My friend Andrew recently sent me a link to Brian Patrick Mitchell’s “What Is ‘Ethical Conservatism’?” in The American Conservative, and I recommend it as a brief manifesto of good sense in an age of insanity. Besides the good deacon’s regrettable use of gender instead of sex, I find it remarkably unobjectionable. However, I did find the following passage a bit unclear:
The contradiction at the very heart of progressive ethics is undeniable: People must be “forced to be free,” as Rousseau candidly admits. Why? Because the prideful, passionate, progressive heart cannot admit that what it wants is wrong; it must therefore insist that what others want instead is wrong and identify itself with the Promethean lawgiver, “enlightened despot,” or “revolutionary vanguard,” in sympathy with “the People” but not benighted like “the masses,” capable of divining the “general will” of the former and compelled to force that will upon the latter. This follows, perversely, from the Rousseauean conceit that man is innocent of the evil he finds in the world, which originates outside of him and is only imposed upon him. As man is forced to be evil, so must he be forced to be free of it.
“As man is forced to be evil, so must he be forced to be free of it.” Does Mitchell mean that, as Rousseau’s ideas externalize evil, they thereby externalize all morality? As such, must the state direct human decisions? In short, are virture and vice politicized not only in the classical way—the ancients knew well how law and custom cultivate virtue or invite vice—but completely so that there is no individual moral reasoning at all? Or is it rather that after the original sin of man’s corruption by society, only an enlightened state can redeem lost souls, depraved as they are in a condition of complacent repression? I don’t know.
The rest of the essay is clear and reasonable. Kudos to a fellow Cincinnati(ish) native who labors in the devil’s fields (around the Potomac).