For aware Pagans the Sacred encompasses us all, rivers and mountains, oceans and deserts, grasses and trees, fish and fungi, birds and animals. Understanding the implications of what this means, and how to experience it first hand, involves our growing individually and as a community well beyond the limits of this world-pathic civilization. All Our Relations exists to help fertilize this transition.
The Spiritual Truths underlying Liberalism and Conservatism, Part II: What Paganism adds
Part I of this essay was needed so we can know what liberalism and conservatism have meant historically and begin to grasp how they are changing. In addition, to understand their relations with one another and with the world I added a third pole, Power, and claimed we can understand neither liberalism nor conservatism without it. We can now delve more deeply, and begin to appreciate how Paganism can deepen our understanding and appreciation of both liberalism and conservatism.
Despite its now being almost always defended in purely secular terms liberalism is more in keeping with Jesus’s teaching that all are equal in God’s eyes than is any other modern ideology. John Locke derived human rights from his Christian belief that we were God’s creations and in His eyes equal. Consider Matthew 25:34-40.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?
38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
The important difference between this teaching and liberalism is that liberalism stops at not aggressing against one another, but does not proclaim a duty to help them. But I think the similarity is more important: all are fundamentally equal in a moral sense.
By contrast, conservatism laid greater emphasis on how individuals differed in the social order rather than in how they were abstractly equal. Society had always been hierarchical, and it likely always would be. Efforts to abolish hierarchy ended in new hierarchies often more brutal than those they replaced. That social hierarchies had so long remained so was an argument why we should live with them rather than try and end them.
But traditional conservatism drew different conclusions from this fact than the currently fashionable infatuation with Ayn Rand’s image of an talented and able elite supporting the world. History taught conservatives elites were inevitable, but it also taught this inevitability did not mean elites were particularly wise, able, or deserving. A person’s place in the social hierarchy did not simply reflect his or her personal abilities, although they certainly mattered. It also reflected where they had been born, who their family was, and the opportunities that came their way on account of their “station.”
It followed that those blessed with a privileged place in society had a responsibility to preserve the society that had privileged them. Doing so meant helping those less privileged so as to make their position as bearable as possible. Wealth and status conferred responsibilities to act responsibly and with an eye to interests greater than simply one’s private desires. Society as a whole gained when all who comprised it flourished according to their station. Ideals of justice for individuals were subordinated to what was good for maintaining the social order, but having high status should require considerable responsibility for acting beyond narrow self-interest.
In a way, liberalism and conservatism divided the Christian ethical tradition in half. Liberals argued for equal intrinsic value for all, but with no strong obligation to help others so long as one conducted oneself justly. Conservatism saw everyone as immersed with a multi-generational web of humanity, each benefiting from his or her ancestors and having obligations to pass on their familial and social inheritance in at least as good a condition to those who came later. Because our social positions reflected more than our own personal qualities, those most blessed were wise to assist those less blessed.
One emphasized equality of moral worth, the other the centrality of preserving good relationships across divisions of class and wealth.
Both liberalism and conservatism have rough equivalents in the history of Pagan thought. I have described how Aristotle was the first democratic theorist. In addition, in his The Peloponnesian War Thucydides’ depiction of Pericles’ funeral oration was in many ways a affirmation of liberal values. Conservative thinking has also been well represented in Pagan times, as in the works of Cato the Elder and Cicero.
That said, Pagan societies of the past were so different from our own as to make cross-cultural comparisons very difficult and easily misleading. Instead I want to focus on modern Pagans and modern liberalism and conservatism. From a conservative perspective it is modern society that needs preservation, and modern men and women whose rights are important from a liberal one.
Returning to the world
From my perspective both liberalism and conservatism grasp something true about human life. But of the two, conservatism provides a broader foundation for understanding society. Conservative principles can be used to understand and explain any society, which is both its strength and its weakness. Liberalism is more explicitly rooted in theory and abstract principles, Burke’s “metaphysical distinctions.” Many societies exist, and have long existed, that deny the validity of these principles. Liberals argue they are mistaken. But liberalism came to this conclusion from within a Western Christian worldview. As a consequence, liberalism separates us from the world.
For Locke the world is something God gave to us for our use, but the only part that is rightfully personally ours is what we use so long as “as much and as good” remains for others. The rest of the world is equally open to the use of others, and derives what value it has from that use.
