Act: Inspiration

Why Liberals Should Be “Conservative”: Climate Change, Excellence, and the Practice of Happiness

January 16, 2019

“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” –Thoreau

Merely by using the word, “conservative,” I risk losing readers, certain of what I must mean.  Let me say quickly, then, that this is not another strategic plea for centrism as we approach the next round of elections.  By “conservative” I am not referring to anything resembling Republicans or European “center-right” parties, or positions yet further to the right on the liberal-conservative continuum as it is commonly understood today.  Rather, with the word “conservativism” I am referring to something that has, in fact, fallen off the continuum altogether, disappearing from public debate, deliberation, and our political and civic identities.  Indeed, without the sort of “conservativism” about which I will be writing, political deliberation may not be possible at all–and in this way these thoughts are a meditation on our current state of affairs both broadly conceived and specifically apprehended.

We might make a first step closer to the heart of my theme simply by removing the scare-quotes from the conservativism that I am hoping to reconsider if not revive, reserving those marks of skeptical distance instead for the sort of political positions and dispensations that are somewhat strangely referred to as “conservative” today.  My version of conservativism will hereby be presented as: conservative and conservativism. I will refer to the position associated with Republicans as “conservative.”  I will say something later about how “conservativism” has reached its present state, but let me cut to the chase and explain that I am rethinking conservativism in the context of the quest for an ecologically sustainable society.  While this quest, like everything else in our polarized society, cannot be initiated without regard to the liberal/”conservative” split according to which most of our other distinctions are tethered, it must soon move beyond their limitations.  For both sides, in their current form, are missing crucial and fundamental tools necessary to guide us towards a sustainable society.[i]

Because the quest for an ecologically sustainable society, what Pope Francis has referred to as an “ecological conversion,” is a matter of cultural change, there will be no talk, here, of solar panels, carbon-capture, smart-grids, or electric cars, and all the other redemptive fantasies in which our current culture loses itself as it kicks the can down the road.  Instead we are going to do some thinking about the way we think about things, and about our beliefs, desires, and expectations—about what humans need in order to thrive and how we might go about obtaining that.  And we are going to do so according to a basic distinction that, unnoticed, cuts across our current political and social divides.  This distinction, for those who have been hoping I would move more quickly to the point, distinguishes excellence from effectiveness.  Contained in this distinction is a lost story about modernity and its great transformation, about ecological destruction, political polarization and dysfunction, and hope for the future.  It is a far more interesting story, I think, and more useful than the too-familiar story that is based on a distinction between liberal and “conservative” as we commonly use those terms.

This will be slow going.  Moving quickly (and lobbing ready-made thought-bombs across the barricades) is the stuff of op-eds and cable TV news, requiring only a hasty reloading of our current stock of concepts and distinctions.  If you are mainly interested in learning how stupid everyone else is, you might read one of Paul Krugman’s seven-paragraph weekly New York Times zingers, if Rachel Maddow and Joe Scarborough aren’t to your liking.  Our job, in contrast, is to dig into ideas to see where they came from and how they work.

Smile Bitch

I began these reflections on a day that fittingly started out with the reading of some Aristotle through the lens of Communitarian philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre; that day ended with a pleasant party attended by liberal academics and knowledge workers.  At the latter, as we rambled over topics like children, food, travel, and work, we somehow landed on the subject of Snoop Dog’s latest song (I’m gathering) that has as its refrain, “smile bitch.”  This song, of which some of our children had become aware, was treated with mild irony and sarcasm.  It provided the starting note for some witty riffs, the source of second glass-of-pinot humor more than anything else.  I didn’t hear any chords of serious disapproval, even from the feminist scholars amongst the group.

True, of course, popular culture can find its positionality in the interstices of multiple marginalities, which is to say that there are sometimes very good reasons for white people to suspend their judgment on an African American vernacular or art form.  That tradition of simple dismissal has also been a ready-made thought-bomb, one used to shell already stricken ghettos.  But I still had a sick feeling as I thought about the moral reality and the hierarchy of values to which my two seven-year old sons were inevitably becoming inured, as had we adults.  Later, I couldn’t shake the dull nausea and began wondering, “Is this the best we can do?  Really?”  Had we given up?  Were we just too weary of or from it all?  Or, to borrow anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s phrase, had we become so open-minded that our brains had fallen out?

