It’s probably no surprise to anyone who happens upon my blog that I’m something of a conservative. Although I don’t mind calling myself a right-winger since that gives a pretty good idea of how I’m likely to vote, I think traditionalist is a better term because I’m more interested in defending a particular way of life than any particular political programme; and it’s unfortunately the case that some of what falls under the category of right wing is corrosive to that way of life (though often less so than what happens on the other side). That wasn’t always the case for me, and how I got to where I am now is far too long and complicated for an off-the-cuff blog post, but here’s a brief sketch.
I started out pretty apathetic to politics. My family was never very partisan about issues. Whatever views I had were received through cultural osmosis. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had at least a mild distaste for both communism/socialism as well as unfettered capitalist culture, but these were just vague intuitions at best. As a teenager I quickly grew into a pretty artsy guy who read Shakespeare, listened to classical music and enrolled in drama class. Although I suppose I was prime material to become your usual arts-school leftist, the desire to throw in one’s lot with a political cause wasn’t there. I just liked culture.
Looking back at a lot of my intuitions then, it’s a bit easier to see how I was gradually pulled in the direction of conservatism: what I loved, what I really wanted to defend, were cultural things, against both crass utilitarianism and a mindset that makes everything subservient to politics.
When I was in university, I went through a period where I got very interested in political philosophy, and that pushed me towards libertarianism. I still had a dislike for the sometimes creepy amount of love so many libertarians had for the free market, etc. But as I wanted to be more systematic in my beliefs, and found that it jived the most with my then Enlightenment-style outlook, I held my nose (also, by this point I was starting to develop a desire to poke the smugness of the university culture around me in the eye).
I recall reading one libertarian writer who was making a defense of certain social mores on the grounds that they were a utilitarian benefit for society. At that point, I realized more clearly where I stood – offering a utilitarian rationale for some particular virtue or tradition completely misses the point of that practice in the same way that listening to classical music in the hopes that it will improve your attention span misses the point. I don’t think I “defeated” libertarianism so much as I came about to thinking that what was really fundamental was the question of what it meant to be a good person, to have a society of good people, and discussions of utilitarian value, or what, considered abstractly, were the rights of the individual, were besides the point and potentially pernicious if taken as the real starting point.
I read MacIntyre’s After Virtue, which offered a good explanation of what I was becoming aware of: Enlightenment attempts to find a neutral ground for morality were doomed to fail from the start, because morality emerges out of a particular anthropology of man, an overarching narrative. The narrative is the theory, or rational of particular moral practices. Take out the narrative, and morality is emptied of its intrinsic meaning. As a result, Enlightenment thinkers started explaining morality in terms of things accidentally related to it – like utility. But once something like utility becomes the main rationale, it inevitably winds up changing what were originally non-utilitarian practices in order to better fit them to their new purpose. So while David Hume could give a utilitarian rationale for practicing chastity (and indeed there are utilitarian benefits to being chaste), the same rationale gradually erodes the virtue of chastity as the Christian narrative it came from becomes increasingly displaced.
So the question for me became less, “is there a particular set of rights, or system of government which is worth defending?” and more, “is there a particular vision of ourselves and our place in the world, a particular tradition, which is worth defending, similar to how I would defend poetry?”
That is one of the ways in which the ball got rolling.