Tag Archives: Roger Scruton

Untangling Scruton

Roger Scruton is one of the real intellectual heavyweight social conservatives. Usually, he, like many social conservatives going back to Burke, hold that certain liberalized notions are the prime movers for social chaos. But catch this line from his recent (and apparently final) article at The American Spectator:

The demoralization of society is the effect of many causes, only some of which belong in the realm of ideas. Prolonged peace, unprecedented abundance, social mobility, contraception, drugs, and stimulants — all these have a predictable effect in weakening the bonds of society.

Yeah, in the middle of that list of socially demoralizing forces, he said social mobility.  Apparently, one of the real problems with contemporary society is that people not knowing their place really undoes the bonds you have with them.  Oh, and peace is demoralizing, too.  So, just like with liberals, he sees the material conditions of culture to be influential in the same ways intellectual features of culture are.  He just sees all the material objectives of contemporary liberalism (peace, abundance, social mobility, control over when one begins a family, and access to medicine) as bad influences on culture.

OK, OK. Perhaps this is an uncharitable reading of Scruton.  Maybe by 'social mobility,' he means that we move around spatially, not across economic or social classes.  And by 'peace,' he means… erm, wait, are we at peace?  Maybe, he means, without constant existential threat.  And perhaps he means too much of a good thing by abundance. Regardless, when he turns to how to confront these challenges, he turns positively morose:

We have to accept that it is no longer possible to govern young people by the methods that were used to govern and influence the young of my generation. Exhortation, example, the stories of saints and heroes, the life of humility, sacrifice, penitence, and prayer — all such moral influences have little or no significance for them.

Really embracing the 'get off my lawn' model for the social conservative, isn't he?  And, by the way, I find this, at least in my experience as a college teacher utterly false. (Both at Vanderbilt and in by recent years at Western Kentucky)

Funny, though.  He ends with a line of thought on conservative education I find totally convincing:

We cannot ask young people to live as we lived or to value what we valued. But we can encourage them to see the point of how we lived, and to recognize that freedom without responsibility is, in the end, an empty asset. We can tell them stories of the old virtues, and enlarge their sympathies toward a world in which suffering and sacrifice were not the purely negative things that they are represented to be by the consumer culture but an immovable part of any lasting happiness. Our task, in other words, is now less political than cultural — an education of the sympathies, which requires from us virtues (such as imagination, creativity, and a respect for high culture) that have a diminishing place in the world of politics.

Agreed, agreed.  And note that none of the points here of the education Scruton asks conservatives to model are inconsistent with liberalized culture, just one that can maintain a kind of reverent acknowledgement of what had come before.  I'd alsways thought these Burkean conservatives inherited a kind of reaction-formation from the French Revolution.  Is liberalism coming from Scruton's pen really Robespierre?

Of aphorisms and neat language

Roger Scruton thinks the art of the aphorism in in decline among American English speakers. 

[W]hen they do talk, it is in an outpouring, in the belief that one person's language is as good as any other's. Bon mots, aphorisms, insightful quotations, nuggets of wisdom, or even ordinary apt remarks form only a tiny part of their conversation.

That's too bad, he thinks, because aphorisms are like stock cubes, they "are dry, salty, compact; and they are intended, when dissolved in thought, to be nourishing."  Not having that ability is a deficiency.  So far, this is just a point about rhetoric — we lack a special linguistic skill, apparently.  But, he notes, there are true and false aphorisms.  The true ones are from Henry James, Groucho Marx, and La Rochefoucauld. The false ones are from Marx, Christopher Hitchens, and Oscar Wilde. (Wilde gets lumped with the false aphorizers, because he came down against fox-hunting.) The trouble is that the catchiness of an aphorism is not what determines whether it is a true one or not, regardless of how one comes down on Scruton's division of them here.  The crucial thing is to direct them at truth, right?

How are we to recapture the forgotten ways of wit, and the use of aphorisms in the cause of truth? It seems to me that this is something that we ought to be teaching in our universities. A degree in the humanities should have something of the ancient study of rhetoric. It should be equipping students to persuade, to use language gracefully and succinctly, and to speak and write with style. Persuasion comes not through statistics and theories, but through the artful aphorism that summarizes, in the heart of the listeners, the things that they suspect but don't yet know.

But wait — it's in all those statistics and theories and stuff that the truth or falsity of something is found.  It's in the evidence, the argument.  Aphorisms are good ways to capture that stuff, but without the argument, the aphorism is just garbage.  And Scruton wants more rhetoric, not less?  What's necessary is more logic, more training in statistics, an education in history.  Not more rhetoric.

Discrimination by any other name

Roger Scruton is a serious philosopher.  That's why I was disappointed to read his American Spectator article defending an English couple's right to refuse to allow a gay couple to share a room at their hotel (see the Guardian report).  It's not that I was disappointed that Scruton would defend these folks (I expected that), but that I expected a good argument.  Instead, I got the old canards. 

Maybe that [laws prohibiting discrimination] is the only way to proceed, but it involves curtailing freedom in ways that can easily be resented.

Ah, prohibiting discrimination curtails the freedom of discriminators to discriminate.  That is a very important freedom, indeed.  And we must be very careful not to cause people the harm of feeling resentment.  That's a much worse harm than not being treated as an equal.

We discriminate between people on grounds of their height, their age, their strength, their virtue, their looks.

Oh, the false analogy!  The familiar, yet utterly irrelevant, old saw of the discrimination apologists.  Yes, we discriminate on the basis of characteristics relevant to a job, opportunity, and so on.  Isn't the burden of proof always on those who do the discriminating to explain why some characteristic is relevant?  If there is a relevant connection between the characteristic and the opportunity, we don't call the decision 'discriminating,' but 'distinguishing.'  Is there a relevant bit of distinguishing to be done with homosexuality?

The purpose of including sexual orientation in the open-ended "non-discrimination" clauses of modern legal systems is to overcome "prejudice," to normalize homosexuality…. It is, however, much more of a prejudice to think that matters of sexual conduct can, in this way, be simply placed beyond moral judgment — as though they were not, for ordinary people, the very essence of the moral life.

Ad populum, too. Everyone thinks it is unnatural and immoral, so that's evidence it is.  But why think that these views are right? 

It is one part of a considered religious morality that has stood the test of time.

But why does the fact that it is an old view make it a good one, yet?  Surely at some point in time over the course of the long testings of time someone must have said that perhaps the view needs to be worked out in some detail.  After all that time, all they have to say for the view is that it is old and keeps getting older… standing the test of time. Oh, but the times are changing. 

THIS, IT SEEMS TO ME, shows what is really at stake in these disputes. They are not about human rights, or about the perennial conflict between liberty and equality. "Non-discrimination" clauses are ways of smuggling in vast moral changes without real discussion . . . . Sex, sexual orientation, and maybe soon sexual practices — so that the hotel keeper will no longer be able to discriminate against the person who happens to live as a prostitute.

And the slippery slope to running a flophouse for prostitution for a finale!  Well, at least he didn't have the slippery slope to bestiality.  And after having repeated the same old weak arguments for discrimination, has Scruton made any headway in helping this real discussion he wants to have?  I'm sad to say I don't think so.  Which, again, is too bad.  Because he's the best thinker that conservatives have.  That may be evidence as to just how bad-off the conservative case against gay rights is.