In January 2013, an opinion piece by Tony Abbott, Leader of the Federal Opposition, appeared in the Herald-Sun, ‘For the record, I’m not opposed to IVF.’ This attempt to clarify his position did nothing to change the minds of Abbott’s critics. They simply went on warning women about his ingrained misogyny and the extreme danger he represents for their well-being and security should he be elected prime minister at the next Federal Election. Abbott would always be Captain Catholic for those shamelessly leading the sectarian campaign against him. The critical point here is that Abbott’s views on abortion and other such social matters, especially for his feminist critics, are in essence an issue of politics, and not of an exchange in which argument and counter argument are marshalled. I will come back to this.
On the other hand, just to show – again in the concrete circumstances – that often one cannot win in such hard-fought political matters, there were many conservatives who treated Abbott’s piece in the Herald-Sun as further evidence of Abbott’s (alleged) compromise on difficult moral issues, apparently to appease critics of his conservatism, outside and inside the Liberal Party. What had happened to the Tony Abbott who almost single-handedly took on the extreme left in student politics and came away with a famous victory, leaving his ideological opponents so decimated that they have not even today recovered and vent their frustrations by writing wimpy whingeing essays about Abbott’s brutal masculinity. There was a political brutality that Gillard’s John McTernan would be proud of.
If one’s moral fortitude deserts one on such a fundamental moral matter as abortion, what is next? The legalising of gay marriage and polygamy, agitation already appearing for the latter? After all, the materialist arguments underwriting homosexuality and gay marriage are the same as those for polygamy.
It’s the familiar moral relativist position Abbott is accused of giving in to. If there are no standards except those you choose for yourself, what business has the government in banning behaviours that surely belong to the realm of personal choice? As one female acquaintance said to me, pointing her finger randomly at the man at the next table in a busy bistro during a vigorous exchange, ‘How’s that man’s choice to marry his gay partner going to affect me?’ Indeed, those in Abbott’s own political party who are uncritical admirers of J.S. Mill’s powerful (materialist) thoughts on liberty would agree. Only Mill’s harm principle should restrict personal choice and the behaviour that results – and what harm would I suffer from that man’s condition of homosexuality? But it is not my object here to tackle the question of moral relativism or Mill’s utilitarian calculus.
What concerns me is whether Abbott’s compromise – if indeed it can really be called compromise – on abortion and IVF can be explained and defended with arguments that Edmund Burke marshalled during his many political conflicts. This is a question not just for Tony Abbott. It is a vital question for all conservatives in the Burkean mould. It’s one that we have to face at this present moment in Australian political history. The focus has come on Tony Abbott because he is a conservative politician and leader of the Liberal Party.
Few who have followed Tony Abbott’s career would believe that he has substantially changed his view on the morality of abortion, that is, the conviction shared with of host of fellow humans being that killing an unborn child is the same act morally as killing a day-old infant. The difference of a wall of human tissue could not logically make a moral difference. This logic was demonstrated recently by a couple of clever Monash University academics who seemed to be saying that killing an infant who has just emerged from the womb cannot be wrong if killing it in the womb just before it appears is not wrong. Of course, I work the argument the other way round. The point I would make is that reason cannot justify abortion on moral grounds, that the politically unaffected mind would draw the conclusion that ending the life of the unborn is murder, if one insists that killing an infant is murder.
The joyful discourse of family members about the child in a relation’s womb is a stronger justification of this line of reasoning, taking it out of the cold embrace of the rationalistic method. It is the reasoning of the ordinary person in the concrete circumstances of everyday life, and not the unrestrained abstract fantasies of the academic office. Most importantly, the reasoning of the ordinary person is not the linear abstract process that the sequestered academic indulges in – often speciously – but a mixture of deductive/inductive reasoning ratifying the moral feeling that is basic to our human nature. The central accusation that Edmund Burke levelled at the theorists and actors of the French Revolution was that they had got the nature of human reasoning tragically wrong. ‘With such things [as the Revolution] before our eyes,’ Burke said, ‘our feelings contradict our theories; and when this is the case, the feelings are true, and the theory is false.’ The primeval instincts of man, ‘improved into morals’, issue in the moral feeling that is an integral part of right reasoning.
