The traditions of American civilization carry intelligible moral ideas.
Has Conservative Rationalism Failed?
In his writings and National Conservatism conference, Yoram Hazony is helping revive American nationalism. But is his philosophy of conservatism correct?
As the National Conservatism conference unfolds, we will begin publishing critiques of Yoram Hazony’s “Conservative Rationalism Has Failed” essay (Part I: Unfettered reason cannot conserve anything, Part II: Honor and self-constraint can stave off tyranny). The essay was based on the Herbert W. Vaughan Lecture Hazony delivered at Harvard Law School on April 2, 2019.
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We start with the response of Claremont Institute Senior Fellow and Editor of the Claremont Review of Books, Charles Kesler, who argues that “Conservative Rationalism is Not Enlightenment Rationalism.”
Kesler points out that Aristotle’s practical reason, taken up throughout the western tradition, “is the kind of reasoning Hazony strives to defend, but he is loath to call it reasoning precisely because he is under the Enlightenment’s spell.” Hazony is right to reject “ideology,” which “involves deducing from a universal premise a universal conclusion.” But “prudence, by contrast, means reasoning from a universal premise to a particular conclusion.” At root, “the real question is how to relate universals to particulars,” and human beings need “knowledge of both” to engage rightly in politics.
While praising and supporting many of Hazony’s claims, Dan Mahoney, a professor at Assumption College, argues similarly “In Defense of Political Reason.” Mahoney says that while Hazony is “right that unadulterated rationalism” fails, Enlightenment rationalism is unreasonable: “reason is not rationalist.” “Authentic practical reason rejects the siren calls of humanitarianism and doctrinaire rationalism even as it defends and displays the virtues, intellectual and moral, that are at the heart of our humanity.”
In “Tradition’s Real—and Limited—Value,” Elizabeth Corey, a professor and director of the Honors Program at Baylor University, says conservatives should defend tradition “with vigor and without shame,” but “ought not think so much in the terms of war and winning.” While Hazony’s “prescription is (in part) to recover the traditions that have formed Western societies over the past several millennia,” as well as restoring a culture of “self-constraint and honor” Corey cautions that the American culture and “the American university over the past fifty years” has taught instead that “tradition is the enemy, not a gift to be cherished.”
Future responses will be published over the next few weeks.
Political prudence requires reason—which is why a "conservative rationalism" that embraces universals and particulars alike is needed now more than ever.