A Conservative Vision for a Richer Liberalism

By Chaneg Torres

NPG 655; Edmund Burke studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds

‘But what is liberty without wisdom and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.’ – Edmund Burke

What place does conservatism have in the classical liberal tradition? For many, conservatism is seen as merely reactionary; a liability to the electoral success of the liberal tradition, only capable of opposing progress and impotent to provide compelling vision for the challenges of today and the future. I argue that ‘conservatism’ is a disposition toward certain truth claims regarding the nature and end of the individual, the individual’s need for voluntary community and the individual’s relationship to political community. This disposition is necessary for a robust liberalism. It provides liberalism with presuppositions and a vocabulary that has a vision of inherent human dignity at its center and thus gives liberalism sufficient moral grounding and capability to present a compelling vision of the common good.

Classical liberalism has traditionally been understood as the belief in individual liberty. The individual for a liberal possesses natural, inviolable rights prior to any political association, articulated by Locke as ‘life, liberty and property’. Milton Friedman understood it to be ‘the intellectual movement that…emphasized freedom as the ultimate goal and the individual as the ultimate entity in the society. It supported laissez faire at home as a means of reducing the role of the state in economic affairs and thereby enlarging the role of the individual…(the) reduction in the arbitrary power of the state and protection of the civil freedoms of the individual.’ Thus the classical liberal claims that in order to flourish, individuals must be free to associate, voice their opinions and engage in enterprise. Inherent then is a preference for smaller government that gives room for the exercise of individual initiative and exists to protect, rather than to curtail, the liberties of individuals. Smaller government is less capable of coercing individuals into conformity, allowing individuals to pursue their own beliefs and happiness. Indeed, government must be small, because government is made up of flawed individuals who, despite the greatest of benevolence, have the propensity to miscalculate at best, or at worst use the coercive power of the state to impose what they deem to be their anointed vision on those who may find their vision unconscionable. Greater political and economic freedom, then, leads to greater material prosperity and individual wellbeing.

Ontology and Telos of the Individual

However, without a belief in rights derived from the transcendent and rooted in inherited culture and history, liberalism can become crude and inadequate in its defence of liberty and as a system of thought. Crude individualism sees the maximization of the individual’s utility as the highest end. J.S Mill, in his defence of individual liberty, stated ‘I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.’ Individuals, according to crude liberalism, should have the freedom to maximise pleasure and minimise pain. Thus the state is unjustified in interfering with an individual’s pursuit of utility if that pursuit of utility does not interfere with another’s and harm the other person. As Mill famously stated ‘independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign.’

It is easy on one level to affirm an individual’s right to maximize their utility free from coercion if that means pursuing enterprise, associating freely and debating ideas peacefully. All these things, liberals of all stripes would agree, are good for society and it is undesirable for the government to use coercion to stifle enterprise and suppress free speech and association. Indeed, Mill thought that utility ‘grounded in the permanent interests of man’ meant that liberty for those in the minority was in the interests of the utility of society in the long run, even if their allowance did not provide utility for a majority of people in the short run.

Nevertheless, one’s liberal respect for individual rights would be sorely lacking were it to be grounded solely in an ethic of utilitarian consequentialism. Liberal rights would be held captive to contingency. As Michael Sandel states ‘Basing rights on utilitarian considerations misses the sense in which violating someone’s rights inflicts a wrong on the individual, whatever its effect on the general welfare.’ When thinking about the grossest human rights violations in the 20th century, most people would not think that their injustice stems from the violation of society’s utilitarian interests, but rather from injustice done to a person who, by virtue of their humanity, possesses inviolable rights. In comparison, a conservative disposition grounds the right to classical liberal liberties in the belief that individuals are possessors of profound and inherent dignity. This is drawn from the Judeo-Christian belief of mankind as made in the ‘image of God’. The protection of liberty is not right because it is instrumental in securing utility; it is right because human beings possessors of inherent dignity. Conceived as thus, when unjust coercion and violation occurs, the outrage people feel is given shape and moral character. Such a dignifying conception provides a vital contribution to liberalism in our attitudes to minorities and the vulnerable. For, if society does not hold the individual’s dignity at the level of the sacred, utilitarian considerations may and indeed in history have led to the weak and those in minority to be regarded as either dispensable for the greater collectivist good, or worse, to be viewed as intolerable burdens on society unworthy of life. The individual must be considered an end, with the state existing for the flourishing of the individual, rather than the individual existing as a consequentialist means to the end of greater utility, however that is defined.

