Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Darwin and Traditional Conservatism

Our friend Larry writes that Mark Henrie’s liberal conservatism fuses the best Burkean elements of Kirk and Hayek to do justice to the natural (evolutionary?) limits of our individual liberty. Liberal conservatism aims to "keep Locke in the Locke box" to conserve what makes life worth living. Question for discussion: What are the key differences between liberal conservatism (Henrie) and conservative liberalism (Berkowitz)?

Discussions - 17 Comments

I think "liberal conservatism" is founded upon a substantive theoretical critique of conservatism both as a philosophical theory and as a political disposition; it is an auto-critique of its own limitations and therefore a reflection on the relation between theory and practice and between liberty and the conditions that makes liberty possible. In contrast, conservative liberalism never quite surrenders its attraction to liberal autonomy and liberal justice; it is not grounded upon philosophical misgivings regarding its foundations but the question of practical applicability. This might mean that conservative liberalism never quite reaches the level of a genuine fusion because it never experiences the same anxiety and doubt about its axiomatic foundations: the conservative component is less a modification of liberalism than an instrument of its protection. It seems a more volatile mix than liberal conservatism since it still seems to hold out hope that such accomodations are historically but not permanently demanded, that liberalism will eventually be able to stand on its own.

I have to argue with the goodness of the wide range of human desires that Larry says Darwinian science proves. Human desires can be destructive and that is why we curb them. The human good in a general sense may not encompass my individual human desires, which might be only natural, but not necessarily good. I really do not see how Darwinian conservatism, if it reflects "the evolved nature of human beings" as is it really is, requires family life, moral education, religious belief, and private property Most of America sees the private property aspect and sometimes family life, but the rest is a stretch. I only wish it were true.


I do not see the "conservative" resistance to change. Every conservative I hear wants desperately to change the status quo, hating America and the world as it is in a political sense, right now. The question I keep hearing between conservatives is as to how much liberty is required as an absolute human good? Or, how much liberty must we submit to society to achieve the proper balance? Balancing, of course, is a precarious proposition.

Which leads me to wonder if the Right's absurdity is to presume that man is basically evil, while demanding the most liberal of governments possible. How much liberality is possible there depends on how depressed the conservative is about mankind. The absurdity of the Left is to presume that men are essentially good and needs a vast state apparatus to keep them all in line.


Ivan's comment leaves me dizzy. He's probably right.


I loved Kirk when I was young and wanted to believe that history held answers. I find more questions in history, as I get older and so have less sympathy.


Peter, are evolution and nature the same?

How do you folks move so fast? I'm still tying my shoes.

On a slightly more concrete note, IMO liberal conservatism does not necessarily embrace equality and pluralism. It does not believe democracy is in and of itself a positive good. It is one means to an end of the good and ordered society. It does not view individuals as mere abstractions so it does not get squeamish at the notion that blood and soil are part of the ties that bind. It does not view the primary role of government as securing rights but as protecting and promoting that good society that tradition, history, revelation and nature have bequeathed us.

Steve. Hurry up! Actually, I've been thinking about this for a couple of days, having done the reading but with no time to write on the previous posts. I'm the dilatory one.

Dan Phillips, so liberal conservatism is republicanism? Oh. And you say, it has a little more, but not equality. Why not?

"And you say, it has a little more, but not equality. Why not?"



I am not sure what you are asking? But nature, tradition, Revelation, history etc. do not speak of equality. They all speak of hierarchy. Equality is an abstraction that is arrived at through philosophizing.



Here is a good explanation of a liberal conservative view of equality from the website Dixienet:



"Upholds the ontological or spiritual equality of all men before God and the bar of justice, while recognizing and rejoicing in the fact that is has neither been the will of God Almighty nor within the power of human legislation to make any two men mechanically equal



Is structured upon the Biblical notion of hierarchy. In short, a recognition of the natural societal order of superiors and subordinates where Christian charity (as found in the second Table of the Law) toward our neighbors produces harmony and stability. Christ is the head of His Church; husbands are the heads of their families; parents are placed over their children; employers rank above their employees; the teacher is superior to his students, etc."



