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Edmund Burke on politicians

By Max Atkinson - posted Friday, 2 November 2012

The principles of true politics are those of morality enlarged; and I neither do, nor ever will, admit of any other.

Theories about the duty of politicians are important because they affect the lives of citizens. Upper House Member Tania Rattray said she voted against same-sex marriage because most Tasmanians did not support it (even though, as was pointed out, they might not oppose it). In doing so she is treating public opinion as a moral value in itself.

This is a view of political duty the great conservative philosopher Edmund Burke rejected in strong terms, describing it as a 'betrayal' of constituents. In an earlier paper I argued in support of Burke's view that elected members should form and act on their own judgment and conscience. I argued that this should also apply in a modern party system.


The paper began by noting a possible source of confusion: democracy tells us that the majority have a better right to make the rules than anyone else, and in modern systems representatives of the majority have this right. Whether the rules they make are moral or just or wise or foolish is another matter, to be argued from community values. I wanted to emphasise that, despite Rattray, majority opinion has nothing to do with morality.

Comments on the paper suggest a need to clarify the meaning of 'community values', and to explain how this idea relates to Burke's concern that elected members act on their own judgment and conscience, rather than popular opinion. Dr. Bonham highlights the problem; what follows is a brief sketch of the kind of explanation I believe any full defence of Burke would require.

It begins with a claim that a simple, descriptive account of a moral practice must give a central place to the values participants appeal to when they argue the merit of its laws, customs, political institutions etc. Hobbes argued that certain shared values - prohibitions against violence, theft and deception - were necessary for any form of social life; we now have a richer, more complex psychology of human nature, and 'individualist' values such as human dignity play a more prominent role.

However that may be, if there are no shared values, moral argument must be irrational; like arguing in different languages. It will also be offensive. But if there are such values, participants will dispute their meaning and requirement in concrete cases, as well as their importance in relation to other values they consider relevant; it will now make sense to ask if a given opinion, however popular or authoritative or in line with a conventional wisdom, is what 'community' values really require. One might contrast this with a more primitive society in which social cohesion rests on taboos.

This feature makes the term 'values' highly ambiguous and is one reason why the phrase 'community values' will often be suspect - a piece of rhetoric. Confusion arises from the fact that 'values' is used indiscriminately to describe community ideals such as fairness, freedom, wellbeing, integrity, dignity, honesty, compassion etc., as well as widely accepted interpretations of what these abstract values mean. In the latter sense one might speak of the Southern states prior to the American Civil War as having values condoning slavery.

But when 'values' is used in this 'sociological' sense, no one thinks it prevents anyone, including citizens of these states, from condemning the practice of slavery as contrary to the abstract values of fairness in point. Indeed, anyone who claims to argue from a moral position reserves this right to go back to first principles, because there is no other way to distinguish moral values from a consensus of opinion on moral issues, and everyone agrees that such a consensus may be wrong. We express this by saying that the values of Southern states, because they embrace slavery, are wrong.


This is why I agree with Dr. Bonham that Burke rejects 'community values' in this descriptive, that is to say non-committed and non-judgmental, sense. But it means critics of Burke must give up this reading in favour of one which makes some sense of his advice to act on conscience. The advice makes sense if one interpretation of such values is better than others; in which case politicians have a duty to search for and defend it.

This point calls for some elaboration because it is so often, as here, ignored. People participate in moral and political argument because they see it as an important practice, affecting all citizens; they assume others share this attitude, however much opinions may differ. It would be impossible to defend this if they thought, as some philosophers assert, that moral argument is just a more civilized version of dogs barking over a bone.

The assumption, rather, is that we have values in common, but differ over how they apply in particular cases. At a certain level of abstraction we all agree - no one denies the importance of fairness and justice, human wellbeing, freedom, honesty etc. But we argue over their importance, and in politics especially over fairness and freedom as competing values - in many political systems this issue will tend to define the major parties.

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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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