Remarks on “The Meaning of Conservatism” – Part 1

This is the first in a series of posts critically examining and building upon Bonald’s “The Meaning of Conservatism.” Bonald’s writings at Throne and Altar have had an enormous influence on my own thinking. This series is intended partly as a friendly critique of some of the ways that he defends conservatism in the above-mentioned essay and partly as an occasion to delve deeper into some of the issues he touches upon.

Bonald defines conservatism at the start of his essay as a certain attitude or orientation towards the whole order of being. While I wholeheartedly agree with this definition, I have some reservations about his taxonomy of the three levels of being. In particular, his analysis seems consistent with a certain metaethical stance that is vulnerable to some serious objections having to do with moral skepticism and the metaphysical status of objective values and meanings.

Bonald describes the first two levels of being thusly:

Man experiences the world’s order in three levels. The first is inert matter and the empirical or “brute” facts about the world which it embodies. Matter qua matter has neither purpose nor higher meaning; it is raw material which man subjects to his will. The second level is that of subjective will. Man is aware of himself as a being with desires, goals, and opinions, in sum as one who assigns value. As an assigner of values, he can “color” his world with meaning, finding a thing good or bad, useful or harmful, beautiful or ugly.

Contrasted with these is the fact that the world is suffused with meanings which “seem to exist prior to and independently of anyone’s will.” It is at this third level of being that objective values and obligations enter the picture. Bonald illustrates the nature of this level through the relationship between mother and child. At this level, “there are the stations of mother and child, the un-chosen context which gives meaning to their acts toward each other and the standard by which they are judged.”

Although he may not have intended it, Bonald’s conceptual division of reality into these three levels of being gives the impression that his “meanings,” and the values and obligations that flow from them, are something over and above the “inert facts” of the world, such that our world could have in principle existed as a collection of all the various inert facts absent objective meanings or values, or with an entirely different configuration of meanings and values. Presupposed by this view is the fact/value dichotomy, according to which all facts are separable in concept from value. Facts are simply about the way things are, while values are about the way things ought to be, and there is no fact acceptance of which logically implies a commitment to some value or other. In other words, value and normativity are always something over and above the mere facts.

Merely to say that there are meanings or values that exist in our world prior to and independently of anybody’s will is not to say that they exist in our world by necessity. To maintain that they do exist with necessity, without locating that necessity in a more fundamental metaphysical basis, is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, it makes moral supervenience look like sheer accident. Secondly, values and meanings not derived from a fundamental metaphysics are vulnerable to skeptical arguments to the effect that they are just mental projections or arbitrary matters of taste.

On the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) view, moral supervenience is no mystery, since value and meaning is built right into the very furniture of reality on that view, not something superadded on top of “the facts.” Moreover, the values and meanings posited by the A-T view, having their foundation in a fundamental metaphysics, are less vulnerable to the charge that they are simply mental projections or matters of personal taste. If one wants to charge the A-T view with putting forward mental projections or personal whims as though they were objective facts, it would have to be done at the level of metaphysics. But A-T metaphysics need not rely on bare intuition for its defense, so it is harder to make the charge stick at that level.

Again, however, I do not think Bonald intended the problematic reading of his view, especially given some things he says later in the essay. But I do think it is worth it for conservatives to reflect on why that reading is problematic. While these nuances of metaethics and metaphysics may seem arid and irrelevant, it is in fact crucial to the defensibility of our moral outlook that we get these things right.

In the next installment of this series, I will look at what Bonald has to say about sacred order and its relationship to objective good.

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4 thoughts on “Remarks on “The Meaning of Conservatism” – Part 1

  1. On the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) view, moral supervenience is no mystery, since value and meaning is built right into the very furniture of reality on that view, not something superadded on top of “the facts.”

    I’m not a trained philosopher but that is my view as well. The command “Thou shall not kill” is as factual as the monitor in front of me. Factual but not empirical.

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  2. I like to say that there are material facts and there are moral facts. One can talk about one without talking about the other, but that means abstracting away one part of reality. What we most want to guard against is any sense that the latter set of facts are less factual, that they are really just preferences.

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