The ordinary person going about his daily life, unaffected by the radical political theories fed into the minds of the young from the moment they pass through the gates of our academies, will have no doubt that the thug who has bashed a pregnant woman and killed her unborn child is guilty of murder in the ordinary sense and of manslaughter (at least) in the legal sense. Similarly, in his honest unaffected moments he will see the close similarity of the scene of rotting corpses piled high on the carts of the Nazi concentration camps with the mangled mass of ripped apart unborn children in the abortionist’s hygienic plastic garbage bags.
For those of us who do not suffer from the most wicked of modern delusions, the personal fight against abortion legislation must be unrelenting. There is no compromise in our individual civic capacity. The present abortion legislation is a blight on our hard won civil society that seems to be in a state of accelerating decay. The victory of abortion legislation is a defeat for civil society. This uncompromising stance on abortion I would characterise as the priest’s stance.
If this is the bottom line of the policy allowing the killing of the unborn child, why then would Tony Abbott, depicted by his powerful hate-filled feminist opponents as a dangerous fanatical Catholic, shift into compromise? Here’s an important clue: Abbott is a politician, a leader of a political party; he is not a priest. Before I suggest a full answer, an answer generally for conservatives, let us return briefly to the points I made about Edmund Burke’s political reasoning in my talk for the foundational meeting of Edmund Burke’s Club (Australia) Inc.
Burke’s political reasoning starts with a crucial distinction that is repeated in many different ways throughout his writing.
Political problems do not primarily concern truth or falsehood. They relate to good or evil.
An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791)
The distinction is between the abstract theory about rights and government based on logical argument that aims at a valid conclusion, on the one hand, and the practical reasoning that aims at concrete outcomes that are good in the moral sense and thus beneficial for the community, on the other.
It is the business of the speculative philosopher to mark the proper ends of government…It is the business of the politician, who is the philosopher in action, to find out proper means towards those ends, and to employ them with effect.
Thoughts on the Cause Of The Present Discontents (1770),
And again to his young French correspondent, DePont, in 1789:
You have theories enough concerning the rights of men – it may not be amiss to add a small degree of attention to their nature and disposition. It is with man in the concrete: — it is with common human life, and human actions, you are to be concerned.
And again in the Annual Register, 1759
The happiness or misery of mankind, estimated by their feelings and sentiments, and not by any theories of their rights, is and ought to be, the standard for the conduct of legislators towards the people.
There is a passage in Burke’s pamphlet Observations of the Late Publication, intitled The Present State of the Nation (1769) which provides a compact summary of the issues political problems raise for the legislator and politician. Burke is discussing the British Administration’s conflict with the American Colonists, a conflict brought to a head over tax policy.
It is easy to parade with a high talk of Parliamentary rights, of the universality of legislative powers, and of uniform taxation. Men of sense, when new projects come before them, always think a discourse proving the mere right or mere power of acting in the manner proposed, to be no more than a very unpleasant way of misspending time. They must see the object to be of proper magnitude to engage them; they must see the means of compassing it to be next to certain; the mischiefs not to counterbalance the profit; they will examine how a proposed imposition or regulation agrees with the opinion of those who are likely to be affected by it; they will not despise the consideration even of their habitudes and prejudices. They wish to know how it accords or disagrees with the true spirit of prior establishments, whether of government or of finance; because they well know, that in the complicated economy of great kingdoms, and immense revenues, which in a length of time, and by a variety of accidents have coalesced into a sort of body, an attempt towards a compulsory equality in all circumstances, and an exact practical definition of the supreme rights in every case, is the most dangerous and chimerical of all enterprises.
Observations of the Late Publication, intitled The Present State of the Nation (1769)
Francis Canavan in the first chapter of his book The Political Reasoning of Edmund Burke draws from such passages four aspects of the political good:
First, political action must deal with the concrete circumstances which cover a multitude of varied elements. In the case of the Americans, the British government had to consider the nature of the American people, their social and governmental establishments, and even their habitudes and prejudices.
Second, there are the practical issues to consider. What is practical is governed by the concrete circumstances. There must be the careful consideration of what can be actually achieved in the concrete. No government has an unlimited choice of action in any political problem. Even the distance between Britain and America caused practical problems for the general administration of the American colonies.
Third, a developed state is a complex entity, so complex as to be impenetrable by the individual or collective mind. Not only is the state multifaceted, its parts have intertwined – or coalesced – over time to such an extent it is not possible to take action without affecting other parts and, more importantly, it is not possible to anticipate unintended consequences. ‘No politician can make a situation. His skill consists in his well-playing the game dealt to him by nature, times, and circumstances,’ said Burke to G. Elliott.