This isn’t the first time I’ve had that feeling.  I experienced something similar when I heard Robert Reich’s plea, in the face of near economic collapse in 2008, that our main concern should be “getting more money in the hands of middle-class consumers.”[ii]  Of course, we cannot spend our way out of a crisis caused in large part by the urge and necessity of ceaseless spending, wanting, and growing.  At best, Reich’s plan, the basic position of liberal economists, might allow us to “buy some time.”[iii] Reich was not suggesting this merely as a stop-gap measure.  Rather, it was a way of tweaking our distribution of wealth in a way, he seemed to believe, that would set the good ship Economy back on its permanent course of perpetual growth—a fantasy based on delusions about ecological limits.  But more viscerally, I was struck at the time that the aspirations of liberals had apparently been reduced to this, peppered with disgust for the countervailing “conservative” claim that we could spend our way out of the crisis by putting that same money in the hands of someone else.  I don’t disagree with the egalitarian spirit of the liberal view; I disagree with the pretension that there are only two possible positions: growth through deregulation or growth through regulation, growth through redistributive taxes or growth from tax breaks.  More appalling, and screaming for alternative, this was the best that Reich, a liberal of substantial intellect and accomplishment, could come up with—achieving an unquestioned end using plan a or plan b–and most liberals were prepared to go along.  This, it seemed, was the best we could muster—another version of George Bush’s “go shopping” after 9-11.

I get that same feeling any time I expose myself to the toxic waste of television commercials.  Apparently one of this year’s hot products is (or by now was) a device or program put out by Facebook that permits “hands free” video telecommunication, the web-cam apparently following the speaker as he or she dances or paces around the room, in this breakthrough marvel of marketing and engineering.  Other advertisements assure us that the only difference between a child and an adult is the size and speed of the toys.  Most remind us that we are not as cool, cunning, fun-loving, or blessed with convenience as we might be.  You are to be the master of your universe, we are told, and you will therefore need to operate all your home’s gadgetry with voice-command lest you find yourself living in the last century or, worse, Appalachia.

In flight from this fear of a regressive life of inconvenience we are thusly coaxed at the price of over $1000 per capita (the yearly marketing bounty placed on each and every one of our heads) to direct our hope and imagination, organize education and work, set our policies.  Yes, we may value equality, peace, and justice for all, but the all-engrossing means for following this dim North Star are mainly a matter of equal consumption; as a happy byproduct, the thrill of accumulation might keep our minds off war or our dislike for each other.  “Hate Has No Home Here,” says the yard sign.  A nice sentiment, but there’s hardly room for it among the numbing distractions of our overstuffed houses anyway.  The fact that American research universities pay people, some pretty smart ones, to write and teach on the subject, marketing to children, strikes me, as a pitiless perversion of all decency.  If I were more prepared to reveal my cultural snobbishness, I might also note that this is a far more popular area of study than, say, comparative literature or anthropology, but I’ll try to keep such thoughts to myself.

Nevertheless, we live in a society that directs a tremendous amount of resources and talent to getting more clicks in an interminable arms race of optimization, usually to distract people from their tasks, pull then away from people, and wheedle them into buying things they don’t need, may not be able to afford, and whose production is destroying the ecological balance of our one and only home.  The modern university trains masters of effectiveness, leading the race to the bottom, to the place where a “deal” might become a form of art and a food-delivery app or program to help connect people with better fitting shirts or cheaper hotel rooms becomes an enviable life’s work.  The companies that produce such pablum have the effrontery to inscribe “mission statements” on their websites, apparently for the reading pleasure of moral masochists.  Convenience stands among our culture’s highest aims.

As a parent I am struck every day at the way raising children in America has become a matter of navigating the obstacle courses set up, it would seem, to hinder any effort to nurture a next generation of people who will be able to sustain moderate wants, regulate their emotions, manage a moment’s boredom, and learn the difficult lessons of life bound to become more difficult yet.  The sad part about this is that we, as parents, consent to it with little protest.  Many of us manage, finance, and market the daily grind of unhappy lives and life-killing waste that it churns out.

