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Beware of conservatives

By Max Atkinson - posted Friday, 25 May 2012

Labor party supporters will struggle to keep its achievements in the public mind in the face of its many faults, and a cumulative sense of failure it is unlikely to overcome before the next elections. It is therefore worth reflecting on the ideas which separate the major parties and guide their policies, to better weigh past failures against future prospects.

A need to return to first principles, and get a clear sense of what they mean in practice, is even more important when we consider the role party leaders play in the fortunes of the nation, the ease with which factions can replace them, and the degree to which their flaws are magnified by the doctrine of party unity.

The dominant philosophical concerns at the heart of the Liberal Party are individual freedom - especially the freedom to engage in commercial enterprise - and conservatism. But the relationship between these two ideas is fraught, and has in practice compromised ideals of freedom.


Part of the reason is that much conservative thinking obscures a black hole - a moral vacuum. This is not to say conservatives are less conscientious or responsible, only that conservatism is not a moral position - it offers no means to justify opinions on important and divisive issues like the Iraq War, the apology, pokies reform and same sex marriage. From time to time this is evident as when Janet Albrechtsen, in the last episode of Q and A for 2010, spoke on same sex marriage: ‘I fundamentally believe’, she said, ‘that marriage is between a man and a woman’; but she could not say why she held this belief. 

Leaving aside the possibility she was confusing a definitional argument about the meaning of the word ‘marriage’ with a moral argument, it is tempting to suggest this kind of fundamentalism - my conviction is so strong that no further reason is needed - points to the lingering influence of ‘post-modernist’ thinking, and the scepticism about values it is taken to justify. But the truth is it has always been difficult to find anything which could be said to constitute a political philosophy in conservative claims. 

Take Edmund Burke, the father of conservatism in the Western intellectual tradition. In his own time Burke was seen as the great pragmatist, and probably a utilitarian, but there is now a strong case that his thinking was from the outset saturated with Natural Law ideas. Burke himself proposed no general moral or political theory; he saw his politics as based on Prudence, which he insisted was his guiding principle in all matters. The question is whether conservatism in politics can ever be more substantive than this.

The question is relevant because prudence, as a strategy or disposition, is compatible with any political theory, whatever values it endorses. The aim of prudence is to minimise risk - to avoid action if there is a serious risk of costly failure, or if success risks consequential harm. Accordingly, we find the late HLA Hart, a celebrated legal philosopher, speaking of the ‘innocuous conservative principle’ that long standing institutions and practices are likely to have advantages not immediately obvious to the casual observer.

Conservative philosophy, so understood, tells us not to throw babies out with the dishwasher, not to waste pounds to save pence or fix things that ain’t broke, and to shut stable doors in time. But in real-life cases it is more ambivalent; is it more conservative to respect the views of professional science bodies and distinguished academies on client change (because of their peer-reviewed and empirical ie. ‘conservative’ science) or to support views arguing against major social change? Is it more conservative - in terms of moral risk - to rule out torture as a policy choice?  

For some conservatives the moral and political vacuum is filled by religion. They think the policy they disapprove of (be it morning-after pills, voluntary euthanasia or a needle-exchange program) is against the will of God which, they might explain, is found in the Scriptures, or in the Natural Law revealed by theologians like Thomas Aquinas. If there is serious doubt on the question, they may consult the authority of the church, which for Catholics is made easier by a formal hierarchy headed by the pope. 


Others may dispute their reading of the text, the claim that it expresses God’s will, the concept of Natural Law, and whether a religious interpretation is correct. They might say - with Galileo - that because man’s reason is also a Divine gift, the natural laws of science are likely to provide better evidence of God’s will, and that ancient scripts must be read in their light. They might also find attractive an argument used by Bentham’s disciple, John Austin - a devout Christian - who reasoned that, if God is both omni-rational and omni-benevolent, utilitarian principles must be prime evidence. In all these cases the idea that same sex marriage is wrong rests on reasons we can, with effort, understand.

Secular conservatism is different because it relies on empirical claims which can in principle be tested against the evidence. The most ambitious empirical claim to justify a conservative policy was made in an address by Sir Patrick Devlin, a distinguished appeal court judge, to the British Academy in 1959. He argued that society had a right to preserve itself by using the law to punish immorality, reviving an idea used to justify ‘victimless’ crimes - homosexuality, bigamy, adultery and prostitution, and non-sexual offences to do with drugs, suicide, vagrancy, loitering and gambling.

His speech began the famous ‘Hart/Devlin’ debate of the mid-sixties, between himself and Herbert Lionel Adolphus Hart, who held the Oxford Chair of Jurisprudence. Devlin argued that, because morality was a ‘seamless web’, failure to maintain it (if necessary by use of the criminal law) could destroy the moral fabric of society. His Maccabean lecture had an immediate and lasting impact, in part because it resonated with an intellectual mood best captured in a Times’ editorial the next day:

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About the Author

Max Atkinson is a former senior lecturer of the Law School, University of Tasmania, with Interests in legal and moral philosophy, especially issues to do with rights, values, justice and punishment. He is an occasional contributor to the Tasmanian Times.

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