But it's not easy in practice to abide by this belief - even for liberals. Take the case of women in combat. A principled liberal will nearly always support the idea of women fighting on the front line. This is because liberals don't want women to be limited in what they choose to do by their inherited sex.
Nonetheless, even liberals feel a revulsion against women being exposed to physical danger on the battlefield, just as conservatives do. For instance, Peggy Drexler, a researcher at Stanford University, wrote an article last year on the topic of "mothers in combat".
She began the article, titled Accepting a mother's work - in any form, by noting that,
Before the American invasion of Iraq, a friend and I watched a TV interview with a new mother about to be called up for war duty and whose husband was already in Iraq.
My friend was horrified: "How can she go to Iraq when she just had a little baby?"
I admit, the question wasn't far from my mind either.
Peggy Drexler then explains in the article, quite reasonably, why we feel this horror at the thought of women leaving their babies to fight in a war. She observes that although we are used to fathers leaving their families in times of war,
the departure of a mother - the great resilient nurturer who offers the milk of herself to her child, no matter the cost - unsettles us more deeply.
In the same vein, she notes that,
We think it's a tragedy when a child loses a father, but when a child loses a mother, it feels like a tragedy of a higher order. But when the death results from the mother's willingness to take risks still not typically assumed by women - such as flying into space or going to war - we can feel that some order of nature has been violated.
This leaves Peggy Drexler, as a principled liberal, feeling conflicted. She confesses that,
It is clear that American mothers have taken on the mortal career risks long associated with men. But we're torn by this progress in women's advancement. Most of us applaud the risks such women take. And in the next breath, we ask how, in good conscience, a mother could leave her kids and deliberately put herself in harm's way: What are they thinking? They're mothers!
Which then leads us to a crucial question. How does Peggy Drexler, as a principled liberal, resolve this dilemma?
Does she decide that we should follow our natural feeling against placing mothers in harm's way? Or does she follow her intellectual principle and support the idea of women in combat?
The answer is instructive. Peggy Drexler does what most liberals do in such a situation. She overrides any personal feeling of revulsion in order to follow an intellectual principle.
In fact, not only does she decide firmly in favour of allowing women into combat roles, she dresses up her decision in terms of high ideals. She insists that,
It is the right of all women - mothers or not - to leave home and take risks. Only when we accept that the mothers can keep the home fires burning and fight oil fires in Iraq will we truly honor motherhood. Only at that point will we accept servicewomen - mothers included - in their rightful roles in combat ...
...a mother has a duty to herself, her country, and, yes, her children, to fly as high as she can ...
This, then, is how society declines: because enough liberals are willing to repress their better instincts in order to follow misguided political principles.
We don't reach the situation of women in combat because liberals like Peggy Drexler are unfeeling or heartless or even denatured. It's because she is too principled in following a misconceived ideology.
It's this commitment to abstract principle which explains why Peggy Drexler can arrive at her extraordinary conclusions, that we can only truly honour mothers if we send them off to be killed on the battlefield, or that mothers actually have a duty to abandon their children by exposing themselves to battlefield violence.
We conservatives have the disadvantage in modern society of not having the same power as liberals to shape the course of developments. But we do, at least, have one advantage. We aren't forced by faulty intellectual principles to go against what we feel, in conscience, to be right.
True conservatives don't believe in the liberal idea that we become fully human only when we create ourselves entirely from our own will and reason. This means that conservatives don't have to, as a matter of principle, overthrow the influence on us of our inherited manhood and womanhood.
Conservatives are therefore free to act, as we think is right, as men and women. We are not forced to reject important distinctions between the sexes, including the different responsibilities that men and women have in times of war.
The liberal drive to make men and women interchangeable is a product of the underlying beliefs that all liberals share. The challenge for conservatives is therefore to understand and oppose these fundamental beliefs of liberals, so that the Western intellectual class is no longer locked into the attempt to deconstruct traditional understandings of manhood and womanhood.
(First published at Conservative Central, 22/08/2004)