Historian Christopher Lasch put it similarly in a personal moment found in the introduction to his seminal history of the concept of Liberal progress, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics.

The unexpectedly rigorous business of bringing up children exposed me, as it necessarily exposes any parent, to our ‘child-centered’ society’s icy indifference to everything that makes it possible to grow up to be responsible adults.  To see the modern world from the point of view of a parent is to see it in the worst possible light.  This perspective unmistakably reveals the unwholesomeness, not to put it more strongly, of our way of life: our obsession with sex, violence, and the pornography of ‘making it’: our addictive dependence on drugs, ‘entertainment,’ and the evening news; our impatience with anything that limits our sovereign freedom of choice, especially with the constraints of marital and family ties; our preference for ‘non-binding commitments’; our third-rate educational system; our third-rate morality; our refusal to draw a distinction between right and wrong, lest we ‘impose’ our morality on others and thus invite others to ‘impose’ their morality on us; our reluctance to judge or be judged; our indifference to the needs of future generations, as evidenced by our willingness to saddle them with huge national debt, an overgrown arsenal of destruction, and a deteriorating environment.

. .

Lasch’s willingness to judge does raise some issues that should not be smugly dismissed, which is in part why I will move with caution as I advance an alternative to the safety of liberalism-as-usual, choosing words carefully, qualifying as precisely as I can. There are reasons in a heterogenous society why tolerance seems a more useful virtue than rectitude, why incisiveness has gone out of style.  “Imposing your ideology on others” is a cardinal sin, perhaps with real life consequences.  So great an affront to our liberal decency does it represent that we dare hardly expose what we and others value to critical scrutiny.  Even among intellectuals, there is little serious debate or argument these days, too afraid are we to offend each other’s entrenched identities and delicately embroidered selves.

There are signs, moreover, that the liberal quest to create an open, accepting, and undiscriminating society is not proceeding as planned and is certainly not without its collateral damage where it does work.  Never mind, for a moment, the rise of social resentment or the Trump voter who complains that “he’s not hurting the people [coastal elites] he needs to be hurting,”[iv] We are not a happy country, our freedoms, comforts, and privileges notwithstanding.  Millions wake up each morning barely restored, roused only by the tension between purposeless tedium and the fear that even that might be slipping away, victim of another recession or round of factory closings or mall shutterings.  The internet (still thought by many to be, on the balance, a source of emancipatory inspiration and the egalitarian flow of knowledge and information), which consumes more and more of our attention each day, is, with its preoccupation with efficiency and effectiveness, humanity’s largest instrument of mass-manipulation ever, a virtual superhighway running straight through our hearts and souls, coring into our fantasy lives, where wants, needs, and expectations are pumped-out with the constancy of an assembly line.  No wonder we buck-up and, on command, “smile bitch.”  For this, apparently, is the best we can do—or the best we can do given the tools available within our current toolbox.

From this perspective the Trump presidency, our Frankenstein monster, is not a crisis of “conservativism,” or not simply that.  It is not the failure of “them” to be more like “us.”  Rather it is a crisis, I will argue, of the culture of effectiveness.  This, in turn, is a crisis in and of Liberalism.

The Pax Profusio and the Question of Ends

I’ll discuss this runaway effectiveness only as I lay some substantial foundations.  To begin that process, I’d like to return to the beginning of my day during which I enjoyed the company of philosophers for an hour or two.  Just as Alasdair MacIntyre guided me through that morning’s foray into Aristotle, he will be our constant guide in what follows.  If my project is the resurrection of an Aristotelian conservatism, it follows an undertaking largely initiated by MacIntyre.[v]  While Aristotle, along with Plato, is often deemed the starting point for modern Western philosophy (and their Athens the birthplace of democracy) his moral and political philosophy bear little resemblance to the modern one—whether the popular morality that I critically characterized above, or any attempts to limit or curb it in the name of religious or moral stringency.  Aristotle adds little to the “conservative” or liberal political cause, but instead allows us to shift the ground and ask questions of ourselves and each other long omitted.

