Daniel Pitt is currently lecturing in an Higher Education Institute and studying for a MA in Philosophy. He is a former Deputy Chairman of Bath and Nottingham Conservative Associations.
Conservatives have put a lot of emphasis on economic choice – and in my view rightly so. Unfortunately, there has been a lack of emphasis on our unchosen obligations. As Margaret Thatcher said in 1977: “Free enterprise has a place, an honoured place in our scheme of things, but as one of many dimensions. For Tories became Tories well before the modern concept of a free market economy meant anything…”
We Conservatives are acutely aware of this fact. We know that we have obligations to parents that we did not chose, we have an obligation to defend our country that we did not chose, obligations to honour the dead that we did not chose, etc. I think you get the point!
We need to take these unchosen obligations seriously, and they ought to be the basis of any Conservative platform – as Disraeli did in his Vindication of the English Constitution, when he defended it on the basis that it was made by something that is “ten thousand times better than choice. It is made by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions and moral, social civil habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves only in a long space of time”.
This idea of unchosen obligations is not new (and to half-quote Lord Brougham, “what is valuable is not new”). Some call these types of unchosen obligations piety or pietas. Indeed, Socrates raised the question of piety in the Euthyphro, which is one of Plato’s early dialogues. Euthyphro’s definition of piety, in response to Socrates questions, was “what all the gods love”. I believe that we Conservatives can learn from the Roman view of pietas. Their view was that we are required to honour our parents and ancestors, the household deities, the laws and the civil order; that we keep the appointed festivals and public ceremonies, and maintain a punctilious respect towards sacred things. In short, piety is the recognition of the limitations of human understanding and control; obligations to family include those to our ancestors; to our country; and respect for the past and future.
We fulfil these unchosen obligations out of a sense of the ‘givenness’ of these things, which were not our invention, and we owe an unfathomable debt of gratitude to our ancestors for bequeathing them to us, and we have the duty to pass them down to our descendants. Burke wrote that “those who do not offer due piety to those of the past will never find any real concern for their children or grandchildren”. I would argue that we naturally do this: for example, we might speak of a dead relative, and what he or she would want us to do; we attend graves, and we commemorate and remember the fallen by wearing a poppy on our lapel or overcoat every year. These unchosen obligations are deep within the Conservative tradition.
These ideas of ‘givenness’, piety and respect for the past, present and future are fundamental to the Tory love of our country and the homes we build within it. Part of settling down and marking time, as Roger Scruton would say, is protecting our environment. Doing so is an unchosen obligation upon us. Of course, how to save the old and best in our landscape that is worth saving is a difficult question to answer.
Since Michael Gove was appointed Environment Secretary, he has put that big brain of his to the task of answering that difficult question. We have seen some great Tory policies based on unchosen obligations of piety coming out Defra. Let us consider these polices: for instance, the ‘deposit return scheme’ (which I have been in favour of for almost 12 years, since visiting Finland.); the new Livestock Information Service, which will trace our food from farm to fork, and the ban on ivory sales.
Moreover, Thérèse Coffey, one of Gove’s junior ministers, has announced that we will be joining the Coral Reef Life Declaration, which commits us to the conservation of coral reefs. All these policies are an acknowledgement that the burden we inherit cannot be sustained unaided, and that the disposition to give thanks for our existence and reverence to the world on which we depend on is deeply engrained in Tory thought, and in these latest polices from this Conservative Government.
Certainly, we can see these concepts in Gove’s speech on ‘Green Brexit’, where he set out the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan on a new era for farming, fishing and the environment. (I suppose one could call it a “long-term environmental plan!” – right ho: I suppose not). I quote: “Not everything that we cherish in the natural world can be given a monetary value. We don’t want to protect and restore the environment simply because of its economic value, but because of our moral duty and our emotional attachment.” Indeed, this moral duty and emotional attachment could be summed up in that one-word: piety.
I eave you with quotation from Theodore Roosevelt: “to waste, to destroy, our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the day of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and developed”. The need to take our unchosen obligations and the conservation of our environment seriously is Tory to its core.