The Editor's ToryDiary on the government's moral principles seemed a little low-falutin' to me, as 'twere. I appreciate the desire to be "retail", as the saying goes, but surely the point of raising the moral nature of Conservatism is that the Editor wants us to be able to argue that Conservatism is morally good, not merely practically useful?
I'm a little unclear how one ever hopes to engage in a fruitful moral debate about the merits of Conservatism if one is not prepared to engage with abstractions such as love, wisdom, honour, tolerance and change. Isn't the desire that everything should be made concrete, all measured in pounds and pence, precisely one of the charges levelled at Thatcherites by those that considered themselves her moral superiors? Isn't it precisely the urge that everything must be concrete that you are trying to escape from in saying that Conservatives must engage in moral debate?
I propose the following, as a few examples.
- Conservatives believe that families have special obligations, one to another, that come ahead of their obligations to wider society (If you want to make that retail, quote the examples of marriage or of children.)
- Conservatives believe that promises are valuable and should be kept, and that the state has a role in enforcing certain of them (e.g. you could relate this to civil partnerships – I would myself see that argument as key there)
- Conservatives believe that people own their own property – it is not simply collective – and (subject to various important restrictions) should have the right to use their property as they see fit (If you want to make that more retail, just say that this implies an underlying assumption that people should (morally ought to) spend their money for themselves, rather than the state taking it and spending it for them or deciding how they have to spend it.)
- Conservatives believe that individuals and families should be able to make sacrifices to advance the causes and interests of those they love (family, friends, co-religionists, etc.), rather than see their efforts negated in the name of "equality" (far too often the argument is set up as being between efficiency (heartless technical category) and equality (nice moral category), but I believe the greater tension is between equality and love). (Surely not too hard to make retail the idea that the hard-working person making sacrifices for her family should be able to actually make her children etc better off, relative to someone simply living on benefits and not making sacrifices.)
- Conservatives believe that people are morally entitled to respectfully disagree. But Conservatives believe that, insofar as it is tolerant of dissenters, society tolerates them from a value-laden, not a value-neutral position (i.e. we believe in something and then tolerate some things we believe to be wrong; we don't adopt a neutral position whereby we initially assume that nothing is wrong – cf Cameron's recent speech, though of course Anglicanism was the traditional Conservative value framework).
- Conservatives believe that those that came before us produced a store of wisdom we should be prepared to draw upon, and created ideas, machines, buildings, methods and inventions that greatly prosper us, and we should normally honour them. (This contrasts with the modernist and post-modernist ideas that all that came before us were more primitive than we are, or extreme liberal concepts according to which all that came before us were either oppressors or oppressed – I have even seen philosophers define a "liberal state" in such a way that all states were fundamentally illiberal before the advent of gay marriage.)
- Conservatives believe that change can be painful and disruptive, and that it is wrong to force people to change unnecessarily.
There are, of course, many other moral statements one might offer.
If, on the other hand, you are after moral categories for the government, not the Conservative Party – well, that would be all about fairness, upon which I shall have much to say shortly…