One such line of questioning asks us what our best is, focusing on what philosophers call “the good” and what theologian Paul Tillich refered to as our “ultimate concern.”  What, then, would Aristotle make of Snoop Dog?  What, for that matter, would anyone not numbed by the seeming inevitability of it all make of the entire buffet of celebrity gossip and discount idolatry, made-for-TV celemarketing events like the dropping of the Times Square ball later today, that “making life more convenient” might be a major goal of life and work with existential pretensions, our obsession with toys, clothes, appearances, the very idea of cosmetic plastic surgery, selfie sticks, or the whole childishness of our culture and its President who has less self-control or emotional regulation than has the typical 10 year-old throughout the history of our species?  Ours is not a culture obsessed with excellence, except that which might be better defined as “extremely effective.”  “Our inventions, Thoreau wrote, “are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at.”  Our culture of effectiveness cares only for the speed of travel, and little even for the arrival itself, never mind where we are going as long as it is faster and more convenient.[vi]

Viewing ourselves through Aristotelian eyes is at best a speculative endeavor, but one that remains worth the effort and the distance we might slowly, if temporarily, put between our moral imaginations and the familiar look of things.  Aristotle’s ethics and politics, in contrast to ours, have a single aim:  defining “the good” or the best and describing the practical reasoning, the method of education, and the political and social organization that will allow people to practice the good.  His is an ethics of excellence, which provides vivid contrast to effectively achieving “unimproved ends.” What, he asks, is the best or “highest” goal or end humans might achieve?  Far from trying to make Athens great again, with connotations, there, of being in a position to win competitions of strength or flashy abundance, Aristotle’s politics, writes G.E.R. Lloyd, “may be said to enable its members to fulfil their capacity for virtue” (258).   Or as Aristotle writes in Politics, “the best life, both for individuals and states, is the life of excellence, when excellence has external goods enough for the performance of good actions” (1223b 38).

Two features, in particular, mark more specifically the difference between Aristotle’s ethics and modern morality.  The first is the way the good is not an arbitrary result of personal choice but is subject to philosophical examination and dialectical scrutiny.  Since the advent of Enlightenment reason, that which attempted to do for the study of human life what Isaac Newton did for the study of the natural world, moral philosophy has, for reasons of internal consistency, believed it necessary to relinquish the idea of the good.  As MacIntyre explains, “questions of ends are questions of values, and on values reason is silent” (After Virtue 26).   Some of us may recall from Philosophy 101 that one can’t derive “ought from is,” for what is, is the lifeless mechanical movement of an infinite universe.[vii]  Aristotle’s entire system, in contrast, is based on answering the question of ends and thus of value.

The second main difference is the inclusion of pleasure, enjoyment and happiness in a virtuous life.  Although prohibitive morality has lost almost all of its prestige over the past one hundred years, to the extent that modern, post-Enlightenment, Liberal belief systems have any resources pertaining to limits, they are akin to the  “Puritan” disavowal of desire, passions, and inclination, the sense that a virtuous life is one of self-sacrifice—a code that it inherited from Christianity and reshaped and eroded so that it could be compatible with heterogeneity and the market.  This code, at least as we might recall it from distant memories of our grandmothers’ judgmental barbs, pits pleasure against denial, freedom against limits, inclination against the moral will.

Aristotelian ethics, in contrast, is not opposed to pleasure, enjoyment, even rewarded success.  But virtuous pleasures (and the pleasure of virtue), in greater contrast, are not those of market hedonism, and its pretense to spontaneous expression of the authentic self.  As MacIntyre explains, “The enjoyment which Aristotle identifies is that which characteristically accompanies the achievement of excellence in activity” (After Virtue 160)—activity that aims, like a well-trained archer, towards the good.  A life of virtue is one of “doing well and faring well,” acting not against inclinations, but on inclinations tutored and habituated towards the practice of excellence.  Education is paramount, though modeled after an apprenticeship, now an apprenticeship in the craft of life itself, interweaving skill, judgment, reflection, and respect for its difficult beauty and form. The tragedy of American education, from this perspective, isn’t that it shows some people how to be effective players, leaving others behind—though it does have this effect.  It is that it leaves most of the education of goals and ends and wants to TV commercials, YouTube celebrities, Kim and Kanye’s 1.3-million-dollar holiday party and the rest of the televisual and social media fantasy world.  These goals and wants are mainly a means to some blurry vision of success or getting ahead, or not falling behind.  I would suggest that the tail is wagging the dog, except for the fact there is no dog anymore (dog is dead), and only an aimlessly flapping tail.

