‘Without a tradition, everything is impermanence and flux.’ Thus writes David Brooks in a New York Times piece giving advice to the rebellious and dissatisfied youth of today. If you are one of these youth, Brooks’ advice is that your rebellion should be grounded in a past tradition:
‘If I could offer advice to a young rebel, it would be to rummage the past for a body of thought that helps you understand and address the shortcomings you see. Give yourself a label. If your college hasn’t provided you with a good knowledge of countercultural viewpoints — ranging from Thoreau to Maritain — then your college has failed you and you should try to remedy that ignorance.’
Many years ago Bernard Crick made a similar point in his book In Defence of Politics. Conservatives anchoring themselves in tradition, he argued, forget that radical, dissenting progressivism is just as much anchored in tradition. ‘The conservative’s choice of being traditional or anti-traditional is meaningless.’
This is a fine point for an Englishman to make. The Burkean conservative claims the mantle of the Parliament of 1688, yet even the most extreme radical has roots that go deeper, into the Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, and Nonconformists of the Civil War decades. Conversely, it was Lord Melbourne, the spokesman for the party of progress, who gave Queen Victoria, the emblem of tradition, the most conservative advice ever given to a sovereign: ‘Never try to do good; you only end up getting into scrapes.’
And you hardly need to look to English history to find the meaninglessness of the conservative’s tradition/anti-tradition dichotomy. Bismarck, whom Frederick William described as a ‘red reactionary smelling of blood’, clung to his agrarian Junker roots against all the progressive influences of a privileged liberal education. Yet he went on to found the welfare state, half a century before the rest of Europe caught up, and to create a kind of nation the world had never seen before.
Radicalism, then, can be as sunk in tradition as conservatism. But should it be? Brooks does not say so, but the reasons radicalism ought to align itself with tradition concern moral philosophy.
Anybody hoping to do good in the world, whether by conserving, reforming, or revolutionising it, must have a clear idea of what it means to do good. There are only two ways of determining this – two metaethical theories – that have really influenced politics. One claims that doing good consists of making as many people as happy as possible. The other claims the concept of goodness cannot make sense apart from a notion of the proper function or end for things of a particular kind. To be a good person is to admirably fulfil the proper function, or serve the proper end, of a human life; a good society is one in which people are provided what they need in order to do so.
Of course there are other metaethical theories, but what political influence have they really had? G.E. Moore’s theory that goodness is a non-natural property, perceived through moral intuition, is said to have influenced John Maynard Keynes. And he definitely influenced politics. Certainly Moore’s reminder that people sometimes pursue intuited and intangible goals may have inspired Keynes’ attention to the so-called ‘animal spirits’ at work in the economy. And yet did Keynes need this reminder from Moore? It seems a historical extravagance to think so.
There are also various constructivist and social contract theories around, which some people might take offence at my having dismissed as not politically influential. But social contract theory in its authentic Hobbesian form is really a version of the first of the above-listed theories. It identifies the good with the maximisation of happiness, the social contract being the reliable mechanism for ensuring it. Alternately, in its corrupted Lockean version, it is a form of the second theory; the social contract and the natural rights of man flow out of the purposes our creator had in making us social beings. In its modern Rawlsian form social contract theory is not a metaethical theory at all, and anyway has not been massively influential over modern politics, not, at least, if modern politics is held to involve the governed as much as the governors.
Now out of the two main politically influential metaethical theories, the second leads very quickly to an emphasis on the importance of tradition. Where are we meant to learn the proper end of a human life, if not from some tradition? Looking at nature doesn’t help. The only purpose for which, according to our best science, nature has built us is to help enlarge the possibilities for a certain macromolecule to make copies of itself. That is not morally inspiring. Indeed to morally endorse the ends for which natural selection employs the human phenotype leads us down a very dangerous path. ‘That way’, to quote Alex Rosenberg, ‘lies the moral disaster of Social Spencerism (better but wrongly known as Social Darwinism).’ There have been a few interesting attempts recently to arrive at more positive forms of moral naturalism, such as Philippa Foot’s Natural Goodness. But it is possible to claim that these are underdetermined, if not undermined, by modern biology.
If nature doesn’t give any morally satisfying answer to the question ‘what is the purpose, function, or end of a human life?’ does that mean that only tradition can do so? Probably not. But being embedded within a tradition does give the only semblance of authority to our answers. This was the main point of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Novelists, artists, and philosophers often make guesses at what life is all about. But how we should determine which guesses are better than others is completely unclear. ‘We’re here on earth just to fart around,’ wrote Kurt Vonnegut. Well, why not? And then, at the same time, why?
The only real hope of convincing somebody not already convinced that your vision of the good life is the correct one lies in pointing out to her that she is already committed to that vision herself, following from her commitment to some shared tradition. As a liberal, as a democrat, as a Christian, as a socialist, she must think that this is what life is for – this is, it would seem, the closest one can hope to come to having right and wrong answers to questions about ultimate ends.
And yet, of course, it’s tremendously limited. This authority, or pseudo-authority extends only to the perimeters of a single tradition, and has only as much force as that tradition has internal unity and consistency.
This might push one to adopt what looks like the more natural and objective measure of goodness found in the first of the two metaethical theories listed above. Applied to politics, it places major demands on social science. It requires a policy, program, or revolution to be justified in terms of the happiness it is likely to provide, rather than in terms of its embodying some correct vision of ultimate ends. To make such a justification requires a social science with considerable predictive power, a social science that can predict when, under what conditions, and how much people will be happy. We seem a long way off having anything like this, as I’ve mentioned before. Indeed, a chapter of After Virtue is dedicated to arguing that predictions of even the near future of society are forever beyond our power to make.
Thus we might be pushed back again to the other theory, that what we do, both as individuals and as societies should be determined by beliefs about ultimate ends. But, again, agreement on these beliefs seems to require mutual embededness in a single tradition. None of the great moral conflicts of the future are likely to involve only stakeholders committed to a single tradition.
More than this, conservatives like Brooks and MacIntyre (I’m hurting somebody by putting them in the same sentence and I’m not sorry), perceiving that tradition hardly plays the role they would like it to play in people’s moral decision-making, recommend that we all actively embed ourselves into a tradition. The problem is that I suspect we all know deep down what a tradition is, namely a set of reasons for doing a set of things there are no good reasons to do. Once you’ve engaged your critical faculties, disengaging them is often impossible. Yet this is what would be involved in making the kind of uncritical allegiance to the moral authority of tradition that conservatives want us to make, whereby tradition would speak within us as a kind of second nature.
This, then, is the dilemma for the young people dissatisfied with the current order of things Brooks is addressing. If they – actually we – set up general happiness as our objective moral standard, we have no guarantee that our projects will help us to meet it. If we commit to some vision of ultimate ends, we have nothing but appeals to tradition by which to justify our commitment, and tradition won’t work the way we need it to. What, then, should we do? Create a new tradition, I suppose. That, however, might take a few centuries. For now just fart around.