North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

The Living Order

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Russell Kirk 1918 – 1994

Ten years after his death, Russell Kirk remains a favourite writer of conservatives. His books include The Conservative Mind, in which he looks at conservative thought from Edmund Burke to T.S. Eliot, and The Roots of American Order. A collection of his essays is available here. A review of Kirk and The Conservative Mind is here.

Kirk is known for being a defender of what he called “the Permanent Things.” He is also known for what he called The Six Points of Conservatism, which is what I want to look at over a few days. My source is his introduction to The Viking Portable Conservative Reader, which he edited.


One: Conservatives generally believe there exists a transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society. A divine tactic, dimly seen, is at work in the ways of society. Such convictions may take the form of belief in “natural law” or may assume some other expression; but with few exceptions conservatives recognize the need for enduring moral authority. This conviction contrasts strongly with the liberals’ utilitarian view of the state… and with the radicals’ detestation of theological postulates.

When I was doing a lot reading about Darwinism a few years ago, before I was a Christian, I put some time and effort into trying to place the square peg of a “a transcendent moral order” into the round hole of Darwinian Naturalism. I really believed in both, and I wanted to find a way to combine them. The notion that I might have to choose was a bit frightful. My best hope, I believed, was in utility. There had to be some point at which Darwinian survivalism -“red in tooth and claw”- and what I called “human flourishing” were balanced against one another. Human flourishing would be things seemingly useless for survival but which made the huge effort it takes to live seem worthwhile – say, J.S. Bach, and acts of charity that someone had no reasonable hope of having returned. I had in mind placing one on the X axis of a graph and the other on the Y, in the same way that economists balance demand and supply in order to come up with the market price, or the market’s price range. I thought the point where those two things met would be the equivalent of a transcendent moral order, since the idea of anything being literally transcendent was still beyond me.

I could never convince myself that it would reasonable because once you introduce a survivalist element, you always bump up against the notion that anything that leads to survival is justified. Richard Dawkins wrote about an interesting concept called the extended phenotype, which is the idea that genes create not only the creature that carries them, but also work to influence the environment the creature inhabits. The idea is that beaver genes, for example, create not only beavers, but also beaver dams. So I began to wonder if J.S. Bach and even seemingly selfless acts of charity might simply be efforts to make the human environment better suited to human replication. Once on this path, however, it is hard to imagine anything that could be considered wrong in all circumstances – murder, rape, etc. It is also hard to justify hope, charity and forgiveness as anything more than grease for the human gene machine, civilization.

Frustrated on the Darwinian side, I began to want to know more about Natural Law. Natural Law theory holds that laws governing morality are real objects that we can discover and use to evaluate man made law. That was a key idea for me, as I find the notion that governments can rule in any fashion very repugnant. The Final Solution was legal but it was objectively wrong. I find it interesting that Natural Law was invoked (correctly!) in the English parliament’s struggle against the absolutist aims of the Monarchy and now that Liberalism is triumphant, it has turned its back on the concept with a vengeance. Natural Law is a serious threat to the ambition of any government and that is one of it’s better attractions. Ruling powers – the Monarchs and now our Liberal class – tend to favour what is called Legal Positivism, under which the only rights anyone has are those described in the law, which only intersects with ethics from time to time.

The difficulty with Natural Law is in the discovery, and prioritizing of goods. This is where history, culture and tradition come into play.

Two: Conservatives uphold the principal of social continuity. They prefer the devil they know to they don’t know. Order and justice and freedom, they believe are the artificial products of a long and painful experience, the results of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice… A human society is no machine, to be treated mechanically… Necessary change, they argue, ought to be gradual… never “unfixing old interests at once.” Revolution slices through the arteries of a culture, a cure that kills.

Libertarians and social conservatives can be likened to a couple of cats in a bag. They represent the poles of thought that one finds in the large tent of Conservativism. The social conservatives will sometimes argue that libertarians are not conservative, and the libertarians vice versa. I think that libertarians are conservatives who have turned their distaste for government into an ideology and as a result, they have stretched the idea too far. Social conservatives can be accused of using the government in a left leaning manner – not respecting the bounds of what a government can enforce or have reasonable knowledge about.

The one thing I think the social conservatives really get right in the field of political theory is that order, justice and freedom are artificial products and that a government rightly acts to protect those things when a society becomes civilized enough to produce them. It has only so much knowledge and so much energy, however, and must attempt to get the most bang for the buck. This is why I think efforts to define, protect and encourage the family are not beyond the bounds of proper government and other things are, even when they are wrong. Hard working, decent citizens simply do not fall out of trees. People can turn their backs on children in many ways. Child welfare – and I don’t mean just their material needs – needs to be encouraged, and, failing that, other means for their protection and learning found.

As for the maxim that the devil you know is better than the one you don’t, there is a biological precedent for it. Mutations are indeed much more likely to kill or main a creature than do it any good. The idea of viewing a society as an organism is very old and very common to Conservative thought. Aristotle did it, and so did Christ when he said that he was the root and we the branches. Heck, even Dawkins said it when he explored the extended phenotype. I doubt he’d like the implications of the idea in a transcedental value system, however. That was the very thing he set out to refute. In doing so, however, he falls into the leftist trap of trying to establish a new value system after not just correcting the old one, but subverting the entire concept. And that shows the wisdom of pruning versus mulching when dealing with ethics and a great many other things besides.


Written by Curt

January 24, 2005 at 9:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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