Recently the journal First Things republished an essay of mine which was originally published twenty-one years ago, called “The Illusion of Moral Neutrality.”  Neutralism is the doctrine that the law both can and should suspend substantive judgment about goods and evils, something I take to be impossible.  Since the neutralist error was then -- and still is -- especially prominent on the philosophic left, I made a point of saying that we also find it on the philosophic right, attributing to conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott the view that “the specific and limited activity of ‘governing’ has ‘nothing to do’ with natural law or morals.”

Some weeks after the essay was republished, someone wrote me to suggest that I got the quotation wrong.  When I returned to the passage and checked, I found that this is correct; though I had stated Oakeshott’s view accurately, I had garbled the quotation itself.  Oakeshott doesn’t say that governing has nothing to do with morals; he says what makes the conservative disposition in politics intelligible has nothing to do with morals.  But if we read on, we find that he thinks that according to this conservative disposition, governing should not involve substantive moral judgment either.  So perhaps I can be forgiven.

By way of reparation, allow me to quote from a book of mine published in 1988, The Nearest Coast of Darkness(we are being antiquarian today), where I more thoroughly analyzed the Oakeshottian passage from which I was quoting.  The context of the analysis was a discussion of various common meanings of conservatism.


The third thing that conservatism may mean requires a little more attention than the first two.  In the third sense, conservatism means something very like the “neutralist” liberalism of the avant-garde, which I discussed in the previous essay – but shorn of its activism.  Conservatism of this kind has been well described by Michael Oakeshott:

"[W]hat makes a conservative disposition in politics intelligible is nothing to do with natural law or a providential order, nothing to do with morals or religion; it is the observation of our current manner of living combined with the belief (which from our point of view need be regarded as no more than an hypothesis) that governing is a specific and limited activity, namely the provision and custody of general rules of conduct, which are understood, not as plans for imposing substantive activities, but as instruments enabling people to pursue the activities of their own choice with the minimum frustration, and therefore something which it is appropriate to be conservative about."

This is an attractive sentence, but also a complicated sentence, so rich in opportunities for the reader’s assent that we will only chase red herrings if we take no care to separate the subsidiary points from the main issue.  In the first place, Oakeshott is talking about three different things:

(1) the conservative disposition, whose emblems, according to Oakeshott, are “all activities … where what is sought is enjoyment springing not from the success of the enterprise, but from the familiarity of the engagement”;

(2) an observation, which, taken together with

(3) a belief, makes politics, in his view, an appropriate field for the exercise of this disposition.

My concern here is neither the disposition nor the observation, but the belief.  It is not the disposition because one may be conservative in temperament without exercising this temperament in politics, and one may be conservative in politics without possessing a conservative temperament.  It is not “the observation of our current manner of living,” since this is an observation one would hope that people of all dispositions and persuasions might make.  What is key is the belief.

The manner in which this belief is articulated also requires attention.  Oakeshott draws a set of concentric circles which work like a rhetorical vortex.  First he says that the conservative believes that governing is a “limited” activity.  The careless would be content to accept this as a definition of political conservatism; not Oakeshott.  For him the question is not whether governing is limited, but whether it is limited in the right way – it is a “specific” and limited activity.  Specifically what limited activity is it, then?  According to Oakeshott, it is the “provision and custody of general rules of conduct.”  But this is still too broad; one may surely agree, without being a conservative, that the business of governing is the provision and custody of general rules of conduct.  Oakeshott goes on to say that the conservative understands these rules of conduct in a particular way.  First, Oakeshott says what this understanding is not; the conservative does not understand the general rules which are the substance of governing as “plans for imposing substantive activities.”  But we have still not reached the focal point of his concentricities, for many who are not conservative may agree here too.   The sine qua non of conservatism, on Oakeshott’s account, is evidently none of these things.  It is that the rules in question are “instruments enabling people to pursue activities of their own choosing with the minimum frustration.”

What is special about the criterion of minimum frustration is that it is not supposed to be a moral criterion; in fact, rather than standing alongside moral criteria, it aims to exclude them.  Thus, in Oakeshott’s view, the distinctive belief of the conservative is that the rules of conduct can be, and ought to be, neutral; that they need not, and ought not, discriminate among activities of different kinds excerpt on nonmoral criteria.