living’? Does he mean obeying the political and religious authorities? He doesn’t say.

So why read Arguments for Conservatism? I really don’t know. Most of it seems a waste of time, like so much of philosophy, and all of theology. Perhaps this book could help to get one’s own ideas straight. The one sure lesson that can be drawn from Scruton’s works is that in some cases things were better in the past. Scruton reminds us that the past is a possibility for the future: we do not necessarily have to change things. Though Scruton does make some good points, over-valuing the past tends to conceal injustices. Let’s just keep the good things.

Scruton’s hobby of playing at being gentry would be fine if it were just his private passion and he didn’t bother others with it. No one will ask Scruton to marry a man, to abort his child, to get someone to kill him when old, to watch porn, to abandon the Church of England, to emigrate: but Scruton also has to leave other people their freedom to do as they like as long as they do not harm others. Let’s keep Scruton in his splendid isolation.

© Floris van den berg 2007

Floris van den Berg is a philosopher and Executive Director of the Center for Inquiry Low Countries (www.cfilowcountries.org).

• Roger Scruton, A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism, Continuum, London & New York, 2006, pb, 214 pages. $16.95/£8.99.

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