Reclaiming Conservatism’s Lost Moral Tradition

Following the Conservative Political Action Conference’s decision to extend an invitation to Milo Yiannopoulos to deliver a keynote address at this year’s conference, the American Conservative Union – the organization that hosts CPAC – decided to rescind the invitation.

The surfacing of video wherein Milo minimizes and normalizes sexual relations between a young boy and a grown adult man fueled much of the right’s hostile reaction to the invitation.

The entire debacle illuminated some interesting truths about conservatives’ philosophical underpinnings. Stepping back and analyzing the decision to invite Milo and the subsequent reactions thereto reveals a state of confusion and disarray in the metaphysics of the conservative movement.


Conservatism is a disposition rather than an ideology. It is a catalogue of certain predispositions toward the world that ultimately inform more specific political beliefs.


For decades, conservatism enjoyed the intellectual fruits of Russell Kirk, William Buckley, Robert Nisbet, and Richard Weaver, among many others. These thinkers were able to articulate the foundations of the conservative mind by studying broad trends in the works of perennial statesmen and scholars such as John Adams or Edmund Burke. By so doing, they derived a general consensus of basic ideas to which conservatives implicitly or explicitly assented; the affirmations to these fundamental ideas provided the basis for all extensions of conservative political thought and the justifications that bolstered them.

Among the most important pillars of this fundament was a belief in an independent moral order that operated independently of man’s will. That is to say, an objective source of right and wrong exists that fleeting human preferences cannot change based on trends or contemporary likes and dislikes. This is generally informed by the historic Christian or Judaic traditions of morality.

For many years, the conservative political right recognized, or at least acted as if it recognized, this underlying fabric that colored their political disposition. The rise of the Religious Right in the 1980s and 1990s seemed to be the natural hybrid of Judeo-Christian morality with specific policy preferences. Yet this did not last: before long, the radical progressive temptation consumed even mainstream conservatism.

Progressives tend to adopt humanism, the belief that aggrandizes the goodness of human being and ultimately deems the rational intellect as capable of crafting compelling moral promulgations. The undercurrent of progressivism is thus a belief that nothing can transcend human experience, and therefore nothing is superior to man. Man draws his own moral maps independent of mystical or divine will. The natural result is a rampant relativism that constantly collapses in on itself, accepting moral deviancy in increasingly greater degrees. The progressive, because he is a progressive, places his trust in progress, but toward what end? Generally, progressives fail to establish their telos, instead preferring to invoke language of enlightenment. The belief is thus a romanticization of moving forward in time and a disdain for the tradition that shackles it.

But as humans move forward into time without any defined end for human existence besides amorphous and indiscernible states of enlightenment (colloquially referred to as woke-ness), they ultimately reject moral hierarchy. If the end is merely progress, there can be no desired moral condition because is presumably never-ending; it stretches into the future of human existence with no compass to guide it. Progress, of course, assumes something toward which to progress, but progressives have never convincingly defined it. And if they do, they accomplish it by reverting to tenets of humanism, which begins the entire cycle all over again.

All this is to say that progressivism is a relativist faith because it rejects transcendence and places ultimate primacy on the human will, human faculties, human reason, and human emotion. And conservatives have decided to traverse the same perilous path.

Conservatism’s woes began when it surrendered the robust cultural battlefront in favor of technical policy outcomes; tax breaks, foreign policy, and regulations quickly subsumed developing notions of the good, improving the human condition, and articulating moral traditions in a rapidly changing world. By so doing, conservatism began to neglect its philosophical roots; it knew it preferred small government, but it did not know why. In an effort to bandage this serious wound, conservatives decided to adopt a utilitarian justificatory framework: small government was not best because it allowed communities to govern themselves around competing telos, but because it allowed the economy to most flourish or because it helped save on the national debt. That is not to say that these are not important issues, but that policy preference became the presupposition of conservatism rather than comprehensive moral traditions.

