Anita Hill is in the news again. A documentary has been released of her life before, during, and after her 1991 congressional testimony during the hearings on Clarence Thomas’ appointment to the Supreme Court. Our conversation has changed over the past 23 years since Anita Hill leveled charges of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas on national TV. There are more laws targeting sexual harassment in the workplace, and companies are providing more training to avoid sexual harassment. But change comes slowly, as we know from recent incidents in the military and the academies, and continuing streams of accusations elsewhere.
Edmund Burke, writing in the late 1700’s, is considered the father of modern conservatism. He believed that we should accord respect to our political and social institutions and practices as the just descendants of our ancestors and their hard work in making our government and society and passing it down to us. Burke sees the individual as an integral part of the society he is born into, subject to certain duties as a constituent of that society.
In contrast, Thomas Paine believed in the freedom of the individual. In The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, Yuval Levin contrasts Paine’s enthusiasm for remaking government and society in the wake of both the American and French Revolutions, and Burke’s insistence that change should be gradual, recognizing the virtue of our ancestors and what they have built and passed down to us.
“Who decides?” when a decision needs to be made. The liberal, like Paine, likely insists that we get to make our own decisions for ourselves as individuals or collections of individuals. The conservative, like Burke, in contrast, is more apt to believe that we should give deference to those who preceded us and to the institutions they left us. (The Catholic, bridging the divide, is urged both to act on his own conscience, and also to inform his conscience by reference to the Magisterium, the authority which lays down the authentic teaching of the Church.)
Having just finished The Great Debate, Burke has become my hammer, and everywhere I look I see nails. In A Common Core for All of Us, Jennifer Finney Boylan writes:
“What we are arguing about is what we want from our children’s education, and what, in fact, ‘getting an education’ actually means. For some parents, the primary desire is for our sons and daughters to wind up, more or less, like ourselves. Education, in this model, means handing down shared values of the community to the next generation…For others, education means enlightening our children’s minds with the uncensored scientific and artistic truth of the world. If that means making our own sons and daughters strangers to us, then so be it.”
An example of the former is the rejection of critical thinking in Texas Republican Party’s 2012 platform on education. “We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”
Elsewhere, N. Gregory Mankiw writes,“That is why economists should be sure to apply the principle ‘first, do no harm”, taking up the thread in When the Scientist Is Also a Philosopher. He asserts that his field, economics, is still primitive. He believes that we should resist raising the minimum wage and implementing policies like the ACA because we are not yet economically sophisticated enough to understand the consequence of such actions, and therefore risk doing harm by taking action, even action which is intended to do good. Channeling Burke, he asserts that we should be wary of making precipitous changes.
Mankiw also argues against the more liberal-friendly utilitarianism, “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” He counters with a belief in natural rights as something which should guide our government and society. Referencing the Trolley Problem, he asks if an individual would be willing to push the fat man onto the trolley and kill him to stop the train and keep it from killing a group of children further down playing on the tracks. More provocatively, he asks if an doctor treating patients one needing a new liver, one a new heart, and two a new kidney, on seeing a healthy patient walk in, would sacrifice the healthy one to supply organs for the four sick ones. As a species we generally believe there are a set of values which illuminate our lives and give us meaning as individuals and as a species, one that cannot be taken away merely for the utility of a larger group.
But natural rights are subject to individual interpretation. While they are generally the focus of conservatives seeking to defend the status quo and resist precipitous change, they are also essentially what Paine references when he talks about the rights of individuals in creating their own government. In today’s world, they are what animate proponents of marriage equality, who do not say, “Oh, a majority of voters in Mississippi in 2004 voted to ban marriage unless between one man and one woman, so I guess that’s that.” No, they say that in a country which has established the rights of individuals, their right to marry the partner of their choice independent of gender is a natural right which cannot validly be abridged simply by a vote of the majority. We hold these truths to be self-evident…
While my heart lies with Paine and his enthusiasm for autonomous individuals and their rights, my head inclines me toward Burke, not so much because I accept his view that society should resist precipitous change, but because in fact society usually does resist such change, and we may as well deal with reality. Paine was lucky to live in the time of the American Revolution, when a group of men were given the extraordinary opportunity to found a nation on the principles of ideas, and see it come to fruition. We have also seen radical reform in the aftermath of the Civil War, bringing voting rights to blacks; during the progressive era when voting rights were extended to women; and more recently during the 1960’s when voting rights were further protected. But it is more normal that change comes slowly.
Were he standing for the Supreme Court today, Clarence Thomas would not have survived the accusations which Anita Hill leveled against him. Change does come, and we welcome it. And the Texas Republican Party had to back off its open opposition to teaching critical thinking and insisting that the purpose of education is to pass on a society’s values rather than promote unfettered thinking. And for every conservative economist, there’s a liberal Paul Krugman or Joseph Stiglitz to propose more radical solutions to our problems than make N. Gregory Mankiw comfortable. I had my first course in political philosophy from Thomas Pangle, who taught us to honor the ideas which are the foundation of our western civilization. I study Latin and Greek to read the sources of our literature and philosophy. I’m a fan of the Middle Ages as the progenitor of our modern world. I’m Catholic, informing my conscience by reference to the Magisterium, but also following my own conscience on issues. I can appreciate the reverence which Burke holds for those who went before us and the institutions they left for us. But I celebrate change which are more in line with Paine’s enthusiasm for the liberties of autonomous individuals, change in a country whose principles, if not always its practices, rest with the individual, and particularly with those who are struggling to see the promise of America fulfilled in their lives.