PLSC 118: The Moral Foundations of Politics
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PLSC 118 - Lecture 19 - The Burkean Outlook
Chapter 1. The Anti-enlightenment: Edmund Burke (1729 to 1797) [00:00:00]
Professor Ian Shapiro: So this morning we’re going to start talking about Edmund Burke and the anti-Enlightenment. And one prefatory note is that when thinking about political theory as opposed to everyday political argument I think it’s very important not to get hung up on labels such as left wing, or right wing, or liberal, or conservative. And I think the occasion of beginning to speak about Burke is a good moment to make this point.
After all, I think it’d be fair to say that before you walked into this course if you had looked down the syllabus and somebody had said, “Who is the most radical thinker on this syllabus?” most of you would have picked out Marx. But as we’ve seen, Marx is actually a footnote to the Enlightenment. Marx is not, he’s not somebody who engages in a radical departure from the ideas that were developed by Locke and the other thinkers that shaped the main ideas of the Enlightenment.
Burke, on the other hand, is generally thought of as a conservative politically, and indeed he was a conservative politically, but philosophically he’s a much more radical thinker than Marx was. He is somebody who really goes to the root of accepted assumptions in his critical questioning. Burke completely rejects the Enlightenment project as I have described it to you today.
Let me say a little bit about who he was. He was born in 1829, so that makes him, I mean 1729, sorry. I gave him a hundred years there. He was born in 1729, a quarter of a century after Locke died, and the main work for which he is most known, his Reflections on the Revolution in France, was published in 1790 almost exactly a century after, actually more like 110 years after Locke’s Second Treatise. Well, I should say it was published a hundred years after, but it was written a 110 years after because we now know that Locke wrote The Second Treatise in the early 1680s.
But what motivated Burke to write his reflections on the French Revolution was the appalling carnage that eventually resulted from the French Revolution. The French Revolution was not planned as a revolution. It was really street riots that escalated in Paris, but escalated to the point of the complete destruction of the whole society, the inauguration of a massive terror, which appalled Burke. And so he wrote this, what started out as a pamphlet, but became this very famous book on the Reflections on the Revolution in France, and that becomes a basis of Burke’s outlook.
He wasn’t a professional scholar or academic. He was actually a public person. He would eventually become a Member of Parliament and has some things to say about democratic representation that I will come back to when we get to the theory of democracy. But at the time he wrote the Reflections on the Revolution in France, which is what I had you read excerpts from today, he was mainly preoccupied with what had happened, what had transpired across the Channel in 1789.
And he was, in particular, concerned to establish against people like Richard Price, who’s one of the people who he engages there, that 1789 was in any sense a logical follow-on of 1688 in England; 1688, of course, when we had the revolution in England, the glorious revolution of 1688 when William was put on the throne, which Locke defended, but from Burke’s point of view that was a minor palace affair not a fundamental or radical revolution.
And in this sense Locke’s view — I’m sorry, Burke’s view of the English Revolution, for those of you who are historians here you might be interested to know, is very much at odds with the big new book called 1688 just recently published by Professor Pincus in the history department here, a very interesting book which argues that 1688 was a much more radical break with the past than people thought at the time, and certainly than Burke thought because Burke thought that 1688 was not a radical break with the past whereas 1789 in France was a radical break with the past.
And I think that another thing to say before we get into the particulars of Burke’s view is that, unlike everybody else you’ve read in this course, Burke really does not have a theory of politics. He does not have a set of premises that you can lay out, conclusions to which he wants to get and then change of reasoning that get him from A to B from the premises to the conclusion. There is no theory of politics in Burke. With Kant we talk about universalizability. Locke we talk about this commitment to principles of scientific certainty.
Burke has, rather than a theory, he has an attitude or a disposition, an outlook, and that outlook is informed first and foremost by extreme distrust not only of science, but of anybody who claims to have scientific knowledge. He thinks that human society is way too complicated for us ever to get completely to the bottom of it. That we are kind of carried along on a wave of very complicated history that we understand only dimly, if at all, and that that’s not going to change.