Few people who think about such matters would consider the aims, distractions, and pleasures widely pursued by Americans or citizens of industrial nations to be good or excellent according to any conceivable standards.  Who actually thinks that their daughters should listen to a song featuring the phrase, “smile bitch,” or would be proud to hear their sons saying it, even as we accept it without much thought?  The same goes for smart phones in the hands of ten-year-olds, or years of young lives spent glued to some screen or another, slurping down colored sugar-water, their over-stimulated brains flooded with dopamine, the pursuit of which will be a permanent incumbrance.  The content created by our culture gets very few votes for “the best and highest life for humans.”  We are what we eat—and what we read and watch and hear—and it shows.  We would like to guide our children, and we may try to steer them clear of our world’s most sordid attractions, their irresistible appeal notwithstanding.  What we would guide them to, few of us have any sense.  Aimlessness will get one nowhere.  But where is there really to go?

The content our culture spews forth, the “goods” people actually pursue, may not be a very good “best,” but something arguably adjacent is: the freedom to choose your own “good,” reject the whole notion, or not be bothered with having to think about it at all.[viii]  We have arrived as the heart of the Liberal order. [ix] True, our politicians tell us that we are the greatest nation in the history of the planet, full of the hardest working, bravest, and most generous people ever (not to mention the best Superbowl halftime show in the history of our species); but this is only as credible as any run-of-the-mill flattery spoken to lonely souls craning their necks listening for signs that it has not all been a waste.  If our freedom to be as excellent, mediocre, or ignoble as we wish is “the best,” it is the best mainly by default.  A historically knowledgeable Liberal can quickly tick-off all the hazards and misery that the pursuit of a single and unifying good has caused–the way it suppresses, disenfranchises, and excludes those who don’t fall in line or have the wrong colored skin or speak with the wrong accent, if in fact they haven’t already been slaughtered in the name of a higher ideal.

I’m not in the least bit prepared to ignore this history and the Liberal response to it.[x]  For if practicing excellence and the good were a simple proposition, there would be little to discuss.  Given many of our current conditions and realities, there are very strong arguments in favor of Liberal pluralism—even if only as the worst system except for all the others.  Liberal politics, lacking a unifying higher ideal, MacIntyre quips, is “civil war by other means.”  The Liberal responds that all politics are thus and that only Liberalism has been able to maintain a successful détente.  Heterogeneity, diversity, and difference have been the paramount philosophical and political problem, and we are mistaken to believe that our current celebration of them, as admirable an effort as it is, are evidence of a history of progress likely to continue along that trajectory.

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For there’s a problem—a very big one.  Encouraging everyone to choose their own good (compelling it, actually), and pursue it as effectively as they can, requires not only a lack of moral or ethical limits.  It also requires a lack of ecological limits.  The days in which our consumption might be considered a “personal choice” are numbered.  Moreover, competitive heterogeneity sustains its working détente only as long as the things we are competing over keep expanding in quantity and scale, lowering the stakes of the competition as losers all feel more like the runner-up.  End the growth and we are likely to see civil war by means of civil war, as the pax profusio meets its bitter end. [xi] This is one of the main reasons Liberals cannot fathom the end of economic growth: in addition to preventing the fabled “zero-sum game,” economic growth has provided highly effective workarounds, allowing us to bypass some pretty basic moral dilemmas and incommensurable rival moral claims (like the one between freedom and equality or entitlement and need). [xii]

