Conservative Thought

Roger Scruton on the Myth of Liberalism

Roger Scruton on Autonomy

“It seems to me that the liberal conception of politics is no more nor less plausible than the Kantian idea of the free, autonomous being. The conservative view begins from a conflicting premise, which is that the abstract ideal of autonomy, however admirable, is radically incomplete. People have a free-will: they make choices, act on reasons, are guided in everything by a conception of what they are, and what they wish to be. But the ‘form’ of freedom requires a content. Freedom is of no use to a being who lacks the concepts with which to value things, who lives in a solipsistic vacuum, idly willing now this and now that, but with no conception of an objective order that would be affected by his choice. We cannot derive the ends of conduct from the idea of choice alone. We must show how the agent values what he intends to do. Through what concepts, and through what perceptions, does he represent his end as desirable? To recognize something as desirable is to view it as an achievement. This means seeing it as conferring merit, dignity, respectability – in short, as conferring social recognition. This sense of merit of something is not as a rule to be translated into words: it suffices that it be real and vivid. Without this kind of ready perception of the value of things, there can be no autonomy, and the perception cannot be acquired through an act of choice. It is brought about, not by freedom, but by striving for freedom, not through self-obsession but through knowledge of others. In short, value requires the perception of the self as other, and only from that perception can freedom begin. There is no autonomy that does not presuppose the sense of a social order, and if the order may be ideal, this is only because it was once experienced as real. The autonomous individual is the product of practices which designate him as social. The individual person is the person who recognizes that he is no mere individual. Anarchy (which is freedom from the constraints of a public realm) is not the gain of individuality, but its loss. Individual freedom is the great social artifact which, in trying to represent itself as nature alone, generates the myth of liberalism.” –

– Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism –

 

– Lucas G. Westman

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