Further, we are each of us unique individuals separate from all others. Unlike Hobbes’ view of human nature as short sighted and anti-social, for Locke people are social. But like Hobbes, each is separate from all others. We are social atoms coming together to create the molecules and compounds we call society. It is symbolically fitting that Locke was a contemporary and friend of Sir Isaac Newton.
Secular liberals today have accepted this instrumental view of our world, and of our distance from it. Thinking they have freed themselves from religion, they often simply substitute a secularized version of transcendental monotheism that divorces people from the social and natural world and denies its having any intrinsic value, and does so as completely as any Calvinist.
This separation of people from the world is why attempts to ground an ethical regard for nature on a liberal foundation has been so unimpressive, even to many who sympathize with their motivation. The liberal notion of rights does not apply very easily to animals existing in relationships requiring predation. Nor does the utilitarian alternative of ‘animal liberation’ do any better. Tom Regan and Peter Singer,advocates of animal rights and animal liberation respectively, both foundered when discussing predation. From their perspective it was wrong, but nature requires it. That humans exist, including Tom Regan and Peter Singer, is the result of millions of years of predation. Without predation the world would consist of little beyond blue green algae.
With respect to liberal rights and preserving nature for its own sake, as the old Maine saying goes, “You can’t get there from here.”
Burkean conservatism returns us to the world, or, because it shares transcendental monotheism’s views about our unique status, at least to the social world. This opens conservatism to appreciating the importance of nature more deeply than can liberalism. A conservative argument would rest on prudence and on preserving values for future generations (whereas the liberal economist asks “what has the future ever done for me?”) But it also lays the foundation for something deeper.
Burke’s arguments about the nature of society are ecological. There is no great step from seeing society as a great ecology of human relationships to seeing it as itself immersed within and dependent upon an even greater ecology of relationships of the other-than-human. Preserving the world then becomes as important as preserving society. To pick two examples , conservative reasoning would be very concerned about global warming and the over fishing of the oceans. That today it is not is a fascinating question that Part III will discuss.
Crucially, this pro-conservation conservative perspective is compatible with a Pagan view that conceives the spiritual as immanent, as existing within and through the world.
By contrast, the liberal view of the world as our tool to be used as we wish is harder to harmonize with a Pagan perspective. New Deal liberals long argued an undammed river’s water is “wasted” when it runs out to sea rather than being diverted for irrigating deserts. Classical liberals sometimes argue the job could be better done by private enterprise, but agree the job should be done. Liberals can and do learn from science that the reality is far more complex than this mid-20th century view comprehended, but the final standard is still what is most useful for us.
The matter of rights
But liberalism has given us the transformative doctrine of human rights, which has been a powerful concept for improving human well being for billions. Buttressed by Christians who took seriously the passage I cited from Matthew, liberals abolished slavery in the name of individual rights. The transformative impact of our Declaration so changed American thinking that a majority of states abolished slavery well before the Civil War. Much that is best in our history reflects the influence of acting as if individual rights mattered while much that is worst in our history reflects when those motivated by fear or lust for power set human rights aside.
Can an immanent Pagan perspective find a place for individual rights? Pagan slave societies never did. Can we?
I believe we can.
Reversing the Relations: Respect and Rights
A simple reversal allows us to salvage the crucial idea of individual rights after giving up transcendental views of who we are. The animal rights debates set the stage. Tom Regan and others try and derive an ethical relation to the rest of the world, or at least to part of it, from building on the idea of human rights. I suggest reversing this, and deriving human rights from a deeper appreciation of the ethical value of the world within which we live.
If we examine hunting and gathering Pagan cultures, which took seriously the insight their world was in some important sense alive, as well as those which while agricultural, preserved much of that sensibility, as with many Native Americans, we find a universal or near universal emphasis upon relating to the non-human world with respect.
No culture perfectly exemplifies its highest values. Certainly ours does not. But so long as a people respected those values, they serve as important correctives when greed or fear or ambition tempt us towards different paths. If we are wise these ethics help keep us from being carried away by these temptations, temptations which always serve that third pole: Power. The Pagan Naxi people of Southwest China have preserved their forests for primarily spiritual reasons even though they have been logged most everywhere else. If we are not wise these ethics serve as goads pushing future generations to correct the errors of their ancestors. Our Declaration of Independence undermined slavery. Its words served as a constant reminder of work left unaccomplished, which was why the antebellum South repudiated it.