One can see in debates on climate change not only the immense challenge of entrenched interests and expectations, as well as a gargantuan practical problem of logistics (made especially difficult owing to our habit of solving logistical problems by dumping fossil fuels on them[xiii]); one should also see a crisis of our moral language, visible, for example, in the contorted legalese of The Paris Agreement with its “voluntary pledges” and inescapably pseudo-accountability.  Liberalism knows only want-fulfillment, on the one hand, and a set of increasingly disused “moral principles” with which we might limit our desires and wants, on the other.  These include a weak and tattered appeal to human rights—rights to what[xiv], or how they might be prioritized, no one can really say—incredulous appeals to equality as the wealthy transfer more wealth at neck-snapping speed, and a battered concept of the common good which gestures awkwardly towards that shrinking sphere where our diverse and clamoring wants and desires are protected from each other, and then only according to ill-defined principles.  Puritan notions of thrift and humility have all but disappeared (unless Urban Outfitters figures how to package it), the rejection of their previous uneven application providing a useful excuse for unfettering the economy of want-creation with which they might otherwise have interfered.  Perhaps MacIntyre’s civil war of Liberal politics was a result of its inoperable moral vocabulary, lacking any meaningful value-concepts and the guiding aim of “the good.”[xv]  With no plausible means of settling disputes between wants and their consequences, (think, still, about the Paris agreement) resolution becomes reduced to the persuasive use of power.

This is also why Liberalism, with its principled exclusion of any compulsory morality or limits, can currently only offer three basic choices: 1) ecological destruction through the continuation of Liberal freedom; 2) the renewal of resentment and tribalism as we compete over a shrinking stash; or 3) the sort of political authoritarianism or oligarchy that can maintain ecological limits by limiting freedom and controlling group hostility.  The most difficult, and fearsome, aspect of our current situation is that we appear to be pursuing all three choices at once, though not in a coherent or coordinated way.  It might be time to try something different.

If there is an alternative, I don’t think it can be found within Liberalism or from the tools it possesses—unless they can be rearranged or amended drastically.  Aristotelianism and its concern with ends and the good, which has a surprising number of smaller-scale modern examples, does provide a possible path out from under the wreckage.  We thought we had to relinquish the excellent to accommodate diversity and difference, for the demand for excellence required discrimination, and that discrimination carried over into every aspect of our lives.   But perhaps what is required is a more discriminating discrimination, one that asks—and answers, however provisionally—questions of value.  In fact, I will suggest in a later section, Aristotelian excellence and its proto-Liberal other have been tarrying since the Periclean era of Athenian democracy, neither gaining a permanent upper-hand. . . unless we assume the last hundred and fifty or two-hundred years represents the end of history.  And perhaps it does.

Aristotle and the Pursuit of Happiness


[i] The difference between “conservative” Republicans and liberal Democrats is mainly a difference of means to a similar ends (or the lack thereof) defined in accordance to Liberal Individualism and Liberal Economics.  I will refer to the broader and all-encompassing Liberal Individualism by capitalizing “Liberal.”  A lower-case “l” will be used when I’m talking more narrowly about the political liberals or progressives who identify as Democrats, Greens, or Social Democrats.  Liberalism (capitalized) has a left and a right wing somewhat confusingly referred to as “conservatives” and “liberals.”  This distinction also applies to further distinctions including but not limited to: freedom/equality; individualist/socialist; ownership/need; sovereign self/socially constructed self; individual responsibility/common good; deregulation/regulation.  One must venture further from the place where these differences meet than is commonly, if ever, seen in today’s politics to violate Liberal Individualism.

[ii]  The phrase, “we need to get more money in the hands of middle class consumers” is implied in the video but comes from an op-ed I can no longer find.

[iii] See Wolfgang Streeck’s excellent, Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism.


[v] But also by Lasch, Adorno and Horkheimer, Karl Polanyi, Wendell Berry, and David Fleming.

[vi] Am I painting with overly broad strokes?  Perhaps, for there are countless acts of charity and generosity to be seen every day in every part of the world.  Americans, like all people, love their children and want the best for them, while the creativity and desire to learn seen in children is carried on by many adults.  Every city and town has social activists, healers, kind souls ready to listen or help.  Our culture may produce mountains of hazardous junk, but our freedoms are often the envy of the world.  Corruption, manipulation, as well as facile peevishness and gratuitous small-mindedness is likewise visible in all corners of the world.  This can all be true and it still might be concluded that our culture remains fixed on goals and ends that are lethally unsustainable and inimical to widespread happiness, whether our or those who suffer the collateral damage from our excesses.

