Another luminary of mid-twentieth-century conservatism, Russell Kirk, said, “Until human beings are tied together by some common faith, and share certain moral principles, they prey upon one another.” To which three responses are required. First, religion can be socially useful without being true. Second, human beings can share many ethical principles without sharing the same faith, or having any faith. Third, people who share a faith or moral principles frequently have preyed upon one another, and on others. It is false, and politically ruinous, for conservatives to assert that conservatism requires a shared religion or even ubiquitous religiosity. The assertion that particular virtues depend, or that virtue generally depends, on religion is an empirical claim, and demonstrably false. There are many virtuous unbelievers, and many virtues with no religious provenance, and many religious people who are not virtuous.
— George Will, The Conservative Sensibility
The men who built our political system tended to mildness in religion but sounded like evangelists on morality. Jefferson believed the pursuit of happiness inseparable from “the practice of virtue.” Madison placed “national policy” on the shoulders of “private morality.” Washington affirmed that “virtue or morality” was “a necessary spring of popular government.” The reconquest of the past must return to us the Founders’ clarity of vision. An ideology of freedom can work only if wedded to a morality of restraint.
It may be objected that a fractured society will explode into conflict over incompatible moral ideals. In fact, pluralism is impossible without some kind of shared morality. The ideals particular to this country borrow heavily from Christianity, as refracted through Enlightenment values—but they are transparent and stand on their own merit. In their most basic form, they are a call to act with integrity and to deal straight, with friend and stranger alike. At a higher level, they uphold the claims of the weak against the strong, the poor against the rich, and the individual against the might of the state. This is a language that every American can speak.
The anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed a limit to how many personal relationships each of us can sustain: about 150. Morality is about behavior inside the Dunbar number. Before trying to save the earth or overthrow the patriarchy, we should examine our conduct among those who live and work with us. We should judge ourselves first—and more strictly than we do others because that is the privilege of freedom: the capacity to hold sovereignty over our actions and direct our lives to a higher plane. Self-judgment, far from being self-punishment, is the lone viable path to liberation.
— Martin Gurri, “Prologue to an Ideology of Freedom”
Both the civic republican and the Christian traditions had assumed that society was held together by some shared vision and purpose. In the civic tradition, that purpose was the preservation of collective liberty, which required the cultivation of military virtue; in the Christian tradition, it was the shared devotion to Christ which made virtue possible and which united the power and upper orders of society. Smith’s vision, while allowing for military virtue and for religious institutions, envisaged a society held together in part by market relations of mutual self-interest, in part by deference, and in part by a culture of respectability which would extend to all social orders, encouraging men to treat one another with decency and increasing the respect of the upper classes for the lower classes.
The framework of Smith’s work is perhaps best understood as the institutionalization of neo-stoicism, in which the ethic of self-command is universalized and transformed from a moral injunction addressed to a political and intellectual elite into a policy objective for the entire society. It was a stoicism transformed by modern psychological institutionalism. In the seventeenth century, French moralists such as La Bruyère and La Rochefoucauld had derided the possibility that passionate man could ever achieve the stoic virtues of self-command. Smith set out to show how — in a moderated and indirect form — such virtue could become widespread.
— Jerry Z. Muller, Adam Smith in His Time and Ours