Playing the High Card: Arguing From Philosophy - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Playing the High Card: Arguing From Philosophy

Last autumn, The Conservative Agenda Project asked a number of young conservatives, primarily students working on the conservative newspapers in the Collegiate Network sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, to submit an essay on how they talk to their fellow students about conservatism. A cash prize and publication were offered for the best essay. The project was inspired by a remark William F. Buckley Jr. made in an address to the Conservative Party of New York State in 1964:

Modern formulations are necessary even in defense of very ancient truths. Not because of any alleged anachronism in the old ideas–the Beatitudes remain the essential statement of the Western code–but because the idiom of life is always changing, and we need to say things in such a way as to get inside the vibrations of modern life.

Abigail Olin of the Tiger Town Observer at Clemson University submitted the winning essay, which The American Spectator is pleased to publish in this issue. In her piece, Olin emphasizes the necessity of grounding arguments in philosophy rather than pragmatism.


William F. Buckley Jr. once said, “Idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive.” I frequently find, in discussions with fellow conservatives about the most effective methods to communicate conservative ideas, that when I mention the philosophical basis of conservatism, it is often brushed off as being impractical or idealistic. My friends see it as perhaps a noble cause, but not a viable way to persuade non-conservatives of the virtues of conservatism.

The majority of young conservatives choose to take what they see as a more practical and pragmatic route when trying to appeal to people of other political ideologies. Because their arguments require less philosophical background and seem to be almost self-evident, it may appear that this is not only the easier but also the more effective avenue to winning people over to the side of conservatism. It is true that comprehensibly explaining the moral and philosophical foundations of the conservative political movement is far from the “quick and dirty” approach of pragmatism. It takes time, patience, and understanding. I believe, however, that reaching the philosophical roots of conservatism is ultimately the most worthwhile and effective way of spreading conservative thought.

When conservative ideas win out in an intellectual battle on practical or utilitarian grounds, it may be a temporary win for some particular political issue, but it does little to further the conservative movement. It leaves open the possibility that a competing idea, if it is more socially or politically expedient at a given time, will triumph on those grounds alone. No single issue is enough to bring someone around to conservatism from liberalism or apathy; a person’s entire way of thinking must be challenged and realigned, so that the premises on which his opinions are formed–from the most trivial to the most consequential–are grounded in a single cohesive moral and political philosophy.

It is simple to convince someone who already subscribes to the conservative philosophy of the merit of some political issue using a utilitarian argument. Because both parties already agree on the basic moral premise on which the question rests, it is likely that both will come to the same conclusion. When there is disagreement on the most fundamental of moral and philosophical premises, however, it becomes far less likely that a utilitarian argument will be enough to change a person’s mind about an issue of public policy. The surest and most effective way to change people’s minds on current political issues is by bypassing discussion of specific legislation and instead working to modify their philosophical basis for decision-making. In this sense, using philosophical arguments seems like a far more practical route to furthering the conservative movement; it hardly seems pragmatic to use pragmatic arguments.

When decisions are made on the basis of economic and social expediency, the long-term consequences are ignored and the moral ramifications are forgotten altogether. Although there have been countless opportunities throughout recent history for us to realize it, the housing crisis brought most forcefully to mind the fact that oftentimes legislation meant to help people actually does far more harm to them–and to the whole country–in the end. Sometimes this is purely accidental; at other times it seems that politicians simply don’t care what happens in the long term, as long as a policy is popular in the short term.

For example, the legislation that played a part in kindling the housing crisis, the Community Reinvestment Act, required banks to lend to people who had been “discriminated against” by normal lending criteria. These people, the law’s proponents said, had a “right” to own a home. Even some legislators and commentators who consider themselves conservatives signed on, accepting the pragmatic argument that increased home ownership would lead to greater social stability. This is a classic example of a political issue that should have been set aside for a time in order to comb through the many philosophical questions involved.

In this case, a discussion of individual rights requires an examination of the rights of all parties involved. By what right should any person–poor, rich, or in between–be able to demand that the wealth of another, no matter how much or little he possesses, be lent to him if that person is unwilling? Another topic for discussion might be the constitutional limitations on our government. Is it the proper function of government to ensure that people who are unlikely to be able to repay a loan should receive one anyway? A discussion of the merits of laissez-faire capitalism would be another great place to start. Can a handful of legislators do a better job of planning the economy than a multitude of individuals, all acting in their own self-interest? Or should the invisible hand of the market be allowed to work freely? There are no quick answers to any of these questions; they all require lengthy discussion and reflection. But when these questions are addressed objectively by both sides, the chance that one person could affect another’s understanding of the philosophy he uses to make individual policy decisions increases dramatically.

UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE is another example. Most people hold the good health and well-being of their fellow citizens as a noble goal to be pursued, and few would argue with the proposition that health insurance for everyone who wants it would be a terrific step for society. But when principle is bypassed for the sake of social and political expediency, it is easy for the wrong solution to be prescribed. One larger question that comes to mind involves economic incentives and the inefficiency of government involvement in any industry–let alone one as important as the medical industry. Does one man have a duty to pay for the health care of another man and his family if the latter cannot afford it himself? Should the government have the power to require that people purchase health insurance even if they don’t want to?

The Second Amendment and the right to bear arms bring up many interesting questions. Everyone can agree that injuries and deaths involving firearms are tragic no matter the circumstances. However, the best method for reducing, or indeed eliminating, these tragedies–as well as gun-related crime–is not nearly as widely agreed upon. An expedient answer to this problem would be to ban guns altogether, but those opposed argue that gun rights are constitutionally protected. One question could relate to correct and incorrect interpretations of the Bill of Rights. The purpose of the Second Amendment, both now and when it was originally written, is another interesting topic to discuss. The question of safety is also relevant, and the balancing act between being as free as possible and being as safe as possible.

There are no easy answers to any of these questions; they all require significant commitments of time, thought, and effort, and even so some still might remain unanswered. But addressing such philosophical questions is not beyond the American people; they are, on average, fully capable of using reason and morality to draw conclusions and make decisions, for they do it every day. Just because a person hasn’t taken a course in political theory, social philosophy, or advanced economics doesn’t mean he isn’t able to grasp the ideas. More often than not, people appreciate being challenged, especially on ideas that relate to their own lives.

THERE IS A FACTION within the modern conservative movement, however, that seeks to dumb down the ideas of conservatism to the lowest common denominator. Some seem to believe that a non-intellectual approach to disseminating conservative ideas is the best way to gain as many followers as possible. Initially it might seem like a good idea to come across as unassuming and plain-spoken, to appeal to the “common man.” In the process, though, the ideas on which conservative philosophy are based are lost, and the only thing that remains is just how average you think your interlocutors are. Most conservatives, in fact most people, aren’t nearly as simpleminded as some believe. They can reason through philosophical ideas and draw from them principled conclusions about questions pertaining to the proper functions of government and economic policy. Furthermore, this dumbing down of conservatism runs the grave risk of alienating conservatives and non-conservatives alike.

The communication of conservatism requires individuals who are staunchly committed not only to learning the pros and cons of specific public policy issues or the platforms of candidates or political parties, but also to developing a deep understanding of the philosophical grounds of conservatism. Unfortunately, filling one’s head with facts and statistics that can be quickly rattled off will do far less to convince others than helping them learn and, in turn, develop that same understanding of the philosophical grounds of conservatism.

It is far easier for a conservative to challenge the stance of another about specific legislation than it is to challenge his entire political philosophy. By the same token, it is also easier for a person of some other political orientation to challenge the stance of a conservative than it would be to challenge his entire political philosophy. It might seem, then, that both sides are on equal footing in this battle of ideas, but I would move that the philosophical core of conservatism is stronger and more certain than that of any other political movement, and that conservatives are a tenacious and committed group of citizens, ready not only to wage this intellectual battle, but to win it.

The cultivation of principled, rather than expedient, conservatism is not an idealistic pipe dream. It is a realistic goal that manages to be both principled and pragmatic at the same time. In our effort to appeal to potential conservatives, we cannot lose the moral grounding that underpins conservative philosophy, and we cannot rest on the assertion that our economic policy is better because it “just works” or that our social policy is superior because it is less unfair. We must remain cognizant of the moral roots of our beliefs, and we must work diligently to educate others about those ideas. This approach requires far more diligence than other approaches–it is more in-depth and more time-consuming than a quick explanation of any given political issue–but its costs are far from prohibitive. In fact, failing to ground conservatism in its moral and philosophical foundations might prove to be the most cost-prohibitive approach to furthering the conservative movement that one could take. 

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