A summary of Scruton's philosophy

In The West and the Rest, written in 2002 just after 9/11, Roger Scruton asks what exactly is Western civilisation and what holds it together? Politicians tended to say ‘freedom’. But, he continues: ‘taken by itself, freedom means the emancipation from constraints, including those constraints which might be needed if a civilisation is to endure. If all that Western civilisation offers is freedom, then it is a civilisation bent on its own destruction.’

In Where We Are (2017) Scruton wrote that all the Western democracies were suffering from a crisis of identity: ‘who are we, where are we, and what holds us together in a shared political order?’ He felt that today the issues closest to people’s hearts were ‘neither discussed nor mentioned by their representatives’:

‘The “we” that is the foundation of trust and the sine qua non of representative government has been jeopardised partly by globalisation and partly by mass immigration of people with other languages, other customs, other religions, and other and competing loyalties.’

He urges us to reinforce the nation-state, which has brought ‘the benefits of personal government, citizenship under a territorial jurisdiction, and government answerable to the people’. But it had become very difficult to uphold the nation state without risking the charge of racism and xenophobia. He approved of George Orwell’s wartime distinction between the nationalism of the Nazis and patriotism of the British. Nazi nationalism was hostile to outsiders, whereas:

‘Patriotism is based on respect and love for the form of life that we have. It seeks to include, not to exclude, and to combine in the face of external threat. A patriot respects the patriotism of others, including that of the enemy.’

National loyalty is a love of home and a willingness to defend it: ‘We refer simply to this spot of earth, which belongs to us because we belong to it, have loved it, lived in it, defended it, and established peace and prosperity within its border.’

In the years that followed his call for us to re-examine some of our core assumptions, he pointed to the direction of travel. In particular he tried to reconcile classical liberalism and a market economy with conservatism.

Conservatism and Egalitarianism

Classical liberals and conservatives, he said, stand side by side against the egalitarian state. Classical liberalism advocates limited government, not small government or libertarianism, and has been concerned to ensure the growth of individual liberty – with the state perceived as one of the threats. Egalitarian socialism is concerned to use the power of the state to eliminate the unequal outcomes that result from individual freedom. It aims to use the state’s power to take from people who have got more than they are said to ‘deserve’. This doctrine is often called ‘social justice’, but to do so misunderstands our built-in sense of justice. It is not outraged by every example of inequality. Often it is most outraged when legitimate inequalities are not permitted, especially when earned ‘fair and square’.

Law and compulsion

Hayek famously wrote an essay entitled ‘Why I am not a conservative’. But according to Scruton, Hayek produced the ‘most important conservative defence of common-law justice’. This brings us to where law and compulsion fit in. Every law is not a curtailment of freedom. Some laws facilitate freedom, for example when the law creates legal structures like companies or charities. But most important, in Where We Are Scruton showed how common law is an asset of the people – not a means of controlling them. Injunctions, for example, put the power of the sovereign at the disposal of wronged citizens, whether the wrongdoer is the government or a private person. Such law entails no loss of freedom.

Traditions

According to Scruton, for conservatives social institutions are adaptations which contain more wisdom than the reflections of the typical intellectual. Traditions are not arbitrary conventions but answers to earlier questions, akin to a series of natural experiments. The British have been criticised for too readily accepting traditions and not ‘thinking things through’ but:

‘The French thought things through at their Revolution, and the result was accurately summarised by Robespierre: “the despotism of liberty”. Impenetrable contradiction is what you must expect, when you try to start from scratch, and refuse to recognise that custom, tradition, law and a spirit of undemanding co-operation are the best human beings can obtain by way of the government.’

Seeing value in traditions has nothing to do with the idea of a golden age. In Green Philosophy (2012) Scruton said that we conserve for the future. We need to distinguish between ‘policies that conserve the life of a nation, and those that merely pickle what is dead’. For example, when thinking of something like the traditional school curriculum, conservatives do not seek to cling to everything that happens to be old but rather seek to uphold the tradition of critical reflection. He asks: ‘Isn’t it the tradition of reflection on our way of life – the art the literature and music … that is the real thing we value.’ What is valued by conservatives is not reaction, not orthodoxy, but ‘an invitation to adapt to changing circumstances in a spirit of conservation and renewal’.

How are individuals perceived?

In Where We Are Scruton celebrated not the sovereign individual, entitled to anything that might be wanted, but the self-critical individual guided by responsibility to the wider society acquiring a personality through obligations as parents, neighbours, etc. His view is inseparable from a moral tradition that was Christian for many centuries, one that called for love of neighbour and admission of faults amidst a struggle to be a better person. It is rooted in loyalty to a place – the home of free individuals actively building better lives. However, in trying to put his finger on the vital differences between Islamist fundamentalism and Western civilisation, he pointed to our changed approach to religion: ‘Western civilisation has left behind its religious belief and its sacred text, to place its trust not in religious certainties but in open discussion, trial and error, and the ubiquitousness of doubt.’