Fourth, following from the complex nature of the state, the unpredictability of human nature and the varied and often opposed views of the people, what can be achieved will always fall short of the object aimed at. Perfectibility is not possible, thus the imperfect element of the political good.
How then does the politician, the philosopher in action, form policy aimed at achieving a particular political good that has so many variables? On this point, Burke could not be clearer. The political reasoning of the philosopher in action is the exercise of prudence, the application of the rules of prudence. Burke made many comments on the distinction between prudence and the abstract theory that proposed political solutions. An abstract theory run hard, causing a rupture with concrete circumstances, was likely to open up a vista to the gallows, Burke said in the Reflections. We all know that the rigorous implementation of abstract theory in the 20th century led to the gulag, the concentration camp and the killing fields. Here are several passages about prudence and its exercise.
Nothing universal can be rationally affirmed on any moral, or any political subject. Pure metaphysical abstraction does not belong to these matters. The lines of morality are not like the ideal lines of mathematics. They are broad and deep as well as long. They admit of exceptions; they demand modifications. These exceptions and modifications are not made by the process of logic, but by the rules of prudence. Prudence is not only the first in rank of the virtues political and moral, but she is the director, the regulator, the standard of them all. Metaphysics cannot live without definition; but prudence is cautious how she defines.
An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791)
Political reason is a computing principle; adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing, morally and not metaphysically, true moral denominations.
Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)
The rules of prudence…are formed upon the known march of the ordinary providence of God.
Second Letter on a Regicide Peace (1796)
The rules and definitions of prudence can rarely be exact; never universal.
First Letter on a Regicide Peace (1790)
The lines of morality are not like the ideal lines of mathematicks. They are broad and deep as well as being long. They admit of exceptions; they demand modifications. These exceptions and modifications are not made by the process of logick, but by the rules of prudence.
An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791)
Those unfamiliar with Burke’s writings might have the sneaking feeling that in Burke we have to do with the reasoning of the moral relativist. After all, there is so much talk about circumstances prescribing a particular policy or a remedy for a political problem and that ‘nothing universal can be rationally affirmed on any moral, or any political subject.’ But we already have the statement that political problems relate to good or evil. Implied is that there exist objective moral standards. Burke was just as explicit about the existence of an objective moral order, the Natural Law, as he was about the rules of prudence. Here is a sample of passages in which the law of God must be presupposed in all political judgment.
We are all born – high as well as low – governors as well as governed – in subjection to one great, immutable, pre-existing law, a law prior to all our devices and all our conspiracies, paramount to our feelings, by which we are connected in the eternal frame of the universe, and out of which we cannot stir. This great law does not arise from our combinations and compacts; on the contrary, it gives to them all the sanctions they can have. Every perfect gift is of God: all power is of God; and He has given the power, and from whom alone it originates, will never suffer it to be corrupted.
Speech on the Opening of Impeachment (1788)
[The moral law is] ‘the will of Him, who gave us our nature, and in giving impressed an invariable law on it.’
Tracts on the Popery Laws (1761)
Man’s [positive] laws are subordinate to the moral law of God: All human laws are properly speaking, only declaratory; they may alter the mode and application, but have no power over the substance of original justice.
Tracts on the Popery Laws (1761)
But then we have this:
There are some fundamental points in which nature never changes – but they are few and obvious, and belong to morals rather than to politicks. But so far as regards political matter, the human mind and human affairs are susceptible of infinite modifications, and of combinations wholly new and unlooked for.
Remarks on the policies of the Allies (1793)
Circumstances perpetually variable, directing a moral prudence and discretion, the general principles of which never vary, must alone prescribe a conduct fitting on such occasions.
Remarks on the Policy of the Allies (1793)
So, as Canavan so clearly explains, Burke conceives of the natural law as being the foundation and framework of political policy. Not only of political policy, of course. All human action is within this framework whether the natural law is ignored or acknowledged.
To summarise, generating political policy is governed by the nature of the political good, the exercise of prudence, and the natural law framwork in which all human action takes place.
If return now to the question of why Tony Abbott has the appearance of shifting into compromise when the morality of abortion is so clear, the answer is that the issue of abortion in the Western world is not one of reasoned moral discourse, but one purely of politics. Abortion legislation has triumphed because those in favour of it have won politically. They have organised – effective political organisation being the great talent of the Left – they have captured key switching points in state and society, and they are unrelenting and unmerciful in enforcing political fidelity. Nobody kicks heads more brutally than the triumphant Left. Australia’s feminist moguls, shameless touters of that natural female quality, compassion, excel in the ruthless control of their female constituency. The macabre antics of Emily’s list members in the Brumby Labor government provided a copybook example of the heartless Left in action – and the pitiful cowardice of their male leader, John Brumby. The eyes of these women, brought close up by the television camera, reflected a colourless glaze of cruelty.
