Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Was Burke a Utilitarian?

Burke’s constant attentiveness to the empirical and historical conditions of practical politics has led many scholars to group him with liberals like Bentham, who considered pragmatic expediency and not moral principles to be the ultimate criteria of political action. But this is a mistake. While it is true that Burke urges his readers to never divorce concepts of liberty and justice from their application in the real world, there can be no denying that religious and ethical principles clearly underpinned his entire political philosophy and were the grid by which he interpreted all circumstances. As he himself said,
My principles enable me to form my judgment upon men and actions in history, just as they do in common life, and are not formed out of events and characters, either present or past. History is a preceptor of prudence, not of principles. The principles of true politics are those of morality enlarged; and I neither now do, nor ever will, admit of any other.
For all its mischief, the Enlightenment had not removed from Britain the cultural capital that years of Christianity had wrought. People still accepted the norms of Christian culture without even knowing why, even as the tail of a lizard will twitch after being severed from its body. Thus, Burke was able to appeal to “good manners” and “religious principles” without needing to directly invoke the gospel to support these normatives. Such an approach would probably fall flat today.
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