Also vitally important were the unspoken assumptions of social life:

‘The free citizen was marked by a proud independence, a respect for others, and a sense of responsibility for the common way of life and the choices it protected. Fair-mindedness, acceptance of eccentricity and a reluctance to take offence, combined with an aversion towards abuse and slander…’

The economy and private property

In Conservatism Scruton said that Adam Smith provided ‘the philosophical insight that gave intellectual conservatism its first real start in life’. For Smith, the foundation of human societies was our disposition to seek a ‘mutual sympathy of sentiments’. We are animated by our own desires but we seek the approval of others and to avoid their disapproval. We are guided by the ‘impartial spectator’.

Scruton shared Hayek’s understanding of the price mechanism. Exchange value is a distillation of social knowledge that allows mutual adjustment and self-correction, but markets merit qualified support. In Green Philosophy Scruton said:

‘Conservatives … prefer market forces to government action wherever the two are rivals. But this is not because of some quasi-religious belief in the market as the ideal form of social order … still less is it because of some cult of homo economicus and … ‘rational self-interest’ … It is rather because conservatives look to markets as self-correcting social systems, which can confront and overcome shocks from outside.’

A free society permits passing capital from generation to generation, a process that is essential to freedom. It gives us the power to defy government and it makes a reality of an independent public opinion – that is forming independent judgments in civil society. For such independence to continue it is vital to allow people to become wealthy.

Free trade

In A Political Philosophy: Arguments For Conservatism (2006) Scruton had this to say about free trade: ‘It is only free-market dogma that persuades people that free trade is a real possibility in the modern world.’ He continues:

‘If free trade means … taking advantage of sweated or even slave labour, … or importing the tortured remains of battery-farmed animals wherever they can be sold, why is it such a boon? If it means allowing anonymous shareholders who neither know nor care about Hungary to own and control the Budapest water supply, is it not the most dangerous of long-term policies? The fact is that free trade is neither possible nor desirable. It is for each nation to establish the regulatory regime that will maximise trade with its neighbours, while protecting the local customs, and moral ideals … on which national identity depends.’

He argues that we should return to local communities some of the powers confiscated by transnational institutions like the World Trade Organisation (WTO). He is very critical of the WTO which, he says, has allowed multinational businesses ‘to break down national jurisdictions and to cancel the loyalties on which they depend.’

But he did not want to abandon free enterprise: ‘We need free enterprise, but we also need the rule of law that contains it.’ Despite the faults of globalism, he thought that free enterprise was preferable to a command economy: ‘When enterprise is the prerogative of the state, the entity that controls the law is identical with the entity that has the most powerful motive to evade it.’ That is why socialist economies have been ecological catastrophes.

Climate change

At Davos in January 2019 Greta Thunberg advocated panic: ‘I want you to panic, I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act … I want you to act as if the house was on fire, because it is.’ Scruton argued that it was very difficult to judge how much global warming is due to human activity. He accepted that some has been but argued that we should aim to keep solutions on a human scale to allow for ‘feedback loops’. He tried to explain the huge support for Greta Thunberg and conjectured that something was being said that resonated with human nature, something that appealed to our deep instincts or sentiments. In Green Philosophy Scruton saw a parallel with past religious movements:

‘The great [salvationist] religions proceed, first by presenting sinners with a description of their case that seems to allow no remedy but only despair, and then by offering hope in the form of a total doctrine … The doomsday scenario has the effect of removing all belief in small-scale and negotiated remedies, and creating in their place a great and comprehensive longing for salvation. And then salvation is offered, in terms that require nothing save obedience.’

It ends in witch hunting, heretic hunting and pursuit of the enemy within. It is the doctrine of authoritarians who want people to be forced to change their lives. We must not be allowed to get off lightly – for example via bridge fuels or local measures. We must show faith, not criticism, and not surrender to leaders who will overcome problems for us.

Instead Scruton argued that governments should aim to establish conditions in which we can manage our environment in a spirit of stewardship. We should not let the state take on tasks that can be better performed in civil society. Some tasks should involve the government, such as reducing the leakage of electricity from power lines. There may be geo-thermal solutions, such as seeding clouds to block heat from the sun, which would require international co-operation. But government should encourage local measures through taxation policies that ensure that costs fall where they are created, via ‘polluter pays’ policies, or by a carbon tax. It could encourage the sale of produce locally to reduce transport costs. As individuals we could decide to reduce consumption – lower thermostats, add insulation, install solar panels, or use low-energy lights.

Culture Wars

For writing Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, Scruton was an early target of the rise of cultural leftism on our campuses, ‘woke’ attitudes that now dominate media, local government and publishing. He wrote ‘By a relentless campaign of intimidation, left-wing thinkers have sought to make it unacceptable to be on the right . . . Once identified as right-wing you are beyond the pale of argument; your views are irrelevant, your character discredited, your presence in the world a mistake.’