[vii] See Alexandre Koyre’s From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe.  Koyre writes: “This scientific and philosophical revolution. . . can be described roughly as bringing forth the destruction of the Cosmos, that is, the disappearance, from philosophically and scientifically valid concepts, of the conception of the world as a finite, closed, and hierarchically ordered whole. . . and its replacement by an indefinite and even infinite universe which is bound together by the identity of its fundamental components and laws, and in which all these components are placed on the same level of being.  This, in turn, implies the discarding by scientific thought of all considerations based on value-concepts, such as perfection, harmony, meaning, and aim, and finally the utter devalorization of being, the divorce of the world of value from the world of facts” (4).  We have yet to understand the full or final consequences of this new pragmatism.

[viii] Given the prominence and legitimacy of manipulative relationships in contemporary Liberal society, the whole idea of “free choice” is a canard.  But that does not make finding an alternative simple.  More explicitly about this later (though in some sense this is the issue I’m discussing).

[ix] As Bert van den Brink notes in his insightful book, The Tragedy of Liberalism: An Alternative Defense of a Political Tradition, among Liberalism’s two highest ideals is “neutrality of the state with respect to competing conceptions of the good life” (5).  I would add that this ideal of neutrality–which as van den Brink acknowledges but ultimately accepts, is not possible to realize–extends well beyond the Liberal state and into nearly every realm of our culture.

[x] What I am prepared to do, however, in addition to the dialectical stress-test I’m generally submitting it to, is also ask to what extent is this history Liberalism’s raison d’etre, and to what extent is this history, itself, a part of the broader history of the “devalorization of being” whether caused by some sort of phenomenology of spirit, market forces, or technological development?

[xi] In a very interesting 2010 report authored by none other than James Mattis, the Pentagon put out a report on the “Joint Operating Environment.”  There, Mattis writes: “A severe energy crunch is inevitable without a massive expansion of production and refining capacity.  While it is difficult to predict precisely what economic, political, and strategic effects such a shortfall might produce, it surely would reduce the prospects for growth in both the developing and developed worlds. Such an economic slowdown would exacerbate other unresolved tensions, push fragile and failing states further down the path toward collapse, and perhaps have serious economic impact on both China and India. At best, it would lead to periods of harsh economic adjustment. To what extent conservation measures, investments in alternative energy production, and efforts to expand petroleum production from tar sands and shale would mitigate such a period of adjustment is difficult to predict.  One should not forget that the Great Depression spawned a number of totalitarian regimes that sought economic prosperity for their nations by ruthless conquest” (30; emphasis added).  See,


[xiii] This, of course, is the problem with the “Green New Deal”: it hasn’t come to grips with the fact that we have no experience solving problems of the sort presented by climate change and resource depletion except by using more energy and more resources and must make itself insensible to the laws of thermodynamics to prevent a jarring awakening from this dream.

[xiv] Does life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness include electricity?  Airplane travel?  Is highspeed internet an inalienable right?  Does my right to “develop” land stolen from Native Americans trump your right to have drinkable water?  Are some inalienable rights more inalienable than others?  Is Snoop Dog’s right to sing, “smile bitch” more fundamental than our children’s right to grow up in a world free from this sort of degradation, and if so how and why?  We have rightly focused the notion of human rights on including all people in the category “human,” but without realizing the utter confusion of the concept of “rights” itself.  We act as if they are matters of fact, and not matters of value, which Reason, in the modern mode, as rightly declared itself incompetent to judge.  See After Virtue, especially chapters 6 and 17.

[xv] This is a brief summary of his overall article in After Virtue, in which he argues that to discuss moral or ethics without a concept of the good will inevitably erode into assertion of individual will.  We must choose, he says, between Aristotle and Nietzsche.  More about this in later sections.


Aristotle. 1985. The Complete Works of Aristotle. Edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Berry, Wendell. 1977. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Fleming, David. 2016. Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future. Edited by Shaun Chamberlin. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green.

Hopkins, Rob. 2008. The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience. Totnes, Devon: Green Books.

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Lakoff, George. 1996. Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Erik Lindberg

Erik Lindberg received his Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1998, with a focus on cultural theory. After completing his degree, Lindberg began his career as a carpenter, and now owns a small, award-winning company that specializes in historical restoration. In 2008 he started Milwaukee’s first rooftop farm, and was a co-founder of the Victory Garden Initiative, as well as a member of Transition Milwaukee’s inaugural steering committee. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife and young twin boys.

Tags: building resilient societies, conservatism, liberalism, limits to growth