We now get to Chapter 5 of Yuval Levin’s book The Great Debate “Reason and Prescription”. It’s the best one; the core of a moral imagination that the heart owns and the understanding ratifies, so much so that we’ll need a few weeks to unpack the ideas in this largest wardrobe compartment. Burke destroys the radical liberal self-appointed beacons of reason, who champion reason above all, because they clearly mistake a part for the whole. Human nature includes reason, but reason is only a part, and by no means the greatest part.
An emphasis on abstract reasoned theories is troublesome for three reasons: 1) Gratifying the schemes of visionary, speculative politicians becomes a matter of proving a point, not advancing interests of people; 2) It ignores particulars – reasoned theories are general, whereas circumstances and problems are specific – egalitarian abstraction fails to focus on actual people; and 3) Principles always go to extremes – tyranny and despotism; chasing a theoretical principle never ends (politics will never, ever achieve equality and it’s ridiculous to make trying the only goal).
Moreover, a myopic focus on naked reason is simply ineffective. It assumes that an individual, drawing upon evident principles, can assess the truth or falsehood of any proposition. Centuries of reflection and debate by brilliant thinkers have gone by without a resolution on the matter (these issues are still hotly debated today); and that points to a limit to human reason. But there is profound wisdom inherent in the cultural capital passed down through prior generations that deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Our wardrobe of a moral imagination has a coat of prejudice in it. Now, the knee jerk reaction to the loaded word “prejudice” is bad; and an individual bias without evidence or reason is bad. But some moral questions should be allowed to be prejudged by the collective wisdom of prior generations. The customs, habits and values we inherit matter. It’s a kind of moral heuristic – to cast away the coat of prejudice leaving nothing but naked reason is unwise and immoral. Next week, Burke reveals a powerful war chest defensive weapon – an entailed legal inheritance that all wealth owners enjoy.