Liberty Matters

Against Fixed Standards

In his response to me, Dan takes issue with my suggestion that the foundations of Burke, Hume, and Smith's polity conservatism matter. In order to tease this out, I want to explore a specific subject Dan raises—the role of aesthetics.
Of course I did not mean to suggest that Smith and Hume did not care about such things. Much of my work involves thinking through why aesthetics were important to them. But I do think it is necessary to separate Hume and Smith from Burke on these points. No one denies that Burke, Smith, and Hume, were correspondents and friends who had related interests and concerns. Indeed, as I cited, Burke and Smith argued similarly in their responses to the case of the American colonies. However, Burke's advocacy for the American colonies is based on long-standing British tradition:
"Again and again, revert to your old principles —seek peace and ensue it; leave America, if she has taxable matter in her, to tax herself. I am not here going into the distinctions of rights, nor attempting to mark their boundaries. I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions; I hate the very sound of them. Leave the Americans as they anciently stood, and these distinctions, born of our unhappy contest, will die along with it.... Be content to bind America by laws of trade; you have always done it.... Do not burden them with taxes.... But if intemperately, unwisely, fatally, you sophisticate and poison the very source of government by urging subtle deductions, and consequences odious to those you govern, from the unlimited and illimitable nature of supreme sovereignty, you will teach them by these means to call that sovereignty itself in question.... If that sovereignty and their freedom cannot be reconciled, which will they take? They will cast your sovereignty in your face. No body of men will be argued into slavery...The Englishman in America will feel that this is slavery; that it is legal slavery, will be no compensation either to his feelings or to his understandings."[1]
Burke's aesthetic treatise is partly a response to Hume.[2] He also responds to the aesthetic quality of Smith's work in his letter to him about Theory of Moral Sentiments.[3] Burke was in search of a fixed standard. He begins the Enquiry stating: "It is probable that the standard both of reason and Taste is the same in all human creatures. For if there were not some principles of judgment as well as of sentiment common to all mankind, no hold could possibly be taken either on their reason or their passions, sufficient to maintain the ordinary correspondence of life." He continues: "For if Taste has no fixed principles, if the imagination is not affected according to some invariable and certain laws, our labour is like to be employed to very little purpose; as it must be judged an useless, if not an absurd undertaking, to lay down rules for caprice, and to set up for a legislator of whims and fancies."[4]
I agree with Dan's suggestion that the potential problem for liberty lies in unjust emotions that overtake one's concern for others. Yet in order to develop this sense of justice or injustice, one has to cultivate moral judgment. And though the aesthetic is always a part of these judgments, Smith spends an entire chapter at the beginning of his explanation of sympathy separating taste and moral judgment. He writes that taste is different than sympathy because it involves a conservation about objects "without any peculiar relation either to ourselves or to the person whose sentiments we judge of" (TMS I.i.4.2).
Why does Smith do this? This inquiry is a piece of a larger project for me, but in part, it is to suggest the dangers for individual liberty when aesthetic concerns—which sometimes entail adherence to a system of custom or duty—overwhelm the connection with one another we have access to through sympathy. This pursuit of system can cause an overreach by those in power because of the unjust emotional pull of love of order, or it can, like in Hume, take the form of factions where the parties "are commonly intoxicated with the imaginary beauty of this ideal system" (TMS VI.ii.2.15).
Why does the aesthetic aspect of their thought matter? I think it is because, as Dan rightly says, politics and aesthetics are intricately entwined, but aesthetic judgment also acts as a helpmate to the proper development of moral judgment. In his aesthetic essay, "Of the Standard of Taste" Hume ends with a consideration of religious faction. He does so, I argue, to point out why a particular process for reaching a standard of taste, discussion with others—with occasional direction by experts—is so important. For Hume, there is a standard of taste, but it is found through the sharing of sentiments rather than only the use of one's reason (Dan's point about Hume not rejecting reason completely is well-taken). Politically, a fixed standard is not helpful. Discussion of ideas will always be more important for securing a just society. For Smith, obsession with order can be dangerous, but taste might also be beneficial. Sympathy is the primary way of connecting with others, but aesthetic discussions might allow people to connect in other ways that are easier than imaginatively changing place with another. The only fixed standard Smith advocates is that of grammar like rules of justice, while other virtues "should be directed by a certain idea of propriety, by a certain taste" (TMS III.6.11).
