At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture


Burke vs. Neoconservatives over “Natural Rights”

posted by Jack Kerwick

I must confess to being more than a bit amazed at the ease with which so many of my fellow Americans, including and especially those in the media and politics, unabashedly identify themselves as “conservative.”  That this many people should declare themselves subscribers to this particular political orientation is in and of itself unremarkable; but when this phenomenon is coupled with the fact that few of these “conservatives” appear to know little if anything about the intellectual roots of their self-declared vision, it is hard not to be bewildered. 

However, while we can’t but find shocking the ubiquity and depth of both this ignorance and apparent lack of desire to ameliorate this ignorance, both phenomena do shed some much needed illumination upon an otherwise enigmatic reality, namely, the stone cold fact that most of what passes for “conservatism” in America today is nothing of the kind. 

With rare exceptions, what is today considered “conservatism” is actually neoconservatism.  This is no criticism; it is just an honest observation.  In order to know a thing or two about genuine conservatism, we would be well served to revisit Edmund Burke, widely regarded as its “patron saint.”

Burke, an Irishman, was an eighteenth century member of the English Parliament.  Primarily in response to the metaphysical and other excesses of the French Revolution, he articulated what remains to this day the most provocative, impassioned, and imaginatively rich statement of what subsequent generations came to call “conservatism.”

The conservatism of which Burke is a progenitor, on the one hand, and the neoconservatism that dominates the contemporary American right, on the other, are not just distinct from one another; they are mutually incompatible.  But more than this, they differ in kind from one another.  I have written at length about these differences in the past.  I will here focus only upon one critical respect in which neoconservatism departs radically from Burkean conservatism, namely, its stance on the issue of “natural” or “human rights.”  

While he never actually repudiated the concepts of “human nature” and “natural rights”—in fact, he actually affirmed them—Burke nonetheless was keenly aware that as far as the art of politics is concerned, such concepts were irrelevant.  Politics, rather, is concerned with “the civil social man, and no other.”  This means that political decisions are not to be settled according to some abstract, universal conception of “human nature”; indeed, they cannot be settled according to any such rule.  Instead, politics “is a thing to be settled by convention” (emphasis original).

Burke is direct: “Government,” he asserts, “is not made in virtue of natural rights,” for natural rights “may and do exist in total independence of it; and exist in much greater clearness, and in a much greater degree of abstract perfection[.]”  But Burke is quick to point out that “their abstract perfection is their practical defect.”  Their strength is also their weakness, for it is precisely because of their “abstract perfection” that “natural rights” are incapable of supplying guidance for navigating our way through the endless maze of concrete details that constitute the stuff of everyday life.

Human beings do have rights.  But these rights consist of both “the liberties” as well as “the restraints” upon appetites and “passions” for the sake of which “civil society” came into being in the first place.  Since “government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants,” human beings living under it “have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom.”  However, because “the liberties and the restrictions vary with times and circumstances, and admit of infinite modifications, they cannot be settled upon any abstract rule”—like, say, the proposition or principle that there are natural or “human” rights to life, liberty, property, the pursuit of happiness or anything else.

How different Burke sounds from today’s self-proclaimed “conservatives.”  In order to justify one war after the other, neoconservatives routinely invoke the notions of “human rights” and “Democracy.”  Burke, in sharp contrast, draws our attention to the fact that such “abstract perfection[s]” are wholly out of place as far as the governance of civil society is concerned.  “If civil society be the offspring of convention, that convention must be its law,” he tells us.  What this in turn implies is that “convention must limit and modify all the descriptions of constitution which are formed under it.” More specifically, “every sort of legislative, judicial, or executory [sic] power are its creatures,” for “they can have no being in any other state of things[.]”

There are no “rights” to any particular kind of government, set of institutional arrangements or, for that matter, any goods that “do not as so much as suppose” the “existence” of civil society and that “are absolutely repugnant to it.”  Appeals to “human nature” and “natural rights” are misplaced, Burke says, because, in short, the civil condition is not our natural condition.  In fact, insofar as it is exactly in order to relieve ourselves of the inconveniences with which brute nature is replete that civil society arises, there is a real sense in which the natural and civil “states” can be said to be contraries.  “Men cannot enjoy the rights of an uncivil and of a civil state together.” 

Natural rights are “metaphysic rights,” “primitive rights” that, “in the gross and complicated mass of human passions and concerns,” endure “such a variety of refractions and reflections” that “it becomes absurd to talk of them as if they continued in the simplicity of their original direction.”  But this is exactly what proponents of natural rights do.  The trouble with this way of speaking is that it conflicts with reality.  In the real world, “no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature, or to the quality of his affairs,” for “the nature of man is intricate” and “the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity[.]”

It is no wonder that the neoconservative speaks little of Burke.  This “father” of the conservative intellectual tradition finds his cherished concept of “natural rights” to be not just a fiction, but among the most treacherous of fictions to have come out of the modern world.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.  

 



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