Chapter 2. The Human Condition: Fumbling in the Dark [00:07:27]
The human condition is a condition first and foremost, of fumbling in the dark. He says, just to give you a flavor of this), “The science of constituting a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught a priori.”
So here you can see a complete resistance to the logical reasoning that drove Hobbes and Locke in thinking about the structure of mathematics and a system of axioms of the sort Bentham tried to come up with. “No,” says Burke, “Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us in that practical science; because the real effects of moral causes are not always immediate, but that which in the first instance is prejudicial may be excellent in its remoter operation; (so when we think we see something bad it might be having a good effect) and its excellence may arise even from the ill effects it produces in the beginning. The reverse also happens; and very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions. In states there are often some obscure and almost latent causes, things which appear at first view of little moment, on which a very great part of its prosperity or adversity may most essentially depend.”
Chapter 3. The Value of Caution [00:09:07]
So the world is fundamentally mysterious and murky. And things that look good might have bad consequences. Things that look bad might have good consequences. The effects of our actions are going to be realized in the distant future in ways that we can’t possibly imagine. And so that being the case the most important characteristic of thinking about politics is caution. We should be cautioned. “The science of government being, therefore, so practical in itself, and intended for such practical purposes, a matter which requires experience, and even more experience than any person can gain in his whole life, however sagacious and observing he may be, it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes.”
So what they did in the French Revolution was the antithesis of what Burke recommends, because they swept everything away and decided to build again tabula rasa. Burke is deeply suspicious of all attempts to do that and he thinks they’ll end in disaster because the people who undertake them will not know what they’re doing, and even more dangerous, they’re not smart enough to know how dumb they are. They’re not smart enough to realize that they really do not know what they’re doing. They’re not smart enough to understand that they will unleash forces which they will not be able to control.
So Burke is, in that sense, a conservative who thinks about social change in a very cautious and incremental way. He’s not a reactionary in the sense of being someone who’s opposed to all change. He’s a conservative. I think one of the nice definitions of conservatism in Burke’s sense was actually put forward by Sir Robert Peel in the nineteenth century when he said — he defined conservatism as, “Changing what you have to in order to conserve what you can.” Changing what you have to in order to conserve what you can, as distinct from a reactionary view which would be just flat resistance to all change.
Now, of course, this idea of conservatism as valuing tradition is very different from the libertarian conservatism of Robert Nozick that we looked at earlier in the course. The libertarian conservatism of Robert Nozick is anti-statist, anti-government, and resistance to authority being imposed on you, hence the notion of libertarian conservatism.
Burke is a traditionalist conservative. He thinks that tradition is the core of human experience, and he thinks whatever wisdom we have about politics is embedded in the traditions that we have inherited. “They have served us over centuries,” this is his view writing at the end of the eighteenth century, “they have served us for centuries. They have evolved in a glacial way.” Ã As I said, people make accommodations to change, but only in order to conserve the inherited system of norms, practices and beliefs in institutions that we reproduce going forward. So that’s the sense in which it’s a conservative tradition; to conserve, the basic meaning of the word conserve, conservative.
And so science is a really bad idea when applied to political and social arrangements because there isn’t scientific knowledge, and anybody who claims to have it is either a charlatan or a fool, perhaps both. And so, as I said, he doesn’t have a theory because he’s skeptical of the very possibility of having a theory. He thinks we should, as Clint Eastwood says — I’ve forgotten in which movie it is, I think A Fistful of Dollars, maybe — “A man’s got to know his limitations. Are you feeling lucky?” A man’s got to know his limitations, Burke thinks that in spades. He thinks we have to understand that our grasp of the human condition is very limited and it’s going to stay that way.
Chapter 4. Rights: Limited, Inherited, Not Reasoned [00:14:48]
So, on the first of our two prongs of the Enlightenment endeavor he’s completely out of sympathy. Now what about the second? What about the commitment to this idea of the importance of individual rights? We saw how this developed initially in Locke’s formulation in a theological way when Locke argued that God created us with the capacity to behave in a God like fashion in the world. Each individual is the bearer of the capacity to create things, and therefore have rights over his or her own creation.