I suggest basic liberal rights, such as freedom of speech and the right to own property are the form respect takes among equals who are strangers. As such, liberal rights make it possible for people who know little or nothing about one another to cooperate, building networks of trust and so creating a world of unimaginable complexity and richness. Liberalism helps us over come the worst abuses arising from always preferring the more concrete to the less concrete, our family to others, our tribe to other tribes, our people to people in general.
Viewing rights as the form respect takes with regard to strangers who are our equals also sheds light on a problem with arguments made by some liberals, libertarians in particular, that liberal rights apply easily to all human relations. They do not translate well into intimate relations because they are impersonal. They work best when relating with others whom we do not know, or have no interest in becoming involved with beyond simple exchanges. A comparison of prostitution and a loving relationship makes this point clear.
Prostitution is an example of the liberal right to voluntary exchange. Both parties believe they will be better off because of it, and often they are correct. So long as neither party is victimized, I have no ethical problem with prostitution.
But prostitution is not the same as a loving relationship. In the latter case I limit myself in ways not considered necessary within more purely contractual relations. I do not have to of course, but my not doing so usually leads to ending an intimate relationship. While prostitution and loving relationships are exceptionally clear examples, there are many others where we accept necessary limitations on our liberal rights in order to preserve valued relationships. There are even cases where I might violate another’s liberal rights because they are a person for whom I care deeply, as when I take a drunken friend’s keys, his property, to prevent his driving home.
To maintain relations of love and friendship, let alone raising children, I will not rely solely on respecting liberal rights and sometimes might even ignore them.
Liberal rights are crucially important, but they apply to only a portion of human relations. As the form respect takes among equal strangers, they limit the abuses of tribalism and nationalism, and make trust and cooperation among strangers easier. They exist within what I suggest we think of as a larger moral ecology of appropriate relationships, all ultimately rooted in the value of respect.
The symbiotic relation of liberalism and conservatism
Earlier I mentioned conservatism had a fatal weakness that liberalism could heal. When reform is called for conservatism’s insights do not give any guidance on what to do. Conservatism is biased towards maintaining the status quo, but society, like an ecosystem, is constantly changing. When a subordinate class objects to their subordination, conservatism too easily tilts towards suppressing them to preserve that status quo because those who are in positions of power will weigh their advantages of the moment more heavily than another group’s disadvantages. Empathy towards those unlike us is always a challenge, and without empathy the rich and powerful always feel superior.
Past a certain point maintaining the status requires more and more power imposed on the world to preserve what is superficially the status quo. But because increasing amounts of power are needed to accomplish this, at a deeper level the status quo is still changed. Power concentrates ever more completely into tyranny in the name of preserving order.
Liberalism teaches that when reforms become possible they should seek as best they can to move a social order towards greater practical respect for rights, and never away from it. This is an important corrective to the temptation to give ever more control over to Power when it promises to restore “stability.” In a sense, wise liberalism in a conservative context is a genuinely conservative principle.
From another perspective, the conservative ecological approach is needed to know when it is wise to make changes, and liberalism is needed to know what general direction those changes need to go. Conservatism originated in relatively liberal England, and used reason and evidence rather than simple appeals to faith or unexamined tradition to make its case. Burke thought the French should build greater liberty based on their traditional institutions, not suppress liberty in the name of the monarchy. The changes he felt were necessary would have gone in a liberal direction, but not nearly as far and as fast as what was attempted, and eventually failed.
Liberalism sets the direction, conservatism determines the speed. There is no simple privileging of one perspective over the other and no way to tell how fast to go without considering the details of each case.
Or so it seems to me.
A Pagan Summing Up
Pagan spiritual insights root conservative social insights in the all embracing world that sustains us and root liberal rights in the primordial insight that in a world filled with life and meaning our dealings with all our relations should be governed by respect. Pagan insights free conservatism from an amoral preference for the status quo and readiness to use power in its preservation, a readiness that transforms that status quo in very unconservative directions. Pagan insights free liberalism from its basic inability to appreciate and value the non human world, and solidly grounds liberal rights in the larger ethical world within which we live. It does so in a way giving full appreciation to the important human relations that are not able to be maintained through purely liberal rights. Perhaps these tasks can be accomplished by other means, but Pagan spirituality is an exceptionally clear way to do so.
It cannot come too quickly because, as Part III will show, in America both conservatism and liberalism are in advanced stages of decay, and in both cases the third pole, Power, is successfully turning their rhetoric against themselves, depriving words of meaning, and threatening to create a hideous world of tyranny and oppression.
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