False Dichotomies, the Common Good, and the Future of Conservatism

Sep 10, 2019 by

by Ryan T Anderson, Public Discourse:

In a series of high-profile exchanges, conservatives are returning to first principles, reconsidering how best to protect and promote human dignity and the common good. This is to be applauded. Still, the way in which this reconsideration is taking place should itself be reconsidered.

The typical framing of the debate runs something like this. Either you support a substantive, morally informed conception of the political common good, or you support the putatively purely formal procedures of political liberalism. Either you support public morality, or you support civil liberties.

These are false dichotomies.

This discussion is best understood not as an “either-or” but as a “both-and.” The essential intellectual work involves thinking through how to understand the “and” at the theoretical level, and then fleshing out how to embody and implement that “and” at a practical level. American conservatives need to figure out how to understand the relationship between the substance of the common good and formal political procedures, between public morality and civil liberties. Assuming that we must make a choice between each of these pairs is fundamentally misguided, because it fails to recognize the many ways in which formal procedures serve the common good, and are, indeed, part—but not the whole—of its substance. It fails to see that both public morality and civil liberties are crucial to the political common good.

Political Authority and Human Nature

In the forthcoming Fall issue of National Affairs, Robert P. George and I sort through some of these theoretical questions. We explain how rejecting Lockean, Rawlsian, and various supposedly “neutralist” forms of liberalism as philosophically misguided, which we do, need not—indeed, should not—lead us to reject certain political institutions that carry the label “liberal.” We argue that, for example, the political institutions and practices surrounding property rights, the free exercise of religion, and the freedom of speech are justified because of—and hence limited by—the demands of justice and the common good. These so-called “liberal” practices have a more secure foundation in a political theory flowing from the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition of thought.

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