In Locke’s view we’re all equal. We’re equal in God’s sight. He creates us all equally, and we’re all also equal in the sense, very important for Locke, that no earthly power has the authority to tell us what the scripture says. Each person must do it for himself, and when they disagree they have to either find a mechanism to manage their disagreement, or if they can’t, look for their reward in the next life. But basically each individual is sovereign over themselves. And that’s where modern doctrines of individual rights come from. We saw how that played out with the workmanship ideal, Mill’s harm principle all the way down through Nozick and Rawls.
Bentham has, I’m sorry; Burke has a very, very different view of the idea of rights. They’re first of all, they are inherited. They’re not the product of reason or any contrived theoretical formulations. They’re inherited. “You will observe that from Revolution Society to the Magna Carta it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to posterity — as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom, without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right. By this means our constitution preserves a unity in so great a diversity of its parts. We have an inheritable crown, an inheritable peerage, and a House of Commons and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties from a long line of ancestors.”
So what we think of when we talk about rights for Burke, first of all, they’re not human rights or natural rights for him, they are the rights of Englishmen. They are the rights of Englishmen; they are particular rights. They’re the result of a particular tradition. The idea that there could be universal rights doesn’t make any sense. It’s not an intelligible question, as far as Burke is concerned, to assay what Rawls would say, what rights would we create for all people in some abstract setting? It doesn’t make any sense to him.
So it’s the rights of Englishmen. And indeed, when Burke was sympathetic to the American Revolution, not the French Revolution, it was because he thought that the rights of the American colonists as Englishmen were being violated by the English Crown. And he was also sympathetic to claims for home rule for Ireland, again, on the same sort of basis. But it’s this entailed inheritance, what we have been born into as a system of rights and obligations that we reproduce into the future.
And those rights, above all, are limited. Again, just as our knowledge of the world is limited so our rights, in the normative sense, are limited. “Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom. Among these wants is to be reckoned the want out of civil society, of a sufficient restraint upon their passions.” We have a right to be restrained, a very different notion than a right to create things over which we have authority, a right to be restrained.
“Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body, as well as in the individuals, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. This can only be done by a power out of themselves, and not, in the exercise of its function, subject to that will and to those passions which it is its office to bridle and subdue. In this sense the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.”
The restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights. “But as the liberties and the restrictions vary with times and circumstances and admit to infinite modifications, they cannot be settled upon an abstract rule (take that John Rawls); and nothing is so foolish as to discuss them upon that principle.”
So we have a right to be restrained. We have a right, most importantly, that others are going to be restrained, and that our passion should be controlled is something that he insists is an important part of what we should think of under the general heading of what it is that people have rights to.
“One of the first motives to civil society, and which becomes one of its fundamental rules, is that no man should be the judge in his own cause. By this each person has at once divested himself of the first fundamental right of uncovenanted man, that is, to judge for himself and to assert his own cause.” That’s not that different from Locke, that first part. After all, Locke talks about the state of nature as being exactly a state in which we get to judge in our own cause, but for Locke we give it up in a conditional way. We never lose the right to revolution if society doesn’t protect us, and that’s what he thought was triggered in 1688.
Burke says no. “He advocates all right to be his own governor. He inclusively, in a great measure, abandons the right of self-defense, the first law of nature. Men cannot enjoy the rights of an uncivil and of a civil state together. That he may obtain justice, he gives up his right of determining what it is in points the most essential to him. That he may secure some liberty; he makes a surrender in trust of the whole of it.”
This, to some extent, has a Hobbesian flavor that Hobbes says, “If we don’t have law we’ll have civil war, and so we have to give up freedom to authority.” The difference is even in Hobbes’s formulation there’s ultimately the recognition that if society does not provide you with protection you have a reasonable basis for resistance and for overthrowing it. But in Locke’s case, I mean, in Burke’s case he doesn’t want to concede even that. Because we cannot, once we’ve made the transition into civil society, we cannot go back. There is no turning back. We are part and parcel of this system of entailed inheritances and that is the human condition all the way to the bottom.