So how might inequality and hierarchy work out on the ground? For example by privileging Christians in a Christian society in order to preserve the Christian character of that society.

The quarter system is unforgiving. Piles of papers. Plus, the Cavaliers and the Indians!!

"Equality" is left-wing utopianism. As a conservative, gentleman, elitist and supporter of aristocracy, I must whole-heartedly reject it. "Equality" is for the mediocre, for those snakeoil salesmen of modernity. I care for my own before others. As a real conservative and gentleman, I support blood and soil, kith and kin, and genophilia (instinctive attachment to family and tribe).

Since I can't sleep these days I'll take another stab at it. Conservative liberalism refuses to make its peace with politics; individual liberty still trumps the compromises that make social and politial life resistant to theoretical abstraction. The exaltation of individual liberty makes it difficult for the conservative liberal to accept a definition of liberty that tethers it to some other or higher good; the absoluteness of liberty favors negative formulations: liberty is freedom from restraint, especially from the tutelage of God and nature. The conservative component of conservative liberalism, or the conservative modification of liberal premises, is the tempering of individual autonomy by political necessity. Agan, this makes conservative liberalism a volatile mix since the conservative part seems like an affront to the liberal part. On the other hand, liberal conservatism still follows Cicero's lead when he observes the "it is often the nature of politics to defeat reason"; the liberal part of the equation is not merely a stubborn capitulation but a sincere nod to the worth and fragility of individual freedom.

Kate, Larry's formulation is a bit off. Darwinian science and conservatism are compatible because both recognize the inherent tension between the individual and the collective. The formation of families, moralities, and so on is a second-order effect -- collectives of humans are forced to create them to meet our needs as social animals. Both Darwinism and conservativism understand the bedrock importance of such institutions, and that these must evolve gradually (reason alone cannot fathom the contradictory nature of human beings, so we have to go-along-and-get-along, finding what works and what does not).

The Left, on the other hand, sees these secondary institutions as the enemy. Taking their cue from Rousseau, man needs to be liberated from oppressive economic, political, social and religious institutions before he can be free to make a "better" society (whatever that is).

So, the bottom line is that both Darwinism and conservativism understand and respect "tradition" as congealed experience, whereas the Left sees it as something to shuck.

As the person who introduced Mark Henrie to the distinction between "conservative liberal" and "liberal conservative" I feel obliged to introduce an important qualification. In continental Europe, where these phrases are much more commonly used (they had an ancien regime after all), the phrases are often used synonymously when referring to specifically political matters. "Liberal conservatives" (such as Pierre Manent or the late Bertrand de Jouvenel) are often referred to in France as "conservative liberals" because they attempt to understand and moderate rather than irresponsibly reject or overcome the regime of "modern liberty." But on the philosophical plane thinkers such as Jouvenel and Manent make clear that the premises of "philosophical modernity" provide a most inadequate foundation for human liberty and dignity. Hence the subtitle of my book on Jouvenel's political reflection, "The Conservative Liberal and the Illusions of Modernity." I was trying to capture both Jouvenel's subtle, dialectical defense of "modern liberty" and his fundamental challenge to the radical individualism(which inelectably paves the way for collectivism) undergirding "philosophical modernity." Likewise, it's hard to know if one should call Tocqueville a "liberal conservative" or a "conservative liberal." It depends on whether one is emphasizing a theoretical or practical perspective. In any case, his position has little to do with Peter Berkowitz's efforts(admirable on some level, to be sure) to save liberalism as a THEORETICAL account of man and politics.

I'm moving slowly, Steve and Kate and the rest, in getting into this thread. Having re-read Mark Henrie's essay, it strikes me that his account of "liberal conservatism" is the most underdeveloped part of it, in part because, as he himself says, it is unfinished as a response to liberalism. Right-wing liberalism, conservative liberalism, is easier to understand even in its ultimate incoherence. It seems to me that the "liberty" of liberal conservatism is a liberty that flows out of the entire panoply of human nature rather than from the abstractions of state of nature theory. This liberty is partly political but also a liberty of soul, a flourishing of the soul, even a soul anxious about death and aware of its own limitations. A soul capable of love and drawn by what is noble. This is the liberty you find in Tocqueville, whose use of the word "liberty" is as troubling and as rich as his use of the word "aristocracy." Thus from the beginning liberal conservatism is not just a "correction" of liberalism but a reconception of politics based on a richer understanding of human freedom, a liberty, by the way, that is obviously not constrained by false notions of autonomous individualism.

