Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Moral Import of Modern Conservatism

With the centenary of Ronald Reagan's birth this week, it is a good time to consider his intellectual legacy. Reagan launched his presidential bid with a full-throated endorsement of states' rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three people were murdered 1964 for registering African-Americans to vote, an act that was seen by Southern whites as interference with that state's "rights." One might see this act as an attempt to court the votes of racists or as contributing to legitimizing of racism in America itself, but if want to be maximally charitable, we can see Reagan's legacy as connected to an interesting moral concern.

Susan Wolf's most famous work is an article entitled "Moral Saints" in which she asks in terms of ethical theory, how good is good enough? Utilitarians, for example, contend that an act is morally good if and only if it maximizes overall utility, that is, it brings about the best overall consequences for everyone affected. Wolf asks why we need to maximize the consequences, isn't there a point where they could be a little better, but that is clearly sufficient to have done the job morally? Do I have to spend every spare waking minute helping out in a soup kitchen or could I relax and at least do something fun and silly this week? Surely, to be good is not to be perfect, the good life needs to be one that is worth living, is attainable and consistent with a life that is rewardingly lived.

The question that modern conservatism asks is related to Wolf's concern. Calls for smaller government and self-sufficiency are really motivated by the desire to pay less in taxes. Less regulation is not an abstract bid for liberty, but as a decrease in the obligation I incur to consider the welfare of others and focus on my own bottom line. One could see this as greed, a vice, but the most charitable read is that it is just asking the Wolf-like question, when is my moral obligation to the other fulfilled. When is enough enough? When can I ignore the homeless person and say I gave at the office? If I am my brother's keeper, when can I finally consider him kept and worry about me? Why do I have to be the one who cares? In the Reagan era, we had a blockbuster movie tell us that greed is good and a major prime time news program featuring conservative commentator John Stossel arguing exactly the same thing. The free market is free in that it frees me from worrying about others. Indeed the point of Stossel and others is that the Other is better served when I do only think of myself, the structure will be healthier for all leading to the best overall consequences if I do not help those in need. Greed will meet or minimize need.

We can separate the question from the politics, though, and it is a valuable question to ask. At what point am I freed from my moral responsibilities to the Other? Am I always on the moral clock? Can I ever close the door in the face of the Other say go away, I'm just going to have some moral me time?