Who would be a better prison warden: a simple moral person or a very intelligent member of the Institute of Public Affairs? A media report describes a recent meeting of conservative notables at a ‘Foundations of Western Civilisation’ event, organised by the Institute of Public Affairs, at which they rallied against the evils of ‘relativism’. Present were John Howard, George Pell, Hugh Morgan and Geoffrey Blainey (a perceptive historian even if his best days are past but a political airhead). What an assemblage! George Pell has defined his role as upholding the banner of 1930s style European political Catholicism, assiduously promoted in Australia by the malign and creepy B A Santamaria over the pragmatic Christian democracy of old-style Sydney Catholicism (on Santamaria’s creepiness consider his pursuit of the ageing Menzies, oddly he is never criticised for this whilst H V Evatt is derided for having a difficult personality despite being mostly right on policy). Pell is one of those enraptured by that glorious decade of conservatism that stretched from Hitler’s Enabling Act to the Vichy revolution. Speeches by notables at this IPA event bewailed moral relativism, Pell complained about the decline of faith in ‘natural law’, and without any awareness of inconsistency Howard condemned suggestions for a bill of rights. It seems this new IPA initiative is linked to their most recent publishing project; One Hundred Great Books of Liberty apparently everything from Plato to Ayn Rand and Edmund Burke etc. is summarised for easy reference, presumably ideal for first speeches in parliament. We should be glad IPA funds are going here rather than shonky front groups. But the evocation of ‘liberty’ as a basic principle of politics in Australia today is actually of limited use. In a modern pluralist democracy the basic problems of public policy cannot simply be resolved by an appeal to ‘liberty’, what does ‘liberty’ suggest about Collateralized Debt Obligations and the pros and cons of fiscal policy? One thing I liked about Hayek’s Road to Serfdom is that he questions exactly the 1940s advocates of ‘ planning’ meant, we should do the same for ‘liberty’. In practice those who claim to base their politics on the literal application of a single principle end up in practice denying this principle. I suspect that most of the attendees at this IPA event would have supported the use of torture against terrorist suspects. It is pattern apparent among Communists who campaigned as defenders of the Enlightenment against barbarism but justified unlimited barbarities in their allegedly good cause. We would be better advised to make our moral principles less sweeping and more precise, I would rather be in a prison operated by someone who have simply repudiated torture, even if they didn’t know Plato from Maxwell Williams than one run by an IPA-style friend of ‘liberty’ and ‘western civilisation’ equipped with 100 great quotes on liberty.
This is the point I think Weber is making in his famous lecture on politics as a vocation, he is critical of those who claim a devotion towards absolute ends but who are then ruthlessly pragmatic about their means:
The ethic of ultimate ends apparently must go to pieces on the problem of the justification of means by ends. As a matter of fact, logically it has only the possibility of rejecting all action that employs morally dangerous means–in theory! In the world of realities, as a rule, we encounter the ever-renewed experience that the adherent of an ethic of ultimate ends suddenly turns into a chiliastic prophet. Those, for example, who have just preached ‘love against violence’ now call for the use of force for the last violent deed, which would then lead to a state of affairs in which an violence is annihilated. In the same manner, our officers told the soldiers before every offensive: ‘This will be the last one; this one will bring victory and therewith peace.’ The proponent of an ethic of absolute ends cannot stand up under the ethical irrationality of the world. He is a cosmic-ethical ‘rationalist.’ Those of you who know Dostoievski will remember the scene of the ‘Grand Inquisitor,’ where the problem is poignantly unfolded. If one makes any concessions at all to the principle that the end justifies the means, it is not possible to bring an ethic of ultimate ends and an ethic of responsibility under one roof or to decree ethically which end should justify which means.
Indeed most proponents of absolute ends are actually secret pessimists (like the Jacobins and Bolsheviks) prepared to justify any means to an allegedly good end. The questionable means are soon redefined to be consistent with good ends, if corrupt dictatorships must be supported in a war for democracy than those dictatorships are soon redefined as democracies.
Michael Lind is good on this debate in the US:
Once upon a time, we are supposed to believe, there was a golden age in which everyone shared orthodox conservative beliefs. Then a wicked intellectual introduced heretical ideas, and the world went to hell in a handbasket. For the conservative thinker Richard Weaver in “Ideas Have Consequences” (1948), the decline of Western civilization began with the triumph of William of Occam and the nominalist school of Catholic theology in the 14th century. For Irving Babbitt, who influenced T.S. Eliot and Russell Kirk, world history’s greatest villain was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who spawned romanticism, which is responsible for all of the ills of the modern world. Today’s Straussian conservatives attribute the Fall to the influence of German Hegelianism on early 20th century American progressive intellectuals. The narrative of the expulsion from Eden is always the same, no matter when it is supposed to have occurred or what thinker is assigned the role of the snake. All of these conservative interpretations of history share one thing in common: They ignore any material factors — industrial revolutions, population growth, urbanization, geopolitics — and treat American and world history as a Manichaean struggle of abstract philosophies. But most political debates are not about the “first principles” beloved by the Lincoln-and-Churchill school of Straussianism. They are about practical subjects: how to provide healthcare, what kind of infrastructure we need. The Democratic healthcare plan can be criticized, but not because it is Hegelian state-worship that betrays the principles of the Declaration of Independence. There is nothing relativist or historicist about the hydropower dams of the New Dealers like Roosevelt and Johnson.
Richard Posner makes a similar point that even J S Mill offers no easy answers to moral problems. We could rage against this conservative misuse of ‘liberty’ but there seems little point, any more than Communists could be converted to liberalism by rational argument (unless they were ready to be converted). We can however treat Pell and the rest of their noxious crew with the contempt that they deserve.