Kate, while conservatives do oppose utopianism (see man more as evil, or as limited), they also see man as richer or deeper, and that makes all the difference. In seeing man as more noble, even in his misery, maybe even because of his misery, one aims for higher things, even socially. As far as history goes, don't liberal conservatives find clues as to man's nature in it. Not magic bullets or patterns of progress, but signposts for a strange land. Finally, your doubts about how Darwinism might promote a notion of man and woman to support good morals and family life are supported by Mansfield in "Manliness." Here's a good way to see the difference between evolution and nature. Does the darwinian conservative's amoral account of incentives for "family life" truly contain the richness that explains human love and devotion? Let's keep Darwin in a "Locke Box" too!

It's been good for me to ask myself whether I'm a liberal conservative or a conservative liberal. My first instinct would have been to say I used to be the latter but now I am the former, since I am utterly convinced of the impossibility of grounding any healthy public opinion in any fundamentally modern (ultimately constructivist) perspective. ... But on (Tocquevillean) reflection, I submit that the distinction cannot be maintained absolutely, since, contra Mr. Phillips, there is no simply authoritative (biblical or otherwise) recipe for a "social hierarchy." The beginning of wisdom here, I think, is to understand Tocqueville's generally implicit but pervasive teaching that Christianity, with its tendency to relativize all worldly hierarchy and to direct man's transcendent instinct every beyond any concretely represented good, is complicit in the modern revolution. The Protestant-modernist view is not simply wrong on theoretical-theological grounds.
To be sure, the Christian tradition is also a part, no doubt the most important part, of any wholesome response to post-Christian=modern erosion of hierarchy. But it is alwas a matter of respecting the hierarchy within any concrete and lived notion of liberty, as well as seeing that hierarchy depends on liberty for its life. So I find myself on the fence, theoretically at least, between the conservative liberals and the liberal conservatives.

Yes, Ralph, I do not see my place in that blur either, except that I know I have elements of those two terms in my personal political philosophy.


About Dan Phillips' hierarchy, aren't those matters of personal submission for the greater good? Except for my submission to the kingship of Christ, (and perhaps being a child, wherein the child's choice is not optional for a long time) I am knowingly placing myself in submission to someone I perceive to be my equal. The Christian's obligation to submission is a voluntary one. In that we follow the Christ who submitted even to men, who were his inferiors in an eternal sense if not in an earthly one. (I happily give that up as mystery.)

That becomes the problem, submission to someone who is as flawed as yourself. Maybe that makes submission to voluntary associations easier, because one can choose where one submits? This modern business of having to submit to whomever has been appointed to bureaucratic office in government is more difficult. It is why I cannot be a liberal, because to submit to government without an inner sense of resistance, and not look at it with a critical and jaundiced eye is impossible. Sometimes the regret over submission to the elected is almost more than I can stand.


Robert, no. The darwinian conservative's scientific explanation of human love and devotion does not satisfy and misses the human boat. There is that which transcends and if it is genetic I'll eat my keyboard.


I am missing all sorts of things that deserve comment, but have a wedding, a high school graduation, and a grand birthday party to attend today. I submit to tradition and give myself to those things.

Well, I seem to have been "by-passed" in this discussion. Nonetheless, I'll press on.

Kate, human love and devotion are almost certainly rooted in our DNA. And there is nothing uniquely human about it. For instance, what are we to make of Greyfriars Bobby? Humanity's ability to love is perhaps stronger than that of animals, but then again our ability to hate is also stronger. It's a matter of degree.

Isn't the point of Greyfriars Bobby that he was a particularly selfless dog? There would be not note taken if he were of the common run of canines. He was an extraordinarily faithful dog and note was taken. An extraordinarily hate-filled dog would probably be shot. End of story.

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