The True Conservative Case for Conservatism

By K. William Huitt Published on April 6, 2019

While making my usual mistake of scrolling through Twitter recently, I stumbled on Kurt Schlichter’s article, “The Conservative Case for Conservatism.” I found it disturbing.

Schlichter’s piece revolves around his complaint that some people who call themselves conservatives appeal to principles which justify what Schlichter calls liberal positions. Schlichter’s conclusion? Conservatives need to stop supporting the “right thing to do” trump card. Instead conservatives need to ask, what’s in it for us?  “It’s not wrong for conservatives to ask that question,” he says.

Appeals to morality are often abused, Schlichter says. “Anyone who starts babbling about ‘principles’ is trying to shaft you. … It’s a grift, a scam, a con of cons by people pretending to be cons.” But appeals to morality are abused by conservatives and liberals alike. Liberals claim a moral high ground on abortion, accusing conservatives of hating women. Conservatives answer by accusing liberals of hating babies. This gets us nowhere. Schlichter is wrong, however about the answer. He thinks we should give up arguments from moral principle, and trade them in for arguments about what we get out of something.

Please Support The Stream: Equipping Christians to Think Clearly About the Political, Economic, and Moral Issues of Our Day.

It’s true that bad moral arguments are bad. But Schlichter is wrong when he calls “the right thing to do” a “frustrating… moral trump card.” He thinks it’s “not an argument;” it’s a “means to foreclose argument” instead.

He thinks conservatives should focus on what helps preserve our power, rights and wealth. But this is dangerous. First, it puts conservatism on the same unprincipled foundation as liberalism. Second, it’s not true that moral arguments are not arguments at all.

1. Schlichter’s Corrosion of Conservative Foundations

Conservatism requires things worth conserving; things such as like individual liberty, limited government and personal rights. Conservatives have traditionally based these values on natural law theory, by which they conclude that it’s right and good for man to live in a certain way. This moral claim serves as a foundation for conservatism.

Liberalism rests on a completely different foundation. This is the idea that man and society are always progressing. The ideal society is always changing as man and society always change. There is no constant way that man is meant to be. So for liberals, what is good and right for mankind always depends on circumstances. Or in other words, “What’s in it for us given the here and now?”

The key difference between a conservative and a liberal is that the conservative has a constant, stable idea of what is good, whereas the liberal thinks the good is always changing.

The key difference between a conservative and a liberal is that the conservative has a constant, stable idea of what is good, whereas the liberal thinks the good is always changing. As times change, the liberal mind concerns itself with how humanity can continue to get the most out of the situation. Even the very idea of what “the most” is changes over time.

Liberalism and Schlichter both appeal to “what’s in it for us” as a valid standard. It’s chilling to see Schlichter calling for conservatives to resort to the liberals’ evaluative question as their standard. He replaces traditional conservative moral values with the very question used to support the position he wants to defend conservatism from.

Bad Outcomes for Conservatives

This can have either of two results. Conservatives may decide that there is “more in it for us” if they shift to liberalism. They’ll succumb to its claims to offer greater material equality and security through a strong, efficient central government. They’ll give up their concern for “outdated” things like personal rights, liberty and privacy.

Either that, or they will find themselves in a complete stalemate of ideas with liberals. Both conservatives and liberals will shout for personal rights and liberty, but liberals will keep right on strengthening government.

When both sides focus on “what’s in it for us,” what we should do becomes a matter of preference, like debating which flavor of ice cream is objectively best. Reason and argument fail; the best anyone could hope for is that their arbitrary preferences will win by majority vote.

2. Are Moral Arguments Really Arguments?

Schlichter says moral arguments aren’t arguments at all. He’s wrong.

Imagine someone saying that they’re tired of not robbing people. You tell them that robbing people is morally wrong. They answer, “You’re just shutting down the argument.”

Or suppose someone suggested sending the sick, elderly, and poor to Antarctica to fend for themselves because it would do wonders for the economy. There would be a whole lot in it for us, but we should still be morally appalled by the thought of it.

Schlichter says moral arguments aren’t arguments at all. He’s wrong.

Yes, moral claims can be abused, but there is reality behind them: they can be really true or really false. And we can give real reasons why we think they are true or false. Consider the statements, “We should not murder people,” and “Government should respect the right of individuals to free speech.” They’re both made of the same stuff: moral principles that are either right or wrong.

There is moral reality. It must be respected in political conversations. The right response to moral disagreement is not to throw out morals altogether. Doing that effectively concedes that the other side really does hold the upper moral hand. Instead, conservatives should argue why opposing moral claims are false — and why conservative moral claims are true.

Moving Back Toward True Conservatism

Schlichter is right in noticing the poor state of moral conversations. He is wrong to suggest that the solution is giving up moral conversations, trading them in for “what’s in it for us.”

It’s critical for both conservatism itself and the United States as a whole to elevate moral awareness and discourse. But we can do this. It will take robust, well thought-out positions combined with a sincere love and care for the humans around us. This is the only path to steadfast foundations for truly human, truly conservative values.

React to This Article

What do you think of our coverage in this article? We value your feedback as we continue to grow.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Like the article? Share it with your friends! And use our social media pages to join or start the conversation! Find us on Facebook, Twitter, Parler, Instagram, MeWe and Gab.

Life and Godliness
E.W. Jackson
More from The Stream
Connect with Us