The Conservative Dilemma
March 7, 2016Posted by on
The notion that, if the function of the State is not precisely to make men good, then at least it is to establish the conditions in which they will be helped to be good and to present them constantly with a pattern of what constitutes good living, is far from wholly extinct. T. E. Utley – What Laws May Cure
Today, it receives expression in such maxims as society being held together by a common moral tradition which the law must express and maintain. How can the laws be obeyed if they are not loved, and how can they be loved if they flout or even fail to assert the deepest moral convictions of the people? Burke’s admonition to Government was that it must tolerate frailties until they have festered into crimes. How can a party which is so deeply concerned with the dangers of State interference in economic affairs look with favour on the intrusions of government into far more intimate sectors of life?
What right have men to impose their own standards on each other? Even on the highest view of the ends of government, what scope would there be for true virtue in a society which enforced all moral obligations under pain of imprisonment or death? The truth is that there are very few sane and moderate men who honestly consider these things today without being painfully torn between these conflicting traditions.
There are of course the professional extremists – men who think that there is a simple choice between maintaining the traditional virtues and opening the flood-gates to a moral revolution which will install sexual promiscuity, homosexuality and obscenity and blasphemy in speech and conversation, as the normal social conventions.
There are also extremists who believe with equal passion in the virtues of moral innovation and who, starting from the dogma that the supreme aim of government is to preserve individual freedom, are in practice conspicuously less concerned with the freedom of those who favour traditional ways than with giving unlimited rein to moral experimenters.
As a result of both these extremes, it has become fashionable to speak as though there were a clear-cut choice between favouring tradition or permissiveness, as though a man who favours legalising homosexuality between consenting adults is in logic bound also to favour abortion by consent or the free provision of contraceptives to adolescents. This dichotomy is unreal and repugnant in particular to the whole spirit of Conservative thinking. The criteria for deciding when the State should and should not interfere in private morals are of a far more subtle and complex kind.