Scruton went on to share his experiences of debate and discussion in the academy, but also in socialist countries, where the terms ‘liberation’, ‘democracy’, ‘equality’, ‘progress’ and ‘peace’ always were popular, but never ‘mirrored in reality’.

Scruton called it our ‘greatest task’ to ‘rescue the language of politics: to put within our grasp what has been forcibly removed from it by jargon.’ He bequeathed to us a legacy of depth, richness of ideas and experiences, language and loyalties that consolidate the defence of Western civilisation.

In doing so he asked us to ‘revisit many of our prejudices’. In The West and the Rest he listed six assumptions that ‘need to be subjected to a re-examination’:

  • Our failure to adjust immigration policies to the goal of integration, and the reciprocal assumption that we should be free to travel anywhere around the globe, without first learning about the taboos and aspirations of the places that we visit.
  • Our acceptance of “multiculturalism” as an educational and political goal, and our habit of denigrating the real national and political culture upon which we depend.
  • Our corresponding commitment to “free trade”, conceived as the WTO conceives it, namely, as a way of compelling other countries to remove barriers that they have erected in defence of perceived local interest.
  • Our easy acceptance of the multinational corporation as a legitimate legal person, even though it is subject to no particular sovereign jurisdiction and is able to own property in every part of the globe.
  • Our seeming indifference as the authority of the secular law and territorial jurisdiction is eroded by predatory litigation at home…
  • Our devotion to prosperity, and the habits of consumption that have led us to depend on raw materials, such as oil, which cannot be obtained within our territory.

Art and Architecture

Aesthetic values were always a dominant aspect of Scruton’s philosophy. He formulated principled defences of standards in architecture and music, derived from classical philosophers. His major text The Aesthetics of Music is a leading work in the field.

Aesthetic principles are important for their own sake, for as Scruton explained, art is one of the principal consolations of existence. Moreover, it is a necessary part of the fulfilled life. In How to be a Conservative (2014), Scruton explained the importance of aesthetics. Materialism ‘informs political discourse at every level’ and as a result ‘people think of conservatism merely as a form of complacency towards the current system of material rewards’. But the strength of the conservative vision lies in what it has to say about the things that ‘money can’t buy’. Conservatives aspire to maintain ‘an inheritance of consecrated things’. Objects, traditions and works of art can be sacred, and hence become consecrated, without any necessary religious connotation, although Scruton wrote extensively about religion too:

‘Every now and then, however, we are jolted out of our complacency, and feel ourselves in the presence of something vastly more significant than our present interests and desires. We sense the reality of something precious and mysterious, which reaches out to us with a claim that is in some way not of this world. That is the experience of beauty.’

They may be objects of no utility, whose importance lies precisely in the fact that they serve no material purpose, and are merely ends in themselves, the pursuit of which is an independent good. The importance of maintaining the high culture of the European artistic tradition falls into this category. Or they be matters of great practical consequence, such as defence of the countryside and the conservation of historic towns and buildings. At the heart of all of these concerns is the pursuit of beauty.

We can distinguish between good and bad art. If an object is produced as a way of condemning the prevailing social order or in an attempt to show that anything can be art, we can see through it. Appreciation of beauty takes us out of the mundane: the day-to-day concerns of economic reasoning, or the pursuit of power or comfort, leisure or pleasure. In his 1994 book, The Classical Vernacular – Architectural Principles in an Age of Nihilism Scruton explained his approach to architecture:

‘The substance of aesthetic judgement lies in feeling, imagination and taste. But this subjective matter is objectively formed: it is brought to the forum of discussion… Hence there is both the possibility, and the necessity, of aesthetic education. The disaster of modern architecture stems from a misunderstanding of this education, and a disposition to discard the true disciplines of the eye and the heart in favour of a false discipline of the intellect.’

In architecture, he explained, there is special reason to resist the ‘pleasure principle’:

‘The person who builds imposes himself on others, and the sight of what he does is a legitimate object of criticism … It is not enough for an architect to say: I like it, or even: I and my educated colleagues like it. He has to justify its existence.’

In architecture, through aesthetic reflection we endeavour to create a world in which we are at home with others and with ourselves:

‘That is why we care about aesthetic values, and live wretchedly in places where they have been brushed aside or trampled on. Man’s “estrangement” in the modern city is due to many causes besides modern architecture. But who can deny that modern architecture has played its own special part in producing it …?’

Scruton’s work added to our self-understanding in every dimension of human existence, but whatever the immediate focus, at the heart of his thinking was always the idea of the free, self-critical, responsible individual rooted in a place and the people who live there, under laws that do not subjugate but rather liberate us.