Further, any form of government, even one grounded in classical liberal ideas, cannot escape applying some form of conception of a common good grounded in a particular conception of the individual telos or good. Many classical liberals recoil at coercing people into living out a particular set of beliefs about morality. As Mill stated ‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.’ Classical liberals across the spectrum will affirm a general reluctance to impose morality and a general desire to allow people to do as they wish, so long as they don’t harm others. However, a liberalism with such a conservative conception of the individual is capable of public policy goals that are not held captive by crude autonomy, but can apprehend nuanced goals that take into account both liberty and the human good. Robert P George argues, ‘It is a profound mistake to suppose that the principle of limited government is rooted in the denial of moral truth or a putative requirement of governments to refrain from acting on the basis of judgments about moral truth. For our commitment to limited government is itself the fruit of moral conviction: conviction ultimately founded on truths….’ A conservative disposition thus sees the pursuit of utility is not the telos of human beings. Rather, as George states, ‘The basis aspects of human well-being and fulfillment that together constitute the ideal of integral human flourishing are reducible neither to each other not to some common substance or factor they share.’ These ‘basic aspects of human well being’ help us identify and pursue the good that classical liberal liberties seek to enable. For example, part of the human good is to seek truth. Thus, freedom of speech does not merely exist to protect the obnoxious, but to enable human beings to pursue truth seeking as a basic aspect of human wellbeing. This means then that wisdom demands that we tolerate obnoxious speech, so that genuine inquiry may occur. Another example, later to be explored, is community.

Additionally, Mill’s view of the individual is predicated on an Enlightenment optimism of the ontology of man; man is a progressive creature who, if left free of moral paternalism, will pursue what is productive and conducive to liberty that respects other individuals. A conservative disposition recognizes that while individuals are possessors of inherent dignity, capable of great good, all are in some way tragically flawed. Individuals, Russell Kirk points out, are ‘compounded of both good and evil…Thus the perfection of society is impossible, all human beings being imperfect: and among their vices being violence, fraud an the thirst for power.’ Individuals can be given to passions that may be individually fulfilling, but are harmful to themselves and to society at large. In such a society, an individual’s capacity to flourish diminishes as a possessor of dignity. Whilst Mill would concur that unruly passions that violate the liberty of others should be coercively curtailed, his narrow utilitarian approach cannot readily appreciate the concept of the individual’s relationship to the common good. George states ‘…apparent private acts of vice, when they multiply and become widespread, can imperil important public interests. This fact embarrasses philosophical efforts to draw a sharp line between a realm of private morality that is not subject to law and a domain of public actions that may rightly be subjected to legal regulation.’ Adam Smith recognised the importance of individuals who aren’t merely self interested, but possess ‘sympathy’ for one other; ‘All the members of human society stand in need of each other’s assistance and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries. Where the necessary assistance is reciprocally afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship and esteem, the society flourishes and is happy…Society however cannot subsist among those who are at all times ready to hurt and injure one another.’

The conservative liberal can thus see a subsidiary role for government to encourage, along with communities, virtues that uphold human dignity. If alcoholism and substance abuse runs rampant in rural communities and affects the wellbeing of families and children, while the conservative classical liberal will not legislate to ban alcohol and impose sanctions for its consumption, he or she can see a subsidiary role for government to work with communities to develop programs to aid those who suffer from addiction for the sake of the common good. If sexism that degrades the dignity of women is rampant in society, limiting the ability of women to flourish as possessors of dignity, the conservative liberal will not pass a Respect for Women Act with corresponding fines, but will see a subsidiary role for those political leaders with influence to use their public platform to call people to a vision of a more dignifying society.

Conservatism provides depth to classical liberal freedoms, by conceiving their purpose as not merely for individual license or utility maximisaiton in a crude Randian sense, irrespective of how destructive utility maximisation may be to themselves and society, but for the fulfillment of the ‘good life’; the pursuit of human flourishing or the telos of humanity to be creatures, possessed of dignity and reason, to seek truth, to pursue justice and to seek to live community and friendship.

The Individual and Community

Most would agree that a basic aspect of human well-being is to live in friendship and cooperation with others. Thus, for the individual to flourish, the individual must be situated in community. Classical liberal liberties thus act to protect the existence of communities necessary for human fulfillment. Additionally, strong communities, Burke’s ‘little platoons’, prevent the expansion of the Leviathan.