This is not to say that Smith or Hume were not patriotic in any sense (I even acknowledge Smith's bias toward Britain in his account of mercantilism), but they recognized the potential dangers of hard and fast doctrines. It is interesting that Dan ascribes a foundationalism to my first response, when the point of it was to suggest that politics is messy and having stark sensibilities is a path to forgoing moral judgment and consequently justice. This is at the root of Hume's fear of faction, Smith's worry about the man of system, and even Burke's anger at the philosophes.
Still, I do think the different foundations of their polity conservatism matter. Burke's fear of the French revolutionaries and writers like Price and Paine, as Dan points out, is rooted in their lack of regard for custom and tradition. Smith's worry about the man of system is a lack of regard for other citizens. Similarly, Hume worries that religious doctrines, despite being an avowed infidel, prevent discussion of ideas between citizens. He says for example, "But a very violent effort is requisite to change our judgment of manners, and excite sentiments of approbation or blame, love or hatred, different from those to which the mind from long custom has been familiarized…Of all the speculative errors, those, which regard religion, are the most excusable in compositions of genius; nor is it ever permitted to judge the civility or wisdom of any people, or even of single persons, by the grossness or refinement of their theological principles. The same good sense, that directs men in the ordinary occurrences of life, is not hearkened to in religious matters."[5] Religious tradition prevents the development of moral judgment and the exchange of sentiments between citizens. As Knud put it in his response, Hume seeks balance.
I appreciate the project to try and find the commonalities between the conservative and liberal traditions. This is exactly why liberalism needs judgment. "Stark demarcations" as Dan says are not helpful. They create divisions between citizens and preclude considerations of justice. This is why I take issue with the foundation of Burke's polity conservatism and what gives me pause about conservative liberalism. I very much agree with Michael when he says, "If one lives in a society that presently recognizes most individual rights, treats persons roughly as moral equals, and more or less practices the rule of law, then a liberal would of course want to preserve these traditions and the institutions that implement them. Thus, a liberal in such a society would naturally be a conservative." And also, "I think you should be conservative if and only if you live in a society where things are going comparatively well. If you live in a society where things are going badly – where the people are poorer, less healthy, less happy, and so on, than average – then you should be a reformer." Dan has said that in the formulation of conservative liberalism, liberalism remains primary. I would ask, does the concern for liberal policies remain primary over the concern to preserve the polity? I ask because the status which you assign to custom and tradition in guiding your judgment of fellow citizens and policies you would advocate, matters.
[1.] Edmund Burke, "Motion to Repeal the Tea Duty" in Collected Works of Edmund Burke vol. 1, Online Library of Liberty, April 19, 1774, 129; emphasis mine.
[2.] For more on Burke's Philosophical Inquiry as a response to Hume, see James Boulton's introduction in Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958). See also Darío Perinetti, "Between Knowledge and Sentiment: Hume and Burke on Taste," in The Science of Sensibility: Reading Burke's Philosophical Enquiry, ed. K. Vermeir and M.F. Deckard (Springer Netherlands, 2011).
[3.] Letter from Edmund Burke, September 10, 1759 in Smith, Adam. 1987. Correspondence of Adam Smith. ed. E. C. Mossner and T. S. Ross. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 46-47.
[4.] Burke, Edmund. 1990 [1757]. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful Oxford: Oxford University Press, 11-12.
[5.]Hume, David. 1994 [1777]. "Of the Standard of Taste" in Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 247.