On Human Nature. By Roger Scruton. Princeton University Press; 2017; 151 pages; $22.95 and £18.95.

Review by Nathan Jennings

Roger Scruton is a British conservative, which means he is in some ways unrecognizable in a North American context. Scruton is a traditional conservative, in the vein of Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution. He is not, therefore, a libertarian or a defender of classical liberalism or of laissez-faire capitalism. It is exactly the strangeness of his conservatism that makes him both interesting and compelling — at least to me.

Scruton helped found The Salisbury Review in 1982 to provide a journal for British conservatives who wanted to distance themselves from libertarianism (which is to say, Thatcherism) and promote a more traditional conservatism. He led the review for 18 years. Scruton has published more than 50 books. He is a prolific, well-grounded intellectual conservative.

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Being a British conservative means that Scruton is likely to be a member of the Church of England, which he turns out to be. He has written books about religion in general (The Soul of the World), the Church of England (Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England), and theology (The Face of God — from his Gifford Lectures in 2010). His most recent book, On Human Nature, provides an imaginative anthropology in order to address political problems.

Scruton starts by stating what should be obvious but what is often neglected: human beings are (at least) animals. He engages evolutionary theory, especially the contributions of evolutionary psychology and its prominent contributors (such as Jonathan Haidt). Everything true that biology can find out about being human can be affirmed by a more philosophical approach to anthropology. But what we are to avoid is a reduction to the merely biological:

I do not deny that we are animals; nor do I dissent from the theological doctrine that our biological functions are an integral part of our nature as human persons and also the objects of fundamental moral choices. But I want to take seriously the suggestion that we must be understood through another order of explanation than that offered by genetics and that we belong to a kind that is not defined by the biological organization of its members. (p. 19)

We are not just human animals. We are persons. We are not just a species, as per evolutionary biology, but we are also individuals, each with distinct ontological value. And empirical science, methodologically restricted to the study of objects, is incapable of accounting for the reality of being and encountering other self-aware subjects in the world. We should, nevertheless, expect everything it means to have human subjectivity to be compatible with and illuminated by a more objective study of our animal nature.

The modern philosophical and liberal political tradition would construe person as an individual, and a rather noumenal, disembodied one at that. Modern liberal politics understands our nature as individuals on a Cartesian grid of voluntary contractual relationships. Scruton calls this approach to politics and anthropology contractarianism. Scruton asserts that a more genuine anthropology affirms personhood, but that our personhood is always embodied — and, as such, always communal in nature — thus avoiding individualism.

In a sense, modern contractarianism is uncomfortable with bodies. It is interesting, in the face of so much body talk in liberal academia, that, in the end, much current liberal culture still only knows how to talk about ethics from the perspective of excarnate contractarianism (to use Charles Taylor’s term). Bodies are to be studied and respected. But they can never figure fully into an account of human flourishing.

Current political philosophy takes traditional contractarianism further and says a benevolent state should make justice (modern liberal) or liberty (libertarian conservative) its overarching aim. (Some recent major thinkers in this world of contractarianism include John Rawls in A Theory of Justice and Martha Nussbaum in Frontiers of Justice.) But contractarianism fails to take our situation as organisms seriously. Scruton presents two critiques of contractarianism:

1. Our relations are mediated by our embodiment. We are not purely nominal selves. We don’t just try to balance out things with others contractually; we desire one another bodily (e.g., husband to wife). So, for example, sexual morality is more than the forming and breaking of a contract; there is revulsion, and it is part of being embodied.

2. Our obligations are not and cannot be reduced to those that guarantee our mutual freedom. The noumenal selves of our Western inheritance are free from ties and attachments because they are disembodied, excarnate. But we are embodied as human beings, so we begin with ties and attachments from conception. Again, another example is filial piety: we did not choose to be born, or to whom. We are, nevertheless, tied to our parents by bonds of obligation that cannot be described in contractual terms.

So, from our embodiment two problems arise in the face of modern political thought: the morality of desire, and the morality of ties and attachments. Ultimately, Scruton wants to hold on to what is helpful in contractarianism while restoring a complete picture of an embodied moral agent. Answering those two objections to contractarianism, by expanding it to include something more organic and embodied, grants a fuller account of the moral life.

In a sense, it seems Scruton wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to affirm and work within the general modern liberal framework of rights-based contractarianism, while supplementing what it lacks with a more robust anthropology of embodiment, piety, and obligation. He presents a compelling case, but without a few adjustments it may not entirely convince some.

My education presumed the righteousness of the liberal point of view to the degree that I really had almost no idea there was a tradition of intellectually rigorous and academically informed conservatism. Coming back round to this part of my spirituality, through authors such as Scruton, has become vital for me. Scruton provides a voice of gentle, thoughtful, intellectually rigorous traditional conservatism. My hope is that Scruton can help many who would like to understand and discuss the depths of the conservative imagination.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Nathan Jennings is the J. Milton Richardson associate professor of liturgics and Anglican studies at Seminary of the Southwest.

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