Classical liberal liberties need a culture that holds as sacred and as part of an enduring moral order the inherent dignity of the individual, as well as values that deem as important civic responsibility and reciprocity. Russell Kirk stated ‘…a society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society…while a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society: no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be…’ Voluntary associations and the family, those mediating institutions that stand between the individual and government, are necessary to form that culture. Families and community groups are the primary transmitters and incubators of civic virtue and morality. They shape individuals through the regular practice and habit of working with one another and sharing life together in friendship and toward common goals. If they are allowed to deteriorate, those virtues that according to George our society not only holds dear but are necessary for a functional society, ‘honesty civility, self-restraint, concern for the welfare of others, justice, compassion, and personal responsibility’ will find it more difficult to take root. In a society lacking virtues of reciprocity, the dignity and liberty of the individual is the first casualty. As George accurately recognizes, the things that classical liberals hold dear; free enterprise, the rule of law and democratic institutions that defend liberty cannot function or survive without a cultural ethos soaked with respect for human dignity. He states ‘Indeed, the effective working of governmental in situations themselves depend on most people most of the time obeying the law out of a sense of moral obligations, not merely out of fear of detection and punishment for law breaking….the success of business and a market based economic system depends on there being reasonably virtuous, trustworthy, law abiding, promise keeping people to serve as workers and managers, lenders, regulators, and payers of bills for goods and services.’

Thus, a conservative disposition within classical liberalism will mean it cannot ignore the importance of insuring the health of voluntary communities if it wishes the individual to flourish in liberty. It rejects an atomizing individualism just as it rejects stultifying collectivism. Robert Nisbet recognised that the liberty and free enterprise that classical liberals hold dear require robust voluntary communities. He believed that if voluntary community were to collapse and atomistic individualism to run rampant, it would only be a matter of time before a more centralised and coercive state would fill the void. This is because, he noted, ‘The quest for community will not be denied, for it springs from some of the powerful needs of human nature: needs for a clear sense of cultural purpose, membership, status and continuity. Without these, no amount of mere material welfare will serve to arrest the developing sense of alienation in society.’ Individuals will look to the state to substitute the functions of the community. Nisbet, it seems, was prescient. In an age where voluntary association is falling, where individual autonomy is held to be the highest good, we also see a vastly expanded welfare state and a tendency to look to charismatic leaders rather than to our local communities for comfort and assurance. Government is crowding out community.

A utilitarian liberal view of the individual thus impoverishes the individual and misses what is worth protecting. It is not merely individual autonomy for its own sake. A conservative disposition enriches classical liberalism by recognizing it is the family and voluntary associations that are the essence of the good life. Human beings are relational creatures who ultimately find fulfillment in association with each other. The liberal conservative, in holding liberty dear, will be passionate about defending voluntary associations from government coercion and attempts by the left to curb the liberty of voluntary association.

The Individual and the Polis

Aristotle believed that part of what it means to be human is to be a political animal and that the ultimate purpose or telos of political association is the apprehension of the ‘good life; and the institutions of social life are means to that end.’ He had a high view of political association, and this high view is echoed in the conservative liberal’s view of government’s subsidiary role and purpose in seeking to ensure individual liberty for flourishing toward ends necessary for human fulfillment and in protecting the voluntary community needed for individual fulfillment and liberty. A crude atomistic liberalism could only ever view Australia as bound together by 20 million self-interested individuals, involved in utility maximizing financial transactions. However, a conservative disposition, in avoiding atomistic individualism and in rejecting totalitarian collectivism that subsumes the individual, is able to bring together the individual and the common good of the Polis. Kirk, in echoing Edmund Burke, states ‘society is a community of souls, joining the dead, the living and those yet unborn; and that it coheres through what Aristotle called friendship and Christians call love of neighbour.’ The nation, Burke states ‘is not an idea only of…momentary aggregation; but it is an idea of continuity, which extends in time as well as in numbers and in space. And this is a choice not of one day or one set of people….it is a deliberate election of ages and generations…it is made by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions and moral, civil and social habitudes of the people which disclose themselves only in a long space of time…’

Alister MacIntyre, in rejecting crude atomism, argues that individuals are also inherently storied creatures, formed by the narratives of their family, religious and political communities. He states ‘We all approach our own circumstance as bearers of a particular social identity. I am someone’s son or daughter…I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation. Hence, what is good for me has to be good for one who inhabits these roles. As such, I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations. These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point. This is in part what gives my own life its moral particularity.’ This makes sense of why we may feel a sense of duty to our family, our local community and to our nation. It also makes sense of why, as well as feeling pride collectively in our nation’s achievements, we may find that justice demands that we collectively accept responsibility for our nation’s mistakes. All of this would be absurd, if each individual were an autonomous island of themselves, devoid of any claim upon them from their local and political communities.

