Values and morals

Tim Montgomerie has posted at Standpoint that Conservatives need to retake the moral high ground and reconnect with values voters. It’s also picked up at Platform 10, and no doubt elsewhere.

I have two responses to this. Firstly, we need to define what our values are. (Personally, it doesn’t help that the article considers US Democrats to be similar to Labour. I’d be a Democrat in the USA, as would many other progressive Conservatives.) Secondly, values and morals are not the same thing.

The question of what our Conservative values are is difficult partly because Conservatives tend to think of themselves as pragmatic, following the evidence of “what works” rather than ideological instinct. Because “what works” differs between individuals, Conservatives strongly support individual choice. To put it simply, for many in the Conservative Party, the starting point is freedom.

There is a conflict between this individualist liberal approach and socially conservative views. In my experience, a large number of Conservatives favour the former. However, the public perception of Conservatives is, well, a little too conservative. Conservatives are seen as wishing to conserve a perfect 1950’s model of society complete with all its inequalities, rather than cautious pragmatists looking to implement only beneficial change. As Conservatives we need to challenge this image.

However, a bigger issue than the definition of Conservative values is the frequent conflating of values and morals. Values are one thing, morals quite another.

A value expresses a goal worth pursuing. A value can reflect changing circumstances, can incorporate differences of opinion. A value is flexible rather than prescriptive. A value can fit to encompass the choices individuals make. I support the family as a basic community unit, but that doesn’t mean I think all families should be the same, or even that the members need to be related by blood or legally-recognised partnerships. I simply mean that people seem to seek close committed relationships, and “family” is a good term to describe the units they form. Committed relationships and family ties appear to be good to individuals and good for society as a whole.

A moral indicates something which “ought” to be done, something which is “right” or even “good”. At their heart, morals rely on being pinned to absolutes, whether humanist, scientific or religious. Morality assumes a norm to be conformed to, a perfect answer to strive towards. Morality is dogmatic, it separates and alienates. I also consider it to be fundamentally philosophically unsound, relying on an absolute Platonic ideal.

Tim Montgomerie is right to say that the Conservative Party needs to emphasis values. But talking about morals will undermine Compassionate Conservatism. It will take us back towards morals based on dogma instead of values based on individual free choice.

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About feminismfortories

Moderate Tory, Liberal Feminist. Based in the UK.
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2 Responses to Values and morals

  1. I must say, I am very curious about the idea of being a feminist and a Tory. Although I would not call myself a Labour supporter, I am to the left politically and I am pretty certain I would not vote for Tory in their current incarnation. This comment is not meant as a criticism, rather I am asking because I really am curious to know what it is about the conservative party that you think allies with feminist, liberal ideals? Would love to hear your comments.

    ~Cat @feministletters
    http://feministletters.wordpress.com/

    • Thanks for your comment. My feminism and my other political views come from the same root: individual freedom and choice. While practicalities (and I’m really very pragmatic) drag me towards the centre-ground, my political instincts are more libertarian. However, I don’t believe in absolutes, so I don’t think there’s ever a “right” answer, only a practical answer. This tends to make me a) politically central and b) cautious about radical change.

      On the whole I believe that a smallish state is a good idea, as I don’t think the state should be in the business of running it’s citizen’s lives. I believe that it’s the role of the law to ensure equality of opportunity, but that the role of encouraging people to take up those opportunities falls to society. I strongly believe that all people are fundamentally equal, but that everyone is first and foremost an individual.

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