Critiquing Hazony - On Religion and Rationalism
My first two critiques (here and here) of Hazony’s work were focused on his definitions of liberal and conservative, and his arguments regarding philosophy and economics. In this last critique, I focus on his claims about the necessity of religion as a center for a conservative worldview, as he defines it.
Overall, Hazony’s work is at its weakest when he gets into the topic of religion. He is adamant that religious observance is necessary to the healthy functioning of a society, and this necessity is supported by conservatism but undermined by liberalism. And his eagerness to argue this point seems to lead to odd lapses in logic. For example, he tells us that when the Enlightenment philosopher “Grotius published the first edition of his On the Law of War and Peace in 1625, he made the mistake of admitting in print that his system would hold true ‘even if there is no God’” and that by saying this, the “fundamental incompatibility of Enlightenment rationalism with the God of Scripture had been made plain.” But this makes no sense. Saying that something is and would be true independent of God’s existence in no way implies that its truth is therefore incompatible with God’s existence. Those are very different ideas, yet Hazony is treating them as if they meant the same thing.
But rushing ahead, Hazony assures the reader that “a political theory in the conservative tradition cannot be made to work without the God of Scripture.” Luckily for the prospects of conservative political theory, his argument for this is extremely weak. He goes on to say, “Conservatives understand that all human perspectives are limited and local. But at the same time, conservatives recognize that some perspectives are truer than others, and that we can advance toward ideas and principles that better grasp reality in the political and moral domain.” Presumably he thinks this is a point of view that is and can only be held by religious conservatives, but that is plainly false. Nothing about being an atheist entails rejecting the idea that humans have limited perspective, for example – atheism does not somehow entail a belief in human omniscience or perfectibility. Nor does atheism entail moral antirealism – many atheists are also moral realists who believe we have limited and imperfect but real understandings of morality, and that these understandings can be improved upon even though not perfected. Hazony ignores this and attempts to bolster his argument by just asserting a false dichotomy, saying “This is the difference between a relativist theory and a conservative one: The relativist sees in politics and morals a realm in which an endless variety of perspectives compete with one another for power – without striving to attain what is true, and without anything being right in God’s eyes.” But Hazony offers no non-question-begging reason to believe these are the only options.
Suppose I’m an atheist who believes the following ideas: I believe that our ideas of social and political order should be grounded in what experience shows actually works. I believe that the human mind is a limited tool, and that what has been shown to work through accumulated experience is a better guide to action than what people can reason through on their own. I believe life is complicated, far too complicated to grasp directly, and grandiose visions to rebuild the social order are doomed to fail because they will be inevitably built on a hopelessly palsied understanding of reality. And because of this, I believe that longstanding social institutions should hold a strong presumption in favor of being upheld, and that it’s foolish to assume they are useless simply because you, personally, don’t see the point of them. (In fact, this is a pretty accurate description of who I am…) Now, if someone attempted to convince me I was wrong about all these ideas by saying “You may think that, but actually, the God of Scripture doesn’t exist, so nothing you just said is true!” I would be at most amused by this non sequitur. I certainly wouldn’t think that any of the ideas I described had been rebutted, or even engaged.
If the limitations of the human mind make it too feeble an instrument to design a stable and enduring social order through pure reason, then that fact alone would fully explain why attempts to do such a thing would fail. But Hazony claims that such failures actually show God is acting behind the scenes as a “countervailing force which stops every scheme of ideas, and every principle, from expanding infinitely outward until it has subjected all things to its rule. The God of Scripture circumscribes all human things, reducing them to their true proportions.” This is explanatorily redundant. If a task is beyond the scope of the human mind, that’s enough to explain why attempting that task would fail. Nothing extra is explained by saying such failures are also God keeping humans in check, and nothing about believing some tasks are beyond the scope of the human mind requires believing that a God exists.
Hazony goes on to say: “Remove him from your thoughts, and your own scheme of ideas, which is local and incomplete, will begin to expand, overrunning its true boundaries.” But he doesn’t support this through anything beyond mere assertion. He makes no attempt to show this must be true from experience. Like the Enlightenment thinkers he criticizes, Hazony asserts this as though it were an axiomatic, self-evident truth. But experience does not bear him out on this point, as there are many thinkers whose worldviews are deeply rooted in religion who are also philosophical rationalists, and there are many secular thinkers whose worldview is equally deeply rooted in empiricism, the importance of experience over abstract reason, and an awareness of the limitations of the human mind.
Hazony is very fond of using blindness as a description for his ideological opponents. It’s never the case that someone who disagrees with him might understand his argument but be unconvinced by it – he repeatedly insists they are blind to the reality he describes. Thus, it’s not the case that liberals understand but disagree with conservatives on nationalism – instead, “the liberal paradigm is blind to the nation.” It’s not that liberals might understand but disagree with conservative perspective, it’s that liberals “have been educated in such a way as to leave them blind to the importance of these things.” Hazony seems to think his perspective is so self-evidently true that it’s impossible to see it but not share it – if you don’t accept his ideas, you must therefore be blind to them.
To be fair, Hazony doesn’t think this is an exclusive description of liberals so much as an inevitable side effect of using political paradigms. He says when “an important concept or idea has been left out of a political paradigm, those who rely on this paradigm will be blind to political objects of the kind this concept is meant to identify. They will neither see them nor understand their role in the political domain.” So, in principle, this should also hold true of people whose worldview is shaped by a conservative paradigm. Yet Hazony show remarkably little curiosity about where his own paradigm might leave him blind, and what he might fail to see or understand as a result. I suspect Hazony’s worldview is so deeply embedded with the idea of the Biblical God that he can’t comprehend that there are worldviews out there not rooted in his religion that also embrace historical empiricism and epistemic humility, uphold traditions and inherited institutions, and reject moral antirealism. A possible unintended consequence of Hazony’s book may be to further fracture the conservative movement by alienating such secular conservatives rather than make a common cause with them, by insisting they cannot be true members of the conservative moment or opponents of rationalist political theory unless they also happen to embrace the Abrahamic God he believes in.
And that would be unfortunate, because despite the many quibbles and criticisms I have laid out here, I think Hazony has written an excellent and thought-provoking book. On many points I agree with what he says, and I think he offers strong arguments for many of his views I don’t share. While I find much to disagree with in Hazony’s book, there is also much to agree with and to learn from. The good points Hazony makes in his book remain good points independent of his religious doctrine, even if he doesn’t see it that way. And that’s enough for me, even if it falls short for him.