Reception of Transitionalism – Part 1 – A Conversation with Conservatives

by on March 2, 2015

TeamworkHow conventional conservatives, as opposed to conventional liberals, would respond to the perceived challenge of Transitionalism depends to a significant extent on the kind of conservatism. American conservatism has always been split, though frequently maintaining overlapping views, between social/moral conservatives and fiscal/political conservatives expressed as an ever present tension within conservatism as a social and political movement, in American institutions, and even within the culture itself.

Social or moral conservatives see God as the source of the American system and its values embodying the view present from the time of the first European explorers and colonists to North America as being a sacred place. While social/moral conservatives assert an unshakable belief in the foundational principles of the American system their commitment is to the promise of the original religious vision of America as opposed to its ideological roots. Social/moral conservatives are not liberals, based on the insistence that the needs of community have privilege over those of individuals, hence the reason for their position on a number of social issues such as abortion, homosexuality, evolution, the central role of the family, and the teaching of religion in schools. In contrast to the more libertarian instincts of fiscal/political conservatives, social/moral conservatives have demonstrated little hesitation in calling for the use of government authority to impose and enforce their agenda.

Those who identify themselves as fiscal/political conservatives tend to be secularists who do align themselves with liberal ideological values emphasizing the rights of individuals to act independently of government and social control, reflecting a more strict interpretation of its principles, including those contained within the United States Constitution. Their agenda is characterized by a restricted role for government, particularly the federal government, low taxation, and support for enterprise not only for its fiscal benefits but being representative of a social good.

The nature of the conservative viewpoint is a commitment to an interpretation and a complimentary set of values from a time in the past. Whether it was Confucius talking about earlier kingdoms scrupulously practicing principles derived from Heaven or the wholesome images of American families on television during the 1950’s and 60’s, the conservative ideal of any place or time has been based on an idealization of the past to justify the authority of their principles. After the defeat of the French Revolution, of Napoleon, and the 1848 liberal revolutions, conservative social and political forces after regaining political dominance became aggressively protective of the established social order to prevent a reoccurrence of the threatened anarchy of the first half of the 19th century. Widespread social disorder is indicative of the need for change so retrenchment of past values in order to maintain the political order and a particular view of the world beyond the time when such views and values would have arisen organically out of existing social conditions and needs could only result in further and even greater levels of social violence, where in this instance events culminated in the First World War. All of this is expected given that human beings are manipulative by nature and when social conditions are not viewed objectively and holistically.  Conservative values are simply means by which we see and categorize the world in order to sustain ourselves as individuals and as a social unit. These values exist as the result of historical and social dynamics, but need to align with objective circumstances if they are to meet our needs.

Social values are simply means by which we see and categorize the world in order to sustain ourselves as individuals and as a social unit. These values exist as the result of historical and social dynamics, but need to align with objective circumstances if they are to meet our needs. We should avoid becoming too attached or nostalgic about the social values we choose to adhere to. Values are best viewed to be tools that emerge, are used, and when appropriate switched out or discarded when appropriate, and should not be seen as definitive of who we are as persons or as a society in the same way one should not associate one’s personhood with a particular product or brand name. The notion of what defines a conservative is not a set thing. Just as one who self-identifies as conservative can hold a unique mixture of social/moral and fiscal/political viewpoints, what defines a conservative in the United States is different than what it means to be a conservative in England, France, Russia, China or India. Even limiting ourselves to the United States, looking back from the present day to the 1960’s or 1900’s different issues and realities defined what being a conservative meant.

It is all too easy to lose sight of the fact that the source of conservative, as well as liberal, values emerge from one’s own behavioral predispositions. Irrespective of a society’s particular value structure, we would still be able to recognize the same conservative-liberal spectrum and ratio of thirds. As such, conservative proclivities are just as legitimate and as much part of society as any other perspective. At the same time, in order to play a constructive role, conservatives need to distance themselves from any particular set of values and instead take a “devil’s advocate” stance of listening to their own predisposition to resist change while at the same time accepting that change is inevitable. In this way, conservatives can play the critical role of balancing the periodic exuberance of liberals and radicals in the process of participating in the shaping of society and the path it is to follow. Ultimately, the role of values and the process by which we come to determine a course of action should be predicated on doing what is best for the most people.

With all of the wrangling over the fine points of specific issues coming to a consensus of what is best for people is at the heart of the friction between the various viewpoints. It is uncontroversial to state what is preventing the formation of a consensus is due to how the different forms of conservatism and Transitionalism envision the world.  In this way, it is pointless to argue in the context of particular issues how either of these two positions would contrast or complement Transitionalism. Then what can we say about the potential for building common ground between conventional conservative values and Transitionalism?

Let us first look at how Transitionalism contrasts with the two conservative positions. It is simply a statement of fact that both kinds of conventional conservatives will see significant barriers to any cooperative relationship with Transitionalism. For the social/moral conservative it will be Transitionalism’s non-theism which it interprets as another form of atheism. Transitionalism does not object to religion in itself, because all religious beliefs and Transitionalism originate and are sustained by the same source – the question of meaning. Transitionalism is non-theistic because, unlike atheism, it does not assert that God does not exist. It simply says that we cannot know whether God exists; moreover, there is no objective demonstration or evidence that substantiates claims that God has or ever had any interaction with the natural world. If God’s presence and impact on the world was an objective fact, there would be no need to appeal to faith, and religion would instead be called science. Given that traditional religious belief and Transitionalism share the central focus for human existence, Transitionalism also shares the sentiments of social/moral conservatives regarding the important role of spirituality in the lives of individuals and society.

Addressing the central focus of the fiscal/political conservative position, an individualistic interpretation of human beings is equally unsupportable. Once again, Transitionalism does not object to liberal ideology in and of itself, giving it it’s just due in its role in bringing us to the point of development that we are at now. Nevertheless, if we were as individualistic as is commonly asserted, life in villages and cities would be unthinkable. Even the fathers of liberal ideology, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, presumed that human beings had to be more cooperative than competitive; otherwise, they would not be capable of coming together for their mutual self-defense as asserted by Hobbes or to protect private property and accomplish a greater good as Locke insisted. Transitionalism shares with the fiscal/political conservative the benefit of a greatly reduced role of government in the activities of enterprise and individuals, made possible as a result of individuals fulfilling their obligations to their community and society, as well as taking responsibility for their own actions.

In the end, conventional conservatives and Transitionalism share the same desires and motivations to see that ourselves and future generations have freedom from want, possess a strong sense of personal security, and have the opportunity to build productive, meaningful lives as individuals and as a society. It is hoped that after this discussion we might be able to come closer to a consensus in how such a vision can be realized.

Thank you for your interest and hope to see you again next month where in the second part of this series we will turn our attention to examining the potential of building common ground between conventional liberals and Transitionalism.

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