Identification with political community is vital as liberal liberties are not as natural as we think. They may be natural in the sense that they precede any recognition by the state, but they are not inevitable or naturally conceivable. In the west, these values are so deeply embedded that they seem almost unremarkable, a priori assumptions. However, these ideas are the result of hundreds of years of development, grounded in shared identity and heritage. Edmund Burke recognized this when the French Revolution and the ideas of the Philosophes that fuelled it were capturing the imagination of Europe. For Burke, the ideas of liberty espoused in the Revolution, abstracted from any shared history and heritage, driven by a utopic desire to overthrow the old order for an imagined new age, were bound to lead to tyranny. Russell Kirk expressed this sentiment thus; ‘It is old custom that enables people to live together peaceably: the destroyers of custom demolish more than they know or desire. It is through convention: a word much abused in our time, that we contrive to avoid perpetual disputes about rights and duties…continuity is the means of linking generation to generation…When successful revolutionaries have effaced old customs, derided old conventions and broken the continuity of social institutions, why, presently they discover the necessity of establishing fresh customs, conventions and continuity….order and justice and freedom, they believe, are the artificial products of a long social experience, the result of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice….human society is no machine to be treated mechanically…’The classical liberal, equipped with a conservative respect for history and heritage, will jealously guard the symbols and history that binds the nation together in order to preserve individual liberty. The conservative will not ignore the importance of national identity, shaped by ‘custom, convention and continuity’ in ensuring that millions of individuals are able to live in peace under the rule of law, because in their individual diversity, they have an identity in common that binds them together; an identity formed by history and symbols.

Indeed, it must be said that in Australia, to be a conservative is to be a classical liberal. The heritage we inherited from Britain is a long history of pride in the development of liberty and Parliamentary democracy as the guardian of this liberty. Edmund Burke himself, recognised as the father of modern conservatism, ‘was also Burke the liberal: the foe of arbitrary power in Britain, in America, in India,’ according to Kirk. He defended liberty, Kirk states, ‘not because they were innovations, discovered in the Age of Reason but because they were ancient prerogatives, guaranteed by immemorial usage.’ Our Westminster system of democracy, the rule of law, our Judeo Christian heritage, the history of constitutional development from Magna Carta to the Glorious Revolution through to the arrival of the common law to our shores in 1788 and the beginning of responsible government in New South Wales are thus of great importance to the conservative. To encourage the veneration and memory of these is to form the habits of civic virtue in individuals, necessary for the protection of shared liberty. Were a sense of shared heritage to be devalued or diminished, it is hard to imagine that classical liberal values could stand on their own for very long. Without grounding in a shared heritage of liberty to which each individual feels a deep association with, grand and ideological visions of utopia with the promise of prosperity and progress can easily capture a populace and chain them in tyranny, as has been demonstrated in history from the French Revolution through to 20th century totalitarianism.


A conservative disposition within classical liberalism does not leave it stunted, incapable of progress. It is simply incorrect to say conservatism is merely a resistance to change. Burke himself stated that ‘change is the means of our preservation.’ But the classical liberal will avoid falling into a form of populism that justifies change because it happens to be fresh and on trend. Often, much of the radical or fashionable change proposed by the left attacks the individual, the freedom of voluntary associations to operate and believe or the very notion of shared national identity. A liberalism imbued with conservative disposition will embrace beneficial change that maintains the dignity of the individual, preserves and strengthens voluntary associations and recognizes the importance of identification with the polis and its heritage. Conservatism provides liberalism with a richer, more dignifying vision and vocabulary of the human being and the good life and why liberty, rather than merely protecting individual license, serves the common good.

Chaneg Torres is a second year Juris Doctor student and is the immediate past president of the SU Conservative Club.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s