In his new book, The Morality of Everyday Life: Rediscovering an Ancient Alternative to the Liberal Tradition, Thomas Fleming, longtime editor of the fine paleoconservative journal Chronicles (to which I have contributed in the past), essays a multipronged assault on the style of moral reasoning that has, in his telling, dominated the Western world from the Enlightenment on—to our detriment.
“The unexamined life may well be worth living,” he writes, “so long as it is lived in accordance with traditions that are consistent with human nature and encourage the fulfillment of human needs. But it is precisely those traditions that have been destroyed by rationalist ethics. When a tradition of thought leads to moral dissolution, social chaos, and music and poetry that speak only to professionals, it may be time to wonder how people lived and thrived before they were called upon to be citizens of the world, dedicated to absolute standards of right and wrong.”
The rot in modern moral thinking, Fleming writes, spreads from its arid universality, its refusal to recognize the moral significance of the specific roles and circumstances of a human life as it is most richly lived: as child, parent, spouse, neighbor, laborer, countryman.
While Fleming is decidedly not a libertarian, his book could be read as a defense of libertarianism as a political philosophy (though not an all-encompassing moral one).
Fleming laments, properly, that modern states try to impose universal moral demands that violate the proper boundedness and rootedness of human moral obligation. For example, both foreign aid and affirmative action enforce care for others over one’s own family. We cannot right all the wrongs and fill all the lacks of the world; but if everyone acted on the ancient moral obligation to care for themselves and immediate family, and then their local community, we could in effect abolish those wrongs and lacks.
Alas, Fleming thinks libertarians (with their vision of universal human rights to be free from violence and coercion, and universal obligations to refrain from violence and coercion) are just one more platoon in the modern philosophical army wrecking the sustaining traditions of the ancients. Still, the libertarian political vision fits most snugly with Fleming’s vision of proper human morality.
In a world of particularity and variety on the family and tribal level, we need an overarching political theory that allows different moral visions to live together in peace. Fleming notes, “Where Descartes or Locke looked at the everyday world and saw nothing but a few universal rules reducible to a mathematical formula, Aristotle and the writers of the Old Testament discerned an intricate network of peculiar obligations arising from specific circumstances and experiences.” The libertarian political ethic will not actively interfere with this network and its obligations.
When you openly celebrate a jumbled, particularistic moral philosophy not based in rationality, but in tradition, you’ll end up inconsistent. Fleming is against foreign aid, condemned as a way for the state to benefit others at the expense of yourself and your family. But he is for tariffs that benefit other producers at the expense of your and your family’s consumption.
Fleming presumes the self-evident value of small, localized cultural traditions over those of the global, commercial modern West. While one might share this as an aesthetic value, he doesn’t do much to convince the skeptical that this is a matter of moral philosophy. But the sort of rationalism that would involve “convincing” has no role in Fleming’s moral vision. He ultimately presents an intellectual defense of nonintellectual localized preference and prejudice, a love of tribalism as an intellectual construct while showing mostly contempt for his own “tribe,” contemporary fellow Americans.
Ultimately, the localism and tribalism that Fleming celebrates, the families and small communities that he insists are the proper grounds for human well-being, have their best chance of surviving and thriving in a libertarian polity—if the individuals that are part of the localities and tribes and families and communities want them to. Certainly, the “globalism” that a universal free market allows can corrode old ways—but not by force. As Fleming skillfully points out, it’s the contemporary state that wars against local values and uniqueness, on many fronts.
Fleming’s moral vision needs libertarianism. Once you grant that the state has the right or the obligation to interfere with others for the sake of some greater good, all smaller communities and interests are in danger of being crushed. Libertarian political philosophy may be universal and rational, but only it allows room for the widest play of local and individual variance and seemingly irrational attachments. The only catch is—and this should be morally bearable, even for those skeptical of universal, rational moral philosophy—they have to be freely adhered to, personally chosen.