Chapter 5. An Indissoluble Social Contract [00:24:10]
He doesn’t reject completely the metaphor of the social contract, but he makes it indissoluble. He says, “Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure (if I make an agreement with you to do something we can agree to dissolve our agreement) — but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence (the “it” here is the state): because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature: it is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection.”
“As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership (now this is the most famous sentence Burke ever wrote) not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born.” A very different idea of the social contract, partnership between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are yet to be born. “Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the general primeval contract of eternal society.”
So, the “law is not subject to the will of those (this is a flat rejection of workmanship), who by an obligation above them, and infinitely superior, are bound to submit their will to that law. The municipal corporations of that universal kingdom are not morally at liberty at their pleasure, and on the speculations of a contingent improvement, wholly to separate and set asunder the bonds of their subordinate community, and to dissolve it into an unsocial, uncivil, unconnected chaos of elementary principles.”
So one way of just driving home the radical break here between his thought and the social contract theorists is to mention that one of the standard criticisms that often gets made of social contract theory is, well, even if there was a social contact, you know, some people think of the adoption of the American Constitution as a kind of social contract. After all it was ratified by the states. Actually, the Articles of Confederation had said it had to be unanimously ratified, and they couldn’t get that, so they changed it to three-quarters of the confederacy states. Still, there was an agreement of some sort, and it was ratified and so on, but people have often said, “Well, so what? So those people in the eighteenth century made an agreement. I didn’t. What has it got to do with me? Why should it be binding on subsequent generations?” And that’s often been a critique of the idea of the social contract.
Burke turns that reasoning on its head. He says, “Once we see that this social contract is multi-generational between the dead, the living, and those who are yet to be born, who are you (any given individual), who are you to think that you can upend it? What gives you the right to pull the rug out from under this centuries-old evolving social contract? What gives you the right to take it away from those who haven’t even been born who are part of this (he even uses the word eternal) eternally reproducing social contract.”
So it’s a sort of mirror image of the critique which says, “Well, we never made it so why should we be bound by it?” He says, “It preexisted you, and you’re going to predecease it, and you don’t have the right, you don’t have the authority to undermine it because any rights you think you have are the product of this evolving contract, they’re contained within it.”
So society is not subordinate to the individual, which is the most rock-bottom commitment of the workmanship idea. On the contrary, the individual is subordinate to society. Obligations come before rights. We only get rights as a consequence of the social arrangements that give us our duties as well. So whereas the Enlightenment tradition makes the individual agent the sort of moral center of the universe, this god-like individual creating things over which she or he has absolute sovereign control, is replaced by the exact mirror image of the idea of an individual as subordinate to inherited communities, traditions, social arrangements, and political institutions to which he or she is ultimately beholden. If there was a pre-collective condition it’s of no relevance to us now because we can’t go back to it, and any attempt to try, look across the English Channel and see what you’re going to get.
That is the Burkean outlook in a nutshell, and it is, as I said, the most fundamental critique of the Enlightenment it’s possible to make. And even though the Enlightenment tradition, as we have studied it here, was unfolding in the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this anti-Enlightenment undertow has always been there as well. Not to make the metaphor do too much work, but you can really think of every wave of advancement in Enlightenment thinking washing down the beach and producing an undertow of resistance and resentment against it, both philosophically, and I’m going to start talking in a minute about twentieth-century Burkean figures, but also politically.
One story about the rise of fundamentalism, and jihadism, and ethnic separatism is this is all part of the political undertow against the current form that the Enlightenment political project is taking, which is globalization, homogenization, this sort of McDonald’s effect on the world, produces this backlash against globalization where people affirm primordial-looking attachments, even though there’s probably no such thing as a genuinely primordial one, separatists, partial affiliations and allegiances, connections to doctrines which deny the scientific and rational project of the Enlightenment. And so, just as globalization has been advancing we’ve seen a resurgence of separatists, religious fundamentalists, nationalists, and other kinds of identities.
