Review of Right Reason

(Note: As of 7/18/08 Right Reason and The Conservative Philosopher are both defunct.)

Right Reason emerged from the tumult of The Conservative Philosopher (TCP), where K. Burgess Jackson disabled comments and alienated some of its members. In contrast to TCP, Right Reason has admirably aspired to give conservative principles a careful, powerful, philosophical defense” and welcomes “vigorous, reasoned debate.”

How does it measure-up?

The first philosophical post opened with the following question: is analytic philosophy stealth conservatism? Lydia McGrew notes that some radical egalitarian “continental” philosophers argue that “objective truth, logical rigor, and clarity” are tools of conservatism. McGrew concludes with two more questions: “Do you think your liberal analytic colleagues will become conservative as time goes by or, in some important sense, are really conservative at heart?” There is nothing substantial or carefully reasoned in this post; rather it mostly contains provocative and leading questions. Nothing is necessarily wrong with this; however, the subtext (though she places it mostly in the mouths of the maligned post-moderns) is that the radical egalitarianism is essentially liberal, while logical rigor is essentially conservative. Jonathan Weinberg commented on this identification of the left with its most extreme elements and asked, “if we can’t count on our philosophers to make these distinctions, who can we count on?” Indeed.

Next, Rob Koons tried to outline the philosophical heritage of modern conservatism. He opens with a jab: “anti-conservatism consists largely of what George Orwell so aptly described as ‘the sort of nonsense only an intellectual could be believe [sic].'” This prompted me to ask him for his “careful, powerful, philosophical defense” of this statement, to which he encouraged me to “lighten up!” My request was earnest, and I would like to see an argument for this old canard, though I should note that it was not the main point of his essay.

Regarding Koons’ main point–he understands Aristotle to be the great-grandfather of philosophical conservatism, in contrast to anti-conservatism:

Aristotelians seek first to understand human life as it really exists and to anchor their aspirations and normative standards in that reality, in constrast [sic] to the anti-conservative, who compares reality to purely imaginary ideal.

Koons repeats this identification of the left with foolish, essentially Marxist, idealism elsewhere. Most of the rest of the post consists of a laundry list of conservative thinkers, including Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Lord Acton, John Henry Newman, Jacques Maritain, Irving Babbitt, C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, John Locke, David Hume Eric Vogelin, Michael Oakeshott, Leo Strauss, Ludwig van Mises and Friedrich Hayek.

In a related post, while trying to identify the spectrum of conservative views, Koons claims the following:

For conservatives, the idea of a value or good that is utterly unrealized, that exists only in the imagination or intuition of the reformer, is a contradiction in terms. A conservative is moved to defend and protect things that are, which includes assisting things in their inherent tendency to realize their full potential. This realization of potential must, for the conservative, be understood in its Aristotelian sense. A thing (including a human being or society) does not realize its potential when some alien or external form is imposed upon it by the reformer or revolutionary, but when it is free to become in fact what its defining essence (which is always, at least to some extent, actualized in reality) demands …. Now we must turn to the crux of the matter: what exactly is it that the conservative seeks to conserve? Conservatives offer two answers: humanity (Russell Kirk) and reality (Richard M. Weaver). Clearly, Weaver’s answer is the more comprehensive and most satisfying. However, since we are human beings, that part of reality with which we are most concerned is humanity. Moreover, the greatest threat to non-human reality is the dehumanization of mankind itself. Conservatives seek to conserve humanity.

In reply, I wrote:

… Aristotelian metaphysics has been purged from the sciences for good reason: telos and essences are suspect and do little legitimate work. Consider essences in species concepts (fixed forms) vs. modern biological understanding of species, or Aristotle’s explanation for falling bodies. Similarly, the use of essences and teleological talk in political discourse is questionable. After all, it has been used in the past to justify many wrongs (slavery, the subjugation of women).

You say that the essence of conservatism is to conserve humanity; no doubt you have a picture of what the essence of humanity is that needs to be preserved. What is and how it is justified is very important.

He responded:

John has correctly zeroed in on the crucial issue: has science rendered Aristotle’s metaphysics obsolete? This is, I think, the fundamental issue dividing conservatives and others. Not surprisingly, I think the reports of the demise of essence and telos are somewhat exaggerated.

Unfortunately, he did not provide any arguments, so I asked for them:

What do consider the telos/essence of human’s as opposed to other animals and women as opposed to men? How may we justify such claims without committing the naturalistic, or some other, fallacy? Even if nature “assigns” us some function, why should we follow?

I am genuinely curious.

As of this posting there has been no answer. Perhaps he is too busy to respond.

These were just a few exchanges, but they are pretty representative–the contentious claims have been merely asserted and not well argued. When argued for, they too often consist of straw-manning (see Scruton’s ridiculously simplistic review of Singer) or appeal to contentious evidence (see Burton’s lament about the Difference Principle dragging-down bright kids). Also, there are disturbingly racist and social Darwinist tones to some of the posts and comments.

The history of some of the authors is disquieting (as vitriolicly noted by P.Z. Myers). Edward Feser has put forth dubious Horowitz-style arguments on the excrible Tech Central Station:

Whatever bland official statement of purpose might appear in the introduction to a modern university’s college catalog, its true raison d’etre is in practice nothing other than to destroy utterly whatever allegiance a young person might have to traditional conceptions in morality, religion, politics and culture, to “do dirt” on the faith of his fathers, on his country, and on what most human beings have historically understood to be the imperatives of decency. It is, in short, to propagate Leftism.

Francis Beckwith and Robert Koons are both apologists for Intelligent Design creationism (Center for Science and Culture Fellows). The center is infamous for its Wedge Strategy, which is the mission of the center:

Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies. Bringing together leading scholars from the natural sciences and those from the humanities and social sciences, the Center explores how new
developments in biology, physics and cognitive science raise serious doubts about scientific materialism and have re-opened the case for a broadly theistic understanding of nature.

And Roger Scruton has acted as a corporate shill. He was paid £4,500 per month by the tobacco industry to promote their product in his columns in the Wall Street Journal, The Times, The Telegraph, The Spectator, the Financial Times, The Economist, The Independent and the New Statesman.

It is important to note that these affiliations don’t invalidate their arguments, but it does shed light on their possible agendas.

There is danger in complacency, and it would be a great service to progressives to have a high quality source for conservative arguments to sharpen their wits on. While Right Reason is closer to this ideal than The Conservative Philosopher, it has not yet delivered on its promised “powerful, philosophical defense” of conservatism.

Update: Max Goss of Right Reason informs me that Professor Koons is out of the country, which explains why he hasn’t responded.

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