Academic journal article Humanitas

Burke's Historical Morality

Academic journal article Humanitas

Burke's Historical Morality

Article excerpt

The precise meaning of the terms "historical understanding," "historical sense," or "historical consciousness" can vary greatly, but they are generally understood as referring to an awareness of the dependence of human existence on the development of events that have taken place in the past. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a number of thinkers from various fields of study, whose early expositors include Vico, Burke, Herder, Hegel, and Nietzsche, began to explore this theme. Along with this fundamental insight came the related understanding of the fact that the political choices we face, our language, our meanings, and our values, are embeded within and contingent upon unique, present circumstances. Despite the emergence of an increasingly widespread historical sensibility among philosophers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the further implications of these basic insights remain unclear and disputed. Consequently, many modern thinkers who share what may be broadly described as a historicist orientation nonetheless disagree on much else, including the implications of our historicity for human knowledge, freedom, and morals. Much of this article is therefore devoted to identifying a particular strain of historicism and defending it as an approach to thinking about morality and moral decision-making. The article will proceed by first introducing some of the historical aspects of Burke's thinking and a unique brand of historicism that his thought inspires. It will then look more closely at the implications of this Burkean-inspired historical consciousness for an understanding of morality. Finally, it will explore how the past continues to "live" in the present insofar as it shapes the thought and action of moral decision-makers.

Interpreting Burke

Since the early 1950s, the scholarly attention focused on the thinking of Burke has been marked by two dominant strains of interprestion. (1) First is the critical reading of Burke penned by Leo Strauss in his now famous tract Natural Right and History, in which he sets forth a defense of what he terms" classic natural right." (2) The troubling development in modern thinking, according to Strauss, is the tendency toward historical consciousness, which has led to the relativization of all standards or claims to right or justice once the latter were viewed as the mere accidents of history or convention. The charge that Burke is substantially responsible for this development is leveled in the final pages of this text, where Strauss is at pains to establish Burke's credentials as a modern thinker. According to Strauss, Burke's opposition to French rationalism "parts company with the Aristotelian tradition by disparaging theory and especially metaphysics." (3) Moreover, by stressing the importance of tradition, "Burke's political theory is, or tends to become, identical with a theory of the British constitution, i.e., an attempt to 'discover the latent wisdom which prevails' in the actual, " (4) thus deriving its normative authority from the mere accident of its historical evolution. That a tradition, as such, can take on this normative authority is not only mistaken, for Strauss, but leads to the deleterious transformation of political thought from the study of that which ought to be into the mere understanding of the actual or what is. (5) Once traditions are assumed to be just, simply by virtue of their survival or existence, Strauss questions how any can be deemed morally deficient. He claims that, by making "ought" dependent upon "is" in this manner, Burke sows the seeds of the moral relativism that later emerges in nineteenth-century German philosophy, whose more thoroughgoing historicism proceeds to view all normative claims as contingent upon their particular, historical contexts.

In marked contrast to this view, the reading of Burke put forth by Peter Stanlis and Francis P. Canavan places his thinking squarely within the canon of traditional natural law theory. …

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