Quite the opposite, for example, of what Marx predicted. Marx predicted that things like nationalism, sectarian identifications, would go away, and Lenin too. They thought that as the principles of capitalism defused themselves throughout the world, things like national attachments would go away. And indeed on the eve of the First World War there was the Second Communist International where they basically came out and said to the workers of Europe, “Don’t get involved in this national war. It’s not in your interest. You have a common class interest across nations against the interest of employers across nations,” and of course this fell on completely deaf ears. In 1916 the Second International pretty much disintegrated.
And, in fact, one of the big paradoxes of the twentieth century has been the persistence of things like nationalism through the first two world wars and then in the last part of the twentieth century, this resurgence of religious and other forms of traditionalist attachment that are fundamentally antithetical to the Enlightenment project.
So the Enlightenment has always produced reaction, undertow, rejection, often from the people who don’t benefit from it, and it’s one of the ways in which I think the proponents of the Enlightenment have always been politically naïve. They’ve always thought that as modernization and Enlightenment diffuses itself throughout the world these kinds of primitive thinking will go away. Well, it turns out that they don’t, and so one of the big tasks of political science at the present time is to try and understand why, to try and understand what the dynamics of political affiliation and identity attachment really are. And so that’s a Burkean agenda.
Chapter 6. Lord Devlin and the Wolfenden Report [00:35:36]
Now if you fast-forward from Burke to the middle of the twentieth century, I had you read a short piece, very famous and important piece, by Lord Devlin who was an English judge. Like Burke, someone with Irish origins, though some certain amount of ethnic ambiguity in both cases there about just how much Irish and just how much English, but we needn’t detain ourselves with that in this course.
And he was commenting upon something called the Wolfenden Report, which was published in 1959 by a commission that had been asked to tell the British Parliament what it should do about homosexuality and prostitution. And the Wolfenden Report had said, “The laws against them should be repealed. They should both be legalized on the grounds (they didn’t use these terms but this is the basic thought or the term we would use today) that both homosexuality and prostitution are victimless crimes.” They are, to use the jargon of our course, Pareto-superior exchanges. They’re voluntary transactions among consenting adults that don’t harm anybody else. And of course this was put in a different idiom because it was the 1950s, but that was essentially the point. They don’t harm anybody, so it’s just traditional prejudice, bigotry that leads us to outlaw these things and we shouldn’t do it. That was what the Wolfenden Report had said.
And Burkean-to-the-core Lord Devlin says, “No!” I don’t know how caught up you are in the reading. Anyone who has read Burke — I’m sorry, Devlin, tell us why he thinks this. Yeah? We need to get you the mic. Why he thinks, why is it that Lord Devlin thinks that the mere fact that there’s no harm is not enough of a basis for legalizing homosexuality and prostitution. Yeah?
Student: He claims that it’s not an attack against the individual but a harm against society.
Professor Ian Shapiro: So what does that mean, though, when you say it’s a harm against society? How do you unpack that in your own mind?
Student: I guess it’s maybe an attack against the morals that society tends to agree to.
Professor Ian Shapiro: Yeah, well, agreed. Let’s put brackets around agreed. It’s not what we mean by it, but certainly the morals that are there. And where do they come from? Where do those morals, I mean, so we have a moral code that says homosexuality and prostitution are wrong, but where does that come? Anyone? Yeah?
Student: Well, he put a lot of weight on the basis of religion for driving one’s morals.
Professor Ian Shapiro: Correct, religion, an interesting — look what he says about religion. He says, “Morals and religions are inextricably joined — the moral standards generally accepted in Western civilization being those belonging to Christianity. Outside Christendom (there’s a 1950s word, we don’t say Christendom anymore, do we?) other standards derive from other religions.”