Tony Abbott, as leader of the political party who has the only chance of curbing the power and the delinquency of the Left, cannot go up against the unconscionable political tactics of his political opponent solely with the arguments against abortion, arguments that have been politically discredited. Not rationally but politically. He must deal with the political reality, and he must deal with it with prudence. There is no point in standing his ground on naked principle, as the priest must do and those of us must do who do not possess political power in a formal electoral capacity. He would do that to the joy of his political enemies who would launch a wild festival of political smear through their well-known friends in the media whose compliance can always be reckoned upon. The Left’s brainwashed youthful grassroots activists would begin leafing feverishly through their copies of Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, lusting to begin the prescribed campaign of smear and sedition.
Maintaining principle is not inconsistent with dealing effectively with political realities, that is, employing the effective use of prudence. Part of that effective dealing is the acknowledgement that evil in some particular form exists in any society and that there is often little chance of eliminating it in the short term.
Political reason must tolerate evils not because it is indifferent to it but because ‘public spirited prudence’ sometimes demands a ‘compliance with the impracticable nature of inveterate evil.’
On the State of Ireland. (1792)
Burke could express himself very pessimistically about the chances of dealing effectively with evil.
Toleration being a part of moral and political prudence, ought to be tender and large… A tolerant government ought not to be too scrupulous in its investigations; but may bear without blame, not only very ill-grounded doctrines, but even many things that are positively vices, where they are adulta et praevalida (grown/mature and very powerful). The good of the commonwealth is the rule which rides over the rest; and to this every other must completely submit.
Letter to Hercules Langrishe (1792).
With the abortion issue, any conservative in any position of authority in Australia of the present time must deal with the reality of abortion as being an inveterate evil. In the long run, change in a democratic system must come from the people to those who possess political power. They must acknowledge the truth of the priest’s stance. The evidence is that Tony Abbott has not changed his mind on abortion, but that he is attempting to deal with it as an inveterate evil in society and as a weapon to harm him politically. The task for him is the effective application of prudence in dealing with both.
When we come to the issue of same-sex marriage we have the same context of the nature of the political good, the exercise of prudence and the framework of the natural law. The big difference, and it is a critical difference, is that same-sex marriage is not yet an inveterate evil in the social fabric, that it has not yet had the chance to coalesce or intertwine itself with society at large. The scope still exists for the vigorous presentation of rational argument against it, and the defence of the family as the fundamental building block of human society.
Although we still have the chance to prosecute the rational moral case against same-sex marriage, we have to face the fact that our opponents are meeting rational argument with politics and propaganda. The homosexual hierarchy has acknowledged that the general population still has to be desensitised to the nature of the homosexual life-style. They have no choice but to resort to unceasing political action and propaganda. There are two basic tactics they are employing to drown the rational argument. First they present same-sex marriage as a human rights and equality issue, which clearly it’s not. It’s about redefining marriage, a task that must fail if people do not turn their heads from the empirical evidence of the homosexual life-style. Second, they continually depict their opponents as bigots motivated by hate, thus effectively disqualifying any contrary opinion. To this end they have fabricated the most powerful political word weapon the modern world has heard – ‘homophobia’. This one word reduces all argument against homosexual ‘marriage’ to fear and loathing. It does point to the state of our society that these two tactics are succeeding. Meeting these two tactics effectively calls for the most refined application of prudence, which entails the acute assessment of the political good and how to formulate tactic. What this entails in detail is outside my talk this evening.
Finally, and this is of the utmost importance for our liberal democracy, gay marriage has brought into sharp focus yet again a grave problem that transcends the issue of gay marriage. It is the threat to freedom of speech – and it is operating in all the issues promoted by the left, not just gay marriage. The gravest threat to free speech – the bulwark of liberal democratic government – is the present tactic of depicting people who disagree with the leftist agenda as corrupt. There is a totalitarian mentality abroad in Australia and it is in the concrete circumstances the Liberal Party that all Australians must look to for their defence.
© Gerard Wilson, October 2016
This is a slightly updated version of a talk given in 2013