It is broadly understood that conservatives value order. This is usually meant in terms of social and political order; conservatives value norms which hold society together, as well as laws which enforce a series of standards upon citizens. There is, however, a second kind of order, which is really prior to the first, and which many conservatives also value. Although there may be several ways of describing this prior kind, I will use the words of Russell Kirk and call it “transcendent moral order.”
Oftentimes the conservative’s sense of right and wrong is informed by something greater and more mystical than societal norms and positive law (whatever those may be at a given time and place). He does not value one, but “two aspects or types of order: the inner order of the soul, and the outer order of the commonwealth.” He understands that the inner order “is made for man, and man is made for it,” and that “human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.”
This does not mean that all conservatives embrace some specific religion, or that they always subscribe to orthodoxy. Kirk himself wrote of many thinkers in his Conservative Mind who were not orthodox Christians (e.g., John Adams and George Santayana). Kirk’s argument is simply this: that conservatives, even those who do not subscribe to a religious creed, embrace a specific ontological conception of human nature: namely that human existence cannot be reduced to materialism, and that there is a transcendent order—insofar as it is constant, unchanging, and thereby independent from cultural and societal contexts—to which the soul should always conform.
There are, of course, disagreements among conservatives as to the exact contents of this order. Kirk knew this well, which is why he rejected the notion that conservatism is an ideology. Ideologies, like religions, have creeds which induce individuals to agree on specific matters of belief and doctrine. But conservatism does not have a creed, in this sense, and is therefore not an ideology.
This is precisely why a Whig such as Edmund Burke and a Tory like Samuel Johnson—or, in the American context, a Federalist such as John Adams and a Jacksonian Democrat like John C. Calhoun—can both be described as conservatives of some sort despite their differences. Adams and Calhoun, for instance, did not agree on the morality of slavery, but they each held their respective views on transcendent moral grounds. For Calhoun, slavery was not an accident of circumstance or, in the words of Robert E. Lee, a “necessary evil.” However strange he seems to us today, Calhoun viewed slavery as a divinely sanctioned institution that reflected a natural order prescribing certain roles to certain peoples. Likewise, for Adams, the immorality of slavery was not based on the move toward industrialization and the emergence of more convenient means of labor, but on the conviction that it was an “abhorrent” practice, contrary to the natural order of humanity.
At a time such as the one inhabited by these men, conservatism could be a united banner for the slaveholder or the abolitionist. Rather, what it offered were anti-utilitarian answers that, regardless of the conclusions drawn from them, were inspired by an understanding of the human soul and the moral order to which it is bound.
Nevertheless, even amid variety and disagreement, there are some grounds of consensus among most conservatives on the habits which lead the soul to moral virtue. As Sir Roger Scruton maintains, “conservatism as a political philosophy traces its roots as far as the Greeks.” Indeed, most conservatives hold the ancients in high regard, and find their ontological insights of particular value. Aristotle’s moral and intellectual virtues, for instance, are among the most significant foundations of Western ethics, and thereby of conservatism in the West. All four of his virtues, as well as the so-called theological virtues developed later in the Western tradition (e.g., faith, hope, and charity), are generally held by conservatives to be the pillars of the moral constitution and the ends to which the soul is naturally ordered.
To this general truth that conservatives value a transcendent source of order, it is sometimes objected that some conservatives are skeptical of, or altogether opposed to the notion of a “transcendent moral order,” but still value social and political order. But this objection is misplaced, as we can see from reflecting on Kirk’s “two aspects or types of order.”
Implied in Kirk’s explication of this concept is the inherent interrelation between “the inner order of the soul, and the outer order of the commonwealth.” The thread of conservative thought, in all its variety, illustrates a way of relating these two forms of order, and expressing the latter’s dependence on the former. Thus, it is only because of a perceived moral order that human beings found it necessary to establish a political order. The political is modeled after the moral in a constant pursuit of imitation and perfection. Hence, though there may in fact be such a thing as a conservative who denies the existence of transcendent order, his conclusions on matters of the commonwealth will still be informed by some view of moral constants. If not, then he may not be a conservative after all, but a utilitarian.
There is meaning in conservatism, and an essential part of this meaning is an ontological understanding of the human soul, namely that it is teleologically structured and that moral virtue is its end. Nor is conservatism merely the preservation of the status quo. In times of moral confusion and fog, the conservative may find himself opposed to all establishments, even if he is skeptical of revolution and the destruction of institutions, which he always is. His means are reform, not revolution; but reform presupposes the need for improvement and perfectibility, which he would not value if he were merely concerned with maintaining the status quo.
The fundamental mark of a true conservative is her commitment to an order prior to the order of laws. Thus, Kirk writes that the “great line of demarcation in modern politics [is] . . . not a division between liberals on one side and totalitarians on the other. No, on one side of that line are all those men and women who fancy that the temporal order is the only order, and that material needs are their only needs, and that they may do as they like with the human patrimony. On the other side of that line are all those people who recognize an enduring moral order in the universe, a constant human nature, and high duties toward the order spiritual and the order temporal.