Outside Christendom other standards derived from other religion. “In England we believe in the Christian idea of marriage and therefore adopt monogamy as a moral principle. Consequently the Christian institution of marriage has become the basis of family life, and so part of the structure of our society. It is there not because it is Christian (this comes to the point about whether we’ve agreed). It has got there because it is Christian, but it remains there because it is built into the house in which we live and could not be removed without bringing it down.”
It’s there not because it’s Christian, it got there because it’s Christian, it’s a matter of history. It was a Christian civilization. So we have a Christian conception of morality, but he’s not saying it’s true. He’s not saying that the Christian set of beliefs about religion is true. He has no interest in the question of whether or not it’s true. He’s saying here, “A different society might be glued together by a different religion which wouldn’t create monogamy. It might create polygamy, and that would have its own history and its own system of rights and institutions and everything that goes with that.”
So it’s conservative in the sense of affirming tradition, but not conservative in the sense of saying there are absolute moral values. Neither Burke nor Devlin ventures any opinion on that subject. They say it’s not even really important. What’s important is that the people in the society believe in these values. And if the people in this society don’t believe in some system of values as authoritative, the society will fall apart. You can’t put together a society just on the basis of interest. It needs more. It needs moral glue.
So these folks, you could say when I say they don’t really have a theory in the sense that we’ve looked at theories up until now in this course, it’s because you could say, “Well, they’re not political theorists. They’re really sort of sociologists. They’re really sociologists of stability because they’re saying that it’s necessary for a society to be stable that it’s held together by this kind of moral glue of authoritative opinion.”
So when you say to Lord Devlin, when he’s defending the outlawing of homosexuality and prostitution, “Well, that’s just your bigotry,” his answer wouldn’t be to deny that it’s in some absolute sense an irrational position, but he would say, “Every society needs its bigotry. Every society needs its prejudices.”
And so he doesn’t appeal to rationality, but he does appeal to what he calls reasonableness. And what is reasonableness? It’s basically the system of beliefs, as he puts it, “of the man on the Clapham omnibus.” We might today say the woman on the A train reading the New York Post. The prejudices of the average person that is the basic yardstick, and if the average person is appalled by some practices, then they should be illegal. And that’s the beginning and end of it.
So what about that? You could fast-forward it since he talks about homosexuality and what we call gay rights today. If you look at the American trajectory, in 1986 this came up before the Supreme Court in a case called Bowers versus Hardwick, and they essentially took the Burke-Devlin position. That is that states should be allowed to outlaw homosexuality because most people find it deplorable. A couple of years ago it came back to the court and they said, “Well, mores have evolved enough since 1986 that we’re going to overturn Bowers versus Hardwick,” very Burkean. They’re following the man on the Clapham omnibus. They’re following the woman on the A train’s prejudices, beliefs and values, and that’s as it should be.
What about that? How many people find this appealing? Only two? How many people find it unappealing? So we still have at least half undecided. What’s unappealing about it? Yeah?
Professor Ian Shapiro: Take the microphone.
Student: According to his perspective we might still have a system of slavery in this country.
Professor Ian Shapiro: According to this perspective we would still have slavery in this country. Well, I think he wouldn’t concede the point that quickly. He would say what I just said about Bowers versus Hardwick that if the views of the man on the Clapham omnibus evolve enough, then we can recognize change. Now you might want to not accept that because what if they happen before — Yeah?
Student: Yeah, to refute that I would just say that our morals and our ideas of what is right and wrong are shaped by the systems that we were born into and consequently I feel like Burke and Devlin’s system ascribes a great deal of value to the moral conceptions at the beginning of society and that almost leads us to a system of stasis in terms of our morality. There seems to be too much stasis and no ability to reevaluate given how our moral systems are shaped.
Professor Ian Shapiro: I think that’s right, and we will pick up with this on Monday, but if you think that the basic society structure is okay you’re likely to find this doctrine appealing, but if you think the basic structure of the society is deeply unjust then you’re likely to be affronted by this outlook because one person’s reasonable morality is another person’s hegemony, and we’ll start with that idea next time.
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