In light of Conservatism’s skeptical view of abstract philosophies, opponents have unjustly labeled it a “Subjectivism” or “Relativism” with regard to metaphysical, moral, and practical truth. In short, Subjectivism and Relativism dismiss with notions of universally accessible truth with a plurality of different “truths.” In constrast, Russell Kirk posits that an enduring principle of the conservative tradition is, “…that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.”
In other words, The Reformed Conservative* posits that fundamental truths about human nature and the moral order of human society both exists and can be known by humans. In the same essay, Kirk lays out several of these enduring truths which humans know such as: (1) the present created order is subject to imperfection, (2) meaningful political freedom is inherently linked to the personal acquisition and protection of private property, and (3) permanence and change are enduring and necessary aspects for healthy society. These are principles of the conservative tradition.
In addition to this, the Reformed Conservative maintains that certain theologically stated truths are accessible to humans both through reason and revelation. (1) Man is totally depraved – he is distorted in his thoughts, emotions, and volitions. (2) God exists and has revealed Himself clearly in the created order. (3) Man is distinct from other creatures in a substantive manner, being a rational-animal.
No, Conservatism is not a subjectivism or relativism; rather, Conservatism gives due weight to the objective fact that human beings as human beings are finite, limited, relatively-situated creatures. Of all objective truths, maybe the most clear and distinct is that the human individual is finite in all aspects of his being – not the least in his mind. It is this reality and its underlying sentiment which gives rise to the dogmatism of Relativism. Relativism posits that due to the situatedness of the human mind, and the infinite array of perceivable realities, the best that humans can do is to describe what truth appears like to themselves. They thus seek to make void the contention that there are facts which are perceivable to us as they really are.
Conservatism rejects this relativistic deduction because, as stated earlier, it is founded upon a belief in the enduring moral order and a view of the constancy of human nature. Relativism denies that objective truth can be known by subjective creatures. Objectivism denies that humans are subjective. Both assume that if humans are subjective, the subjective human cannot know objective truth, to include moral truth.
The Reformed Conservative holds that man is subjective, yet can still know and access objective truth, but only and always as a subjective creature.
This Burkean balance was struck by the Lutheran scholar Friedrich Julius Stahl, whose insight that morality is always and only an “ethical kingdom” is crucial. That is, Reformed Conservatives after Stahl hold that objective truth is always mediated by its subjective reality; that transcendent goodness, truth and beauty is manifested in the here and the now without being relativized, but always situated in the here and now, nevertheless.
Therefore, The Reformed Conservative maintains the localized, limited nature of human beings as individuals; it does not thereby destroy individuals. The confession of individual finitude simultaneously humbles and exalts the individual. The individual is a necessary yet penultimate aspect of the total glory that is mankind. Due to this finitude, Conservatism has, in addition to a place for the individual and his reason, a place for custom, tradition, prejudice, and habit. Both the Progressive and the Classic Liberal, ultimately, must make void of custom, prejudice, and habit for the sake of their abstract, unjustified, and presupposed principles. They would undo entire nations if that nation violated their abstract principles (at-least if they’re consistent).
To state my entire point another way, the Reformed Conservative does not believe in holistic “Relativism” nor “Subjectivism.” Yet neither does the Reformed Conservative support any form of overly simplified “Objectivisms” or “Rationalisms.” If said philosophies, either practically or explicitly, subvert the complexity of human nature, social order, or the history of mankind, the conservative looks upon them with disdain.
In a word, the Reformed Conservative maintains a place within its tradition for objectivity, not objectivism; for subjectivity, not subjectivism; and for relativity, but not for relativism. And all of these, and also our reverence for custom, tradition, hierarchy, order, inheritance, and prejudice is based upon the absolutely certain and objective fact that we, as humans, are finite.
*The phrase “The Reformed Conservative” here is used with double meaning; both the website, as well as all who identify as such.
The Reformed Conservative aims to reunite gentlemanly virtues with scholarly conversation. Standing in the great Reformed and conservative heritage of thinkers like Edmund Burke and Abraham Kuyper, we humbly seek to inject civility into an informed conversation, one article at a time, bringing clarity out of chaos.