As I’ve already suggested, the properly conservative standard for thinking about change is who we are as personal and relational beings. Someone might say that standard is particularly Christian. Certainly, many Christians understand each of us to have been created in the image of the personal and relational—Trinitarian—God. But there are non-Christian reasons for embracing this standard as true. Consider that the philosopher who probably most influenced our Founders—John Locke—understood free individuals to be personal but not relational. He attempted to display every human relationship as, when properly understood, unaffected or undistorted by personal love.

We are bound together through a web of consensual contracts between individuals who—free by nature—are able to calculate what’s best for them in light of their interests. The fundamental transformational fact—the one that produced modern government, modern technology, and the modern economy—is personal freedom understood as individual freedom. That freedom is for securing one’s own life, one’s own liberty, and one’s own pursuit of happiness. Individuals are, as later philosophers said, autonomous beings; each of them lives for or lays down the law for himself, for what he sees as his own good.

Our Darwinian, evolutionary scientists have shown that the individualistic understanding of who we are is obviously incomplete. We are, in truth, not free individuals, but social animals. We actually find happiness, in most cases, by understanding ourselves as parts of wholes bigger than ourselves, as members of groups, families, communities, countries, churches, and so forth. We’re hardwired, so to speak, with social instincts or desires, and to unnaturally deny those desires is to be free to pursue happiness but never find it.

Locke was wrong to think of each of us as living detached from natural social instinct and manipulating nature for one’s own use from some undisclosed location. Actually, most Darwinians don’t think Locke was completely wrong on the level of description. Our hardwiring pushes us toward both satisfying individual needs and, in some sense, the flourishing of the species. But as social animals, our evolutionary psychologists can’t help but conclude, we are most of all natural parts; even our individualistic inclinations have some social or species function. In some deeply natural sense, Locke’s personal thought was completely wrong. Our species has flourished—or come to dominate the other species—not because of the techno-freedom displayed by individuals, but because we are the most “eusocial” of the highly intelligent animals.

We conservatives respect and benefit from what we can really learn from science. And our Lockean and Darwinian theorists have both taught us a lot about who we are. Still, we also notice that science in our “enlightened” time tends too readily to morph into scientism, a kind of too-easy-to-understand or radically oversimplified account of all that exists, a kind of self-help doctrine based on what “studies show” as promulgated by experts. As an antidote to scientism, we play the Lockeans and Darwinians off against each other, showing that each form of scientism or ideology explains less—much less—than its expert advocates thinks it does.

We agree with the Lockeans that we are free persons, and that our behavior can’t be explained anywhere near completely by the Darwinian accounts of animal behavior in general. Each of us is not simply a part of nature (or species or some other “group” such as the “city” or even the family); we have irreducible personal identities. But the Lockeans are wrong to think that personal identity isn’t relational. Even consciousness, we remember, is “knowing with” others; only a personal and relational being could possess logos—or real openness to the truth about the way things really are. So it’s in particular places—including particular institutions—where you know and love particular people that you come to know who you are as a particular being open to the universal truth. In this sense, we think that the Deistic view of God is illogical or anti-logical, if God (or any other person) is understood to be a rational and creative being.

The choice between being a free (or unnatural) individual and merely a dispensable part of some species that our Lockeans and Darwinians seem to give us just doesn’t square with the facts we can see with our eyes. Each of us can be an authentic part of various communities without surrendering irreducible personal identity. It is within such communities, after all, that we are seen as significant persons. Not only that, real personal identity becomes a disorienting burden when one gets too locked up in oneself. That’s why Alexis Tocqueville thought that the excessive emotional individualism of some Americans is the cause of their surrendering their personal sovereignty to “public opinion,” schoolmarmish bureaucrats, and impersonal expertise. Persons—being with names who can name—irresponsibly attempt to surrender what they really know about who they are to anonymous forces.

A “relational” human being can be distinguished from a merely social bee, ant, or even chimp, just as human love can easily be distinguished sexual and pair-bonding instincts given to the other animals. Both the Lockeans and the Darwinians don’t even begin to give an adequate account of personal eros. It’s understanding love as merely a social instinct that’s responsible for Lockeans, especially Lockean feminists and transhumanists, and so forth, concluding that love sucks, because it’s for suckers.

We conservatives remember that the creative logos of God himself was animated by personal love, and it’s that sort of animation that’s responsible for the most magnificent forms of human creativity, even techno-creativity. And we conservatives remember that everyone used to know that Socrates was the most erotic and the freest man in Athens, even as we remember that he had certain relational “issues” that made him far from a perfect “role model.”

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Articles by Peter Lawler

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