Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Conservatives and Reason

There is misconception, repeatedly resurfacing in conservative circles, which holds that naturalism in ethics implies a view of man as a barren valueless mechanistic being – only a supernaturalism can supply ethics and the concept of rights. On today’s editorial page of the New York Sun there is a quote by Ronald Reagan:

“Without God, there is no virtue because there is no prompting of the conscience. Without God we are mired in the material, that flat world that tells us only what the senses perceive. Without God there is a coarsening of the society. Without God democracy will not and cannot long endure. And that, simply, is the heart of my message: if we ever forget that we are One Nation Under God, then we will be a nation gone under."

The conflation of naturalism with Hobbesian materialism is so common place in conservative circles that few conservatives can even imagine any other type of secular or naturalistic ethics. In Ancient Hellenic thought, the naturalism of Aristotle was teleological to a fault. He wrote the first treatise on ethics in human history; constructed on naturalistic grounds, it is a major pillar in the foundation of Western Civilization. But conservative intellectuals, when I try to remind them of this, look at me and say with a straight face that Aristotle must have believed in transcendent values (actually, guys that was Plato) and not the mere expedient nor in arbitrary convention (correct boys and girls, that was the Sophists).

Two recent authors who comment on this mistaken notion of naturalism are Tibor Machan and Robert Tracinski. I’ve written about this as part of my assessment of the conservative response to the Islamic threat.

I respect that many of my conservative friends cherish religion and turn to their religion for solace to deal with stressful issues of human mortality, etc. However, we’ll have common ground if we share a commitment to deal with the challenges of living this life by the use of our rational faculty. Since Aquinas, some Christians have found a way to accept reason as a potent tool to understand secular matters. I cheer my conservative friends when they find that liberty is in harmony with their religious beliefs. However, when religion is used to push aside reason and claim for religion what only reason can support, I must protest this dishonest turf grab. There is a growing hostility among conservatives against the core values of Western Civilization (as I discuss in my link above).

It’s time for our conservative friends to accept the heroic achievement of our secular/rational/scientific humanist tradition. If they can do that we have common ground. In the face of the theocratic Islamic threat, we need to take stock in the contributions of our tradition – on which rests our cultural achievements.


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