Posted by: L | May 21, 2007

“Being nice to Falwell”- some grammar rules from Michael Oakeshott

“On Human Conduct” was one of the books I found most useful in my thinking in graduate school. And the uncivility of politics (although I doubt if politics has ever been anything but uncivil) brings me back to it today.

Oakeshott wrote of the adverbial rules of conduct, which very briefly, I could translate as the how of things, the way we do them. It’s what I meant when I spoke about style being more important than substance in my Falwell piece, a piece that provoked some criticism from readers who thought I erred in “saying something nice” about Falwell. But the article was neither an exercize in pragmatism nor in dissembling on my part. It was an acknowledgment (I hope) of complexity and the unknowableness of things…a kind of genuflection, not before evangelical Christianity (I am rereading this and immediately see that what I ought to have said here is ‘Christian Zionism’, not ‘evangelical Christianity’, which is unfairly conflated with it. I will leave the original statement here a bit longer, but will eventually delete it – it shows you how we often misspeak in a hurry, using the language “in the air” even when it’s quite inaccurate or downright misleading) . A genuflection not before an influential public figure, but before our own individual limitations as rational beings, before the complexity and ambiguity of moral practice and indeed language itself – not simply our laws about free speech.

“But a moral practice,” he writes, “is not a prudential art concerned with the success of the enterprises of agents; it is not instrumental to the achievement of any substantive purpose nor to the satisfaction of any substantive want. No doubt there may be advantages to be enjoyed in subscribing to its conditions: perhaps, honesty is the best policy; perhaps speaking the truth is a condition for all durable association for the satisfaction of wants. But a moral practice, unlike an instrumental practice, does not stand condemned if no such advantages were to accrue. Indeed, recognizing and subscribing to these conditions may be expected to add to the cost of these transactions. Nor is morality a court of arbitration in which the different and often conflicting purposes of engagement and their chosen action are reconciled to one another and mean satisfactions authorized. It is concerned with the act, not the event; with agents as doers making an impact on one another and not in respect of the particular wants for which they are seeking satisfactions. (my emphasis)

No action whether it be of self-gratification or of care for the satisfaction of others, is exempt from its conditions. And no agent, whatever the circumstances of his conduct, is outside its jurisdiction.”

That’s where the adverbial rules of engagement come in: courteously, civilly, nicely, politely, kindly, generously, compassionately….

Oakeshott differentiated between enterprise associations – which have a specific goal as their end, say, making’ x’ number of cars, and civil associations governed by procedural rules – among which, he placed the state. He would, I think, have been equally opposed to a theocracy and to a state which left no room for the religious – in any real sense.

Oakeshott also saw the the necessity of a minimalist state for the existence of true diversity, not the diversity of enforced outcomes. In that sense, many of the problems we face now become moot once we return the state to its proper limits.



  1. Hi Lila,

    It was great to come across your blog. I thoroughly appreciate your characterization of yourself:

    “I consider myself both a liberal Christian and neo-Hindu. I am eclectic and syncretist, which means that I can like the Latin mass, read the Gita and meditate on the tarot — and see no conflict in any of those practices — or in judicious scepticism.”

    It makes complete sense that someone like yourself would be interested in Oakeshott – I happen to be the founder of the Michael Oakeshott Association 🙂 Like you (and Oakeshott) I too get pleasure from undermining any Procrustean “isms” that most folk get comfort from.

    Best wishes,


  2. Thanks Leslie.

    I checked out the site and plan to link it.
    Looks great. I am always on the look out for theorists/bloggers/writers who can bring a different angle to the current debates about the place of religion and freedom of speech in the state…

    Hope you’ll visit often and post.

  3. Thanks Lila for the kind invitation. I will take you up on your offer as and when I can. I have written quite a bit of late on the relationship between religion and politics (not to mention Oakeshott): indeed I’m participating on an online symposium shortly: sign-up is at



  4. Great. Looking forward to it.

  5. If you don’t mind I’ve linked from my blog to yours.


  6. Not at all. I’m linking yours and adding Zygon as well.

  7. By the way, you might be interested to know that I’ve just completed a paper that features Hayek.


  8. Very interesting.

    This new book I did with Bill Bonner – it’s a popular exposition of the current world asset bubble attached to our own take on politics and vignettes of various forms of state bungling – touches very briefly on power laws and herding…wanted to get more into ideas about the hive mind, but didn’t really have the space.

    I think your piece there, from what I see of the abstract, would have been useful.

  9. I’ll send you a draft if you’d like – until it is published I don’t want it on the web. What’s your offline email? You have mine, I think.


  10. P.s. Yes, indeed – reading your piece:

    does very much intersect with my work, especially with as you say the herd or swarm aspect. I need to read the book – I’ll get it now!!


  11. Comes out in August, I think. We are just at the galleys now. I got a nice blurb back from Nassim Nicholas Taleb (of “Fooled by Randomness”) – it was pretty nice and I will be posting that on the page for the book.
    Taleb has had another book, “The Black Swan” since.

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