In fact, this tendency is so prevalent within conservatism that when asked to define conservatism, no attention is offered to the human condition or the good, but to the economic state of mankind; and indeed, it does a disservice to man, that tragic battlefield of cosmic foes good and evil, to reduce him and his condition to whether or not he enjoys certain material privileges. Of course economic improvement is important, but that contemporary conservatism has defined it as among the ultimate ends of man means that the disposition of Adams and Burke surrendered to the utilitarians, whose faith ultimately degrades human dignity.

Conservatism thus erred in neglecting its moral roots; but why are these moral roots so important to conservatism?

Conservatism is a disposition rather than an ideology. It is a catalogue of certain predispositions toward the world that ultimately inform more specific political beliefs, which are emanations of conservative pillars of thought. As any Christian ought to be able to attest, human beings flourish when adhering to objective morality. When man strays from transcendent sources of meaning – God – he wraps his identity in ephemera. But the tragedy of ephemera is that they constantly pass away, and when this happens, a new ephemeron is needed to replace the old one.

When man constantly needs to establish a source of meaning in his life, he lives in a state of constant anxiety and existential crisis. Questions of “Who am I?” persistently dog him. His lot does not improve; in fact, it lives in a state of perpetual decline, the aggregate of which leads to civilizational decline and crisis.

Classical conservatism was able to answer this problem by blending religious faith with social and cultural analysis. Conservatism recognized the necessity of grounding the human being in the permanent things: God’s love; community; family. From these sources, man derived his meaning. But the conservative abdication of its moral traditions led it to neglect the collapse of the family in all its various manifestations.

Conservatives surrendered the debate when discussions of good governance on issues like family and sexuality began to take place almost exclusively within the purview of the state. It was no longer, “Allow communities and families to govern these issues,” but a battle for shaping the outcome of state-based policies, which inevitably allowed government to absorb more purview and fracture more communities. This only led to greater dislocation for people, who now found greater difficulty in settling in a community. Combined with the economic centrism of the “follow-the-money” lifestyle and declining religiosity, and the human being divorces himself from almost all sources of meaning.

Conservatism was developed precisely to prevent this from happening. But the lost focus on the moral underpinnings of conservatism led it to shift its concentration to shaping government to obtain preferable outcomes, thereby surrendering the entire debate.

Fast forward to 2017, and CPAC invites Milo. After a myriad of objectionable comments about virtually any group one can imagine, he is invited for having a few good points about free speech. Yet to make a man like Milo the standard-bearer of even a fraction of a movement nullifies conservatism’s ability to operate as it was designed to operate: with a focus on strong moral traditions and independent truth. Conservatives rightly reacted in strong condemnation, but they drew a line in so doing; the problem is that the line was far too concessional.


Conservatism is not reactionary, nor does it find its sustenance and energy in the anger of liberals.


There is merit in civility; in fact, seasoning words with salt and grace is an act of conformity to fundamental morality, not indicative of one’s emotional frailty. Virtue is a virtue, and no ideology can sustain if it operates exclusively on drawing reactions from its foes. Yet that is precisely how Milo’s cadre of self-branded conservatives operates. However, despite false criticisms on the contrary, conservatism is not reactionary, nor does it find its sustenance and energy in the anger of liberals. Conservatism is an articulation of order and how that order benefits mankind; it is not an aversion to change per se, but an aversion to destructive change.

But when conservatives distill their intellectual fuel from anger, they constantly find themselves betraying moral order and civility and uttering increasingly ridiculous claims as the left grows more and more able to emotionally withstand the ridicule and depravity.

None of that is conservatism, and the reaction to Milo’s invite by conservatives lends some hope that the importance of moral order is not completely lost on today’s conservatives. But for Milo – and dozens of other provocative and derisive characters – the line has been set far too low. Conservatives need to search their collective soul to discover what they truly value, and then evaluate whatever they happen to find.

About Thomas Conerty

view all posts

A young American who loves Jesus, liberty, and dogs. "Our country is too big for union, too sordid for patriotism, too democratic for liberty."