Monday, March 26, 2012

Variants of Social Conservatism

7/8/12 Update
Communitarianism, as I define it, refers to a political ideology that’s at once economically progressive and socially conservative. As a consequence, I’ve drawn the ire of both left- and right-wingers (I’ve half-jokingly said on many occasions that it’s lonely to be a communitarian). In this post, I’m going to discuss the latter half of the equation. What, exactly, does it mean to be a “social conservative”? I’ve found it useful to distinguish among the following three types.

Libertarian Social Conservatism 

Similar to classical liberals like John Stuart Mill, libertarian social conservatives respect an individual’s right to live as ou wishes – even in ways they deem immoral - so long as ou doesn’t violate another’s right to do the same. Yet they often disagree with contemporary (especially secular) liberals on the relative importance of religious freedom. For instance, whereas today’s liberal is more likely to support legalizing same-sex marriage, a libertarian social conservative would oppose it on account of its negative implications for other widely-cherished rights, including religious ones. For example, a doctor might be sued for discrimination if she were to refuse, on religious grounds, to artificially inseminate a lesbian couple. The contemporary liberal is more likely to overlook or be apathetic about such infringements on religious (and, here in the U.S., constitutionally-protected) freedom. 

Public Good Social Conservatism 

Public good social conservatives will seek to impose moral standards on society when they believe that the violation of those standards undermines public order, public health, or the continuity of society (it must be admitted that these concepts are difficult to define). For example, some support tighter restrictions on divorce, given the negative effects it's argued to have on children and public order (e.g., in the form of higher crime rates). 

Authoritarian Social Conservatism

Authoritarian social conservatives are more concerned with the intrinsic moral character of an act than its effects on others’ rights or the public good, although they may certainly appeal to these effects in order to bolster their arguments. For them, the immorality of an act is, in itself, sufficient to warrant its legal prohibition. In practice, it’s difficult to identify a distinctively ASC position on a particular issue, as this variant of social conservatism seems to be distinguishable more by argumentative emphasis (i.e., more attention is directed to the inherent morality of an act than its supposed effects) than by anything ideological.

In the table below, I use the issue of pornography to illustrate the differences among these variants of social conservatism.

My Preferred Variant of Social Conservatism

Until recently, I’ve embraced a hybrid of the libertarian and public good types. I called this fourth variant consequentialist social conservatism because it is more concerned with the consequences of an act than its intrinsic moral quality. However, I’ve come to realize that I don’t necessarily oppose, on principle, the legal imposition of one’s values on another.  Rather, my opposition stems from the belief (correct or not) that attempts to legislate morality, for its own sake, aren’t likely to succeed.  But there’s no basis for denying the possibility that such legislation will bear fruit.  And given that spiritual consequences are infinitely more important than worldly ones, I must confess that I am (in theory, at least) sympathetic to authoritarian social conservatism; however unpopular this may be in our live-and-let-live political culture.

*Regarding the table above, I'm only speaking hypothetically here. While some scholars posit such negative effects of pornography consumption, others are skeptical.