There are several distinct traditions of thought that have shaped modern conservatism, and you can be sympathetic to some of them but not to others, and can legitimately wonder what has brought them so firmly into line – whether rational argument, emotional need or moral idleness. Here are some of the more important traditions:
(i) Belief in individual freedom as the basis of human fulfilment. There is a long tradition of Christian thinking, from St Augustine to the present day, which sees the human individual, acting freely and responsibly, as the purpose of life on earth, and the civil order as the arrangement that promotes this purpose. This tradition has metaphysical and ethical components, and it survives in liberal as well as conservative thinking. It accounts for the conservative hostility to totalitarianism (which is seen as an attempt to suppress or annihilate individual freedom), and also for some conservative visions of law and economics.
(ii) Anti-individualism. Paradoxically (and this is what makes conservatism interesting, in my view, even for those who don’t go along with it), there is an equally strong tradition of conservative hostility to the view that society exists for, is composed of, and is reducible to, its individual members. (Note: there are three theses there, not one.) What makes me an individual, whose principal attribute and starting point in life is freedom, is my social membership. The free and sovereign individual is an artefact, a by-product of laws, customs and attitudes that do not exist in all circumstances or in all historical conditions. If we value individuality, therefore, we must also value the social order that produces it. And conservatism is about protecting and conserving that social order.
This anti-individualist tradition has many branches. Contrast, for example, Burke’s version, de Maistre’s version, Hegel’s version.
(iii) Belief in a free economy. This is sometimes put forward as a special case of (i), but the arguments are so varied and so much directed towards the single goal of economic freedom, that we should see this as an independent tradition in conservative thinking. The free economy is praised (a) for its efficiency, (b) for its ability to generate prosperity, (c) for presenting the best, or perhaps the only, solution to economic organisation in a society of strangers, (d) as an instance of a more comprehensive good, such as individual freedom, or social order built from below rather than imposed from above.
Those four reasons are logically independent. So you should not assume, for instance, that Adam Smith is saying the same thing as Milton Friedman, or that the Chicago school and the Austrian school favour the free economy for the same reasons. In fact they disagree profoundly about the nature of human society.
(iv) A view of legitimacy as conferred by the past rather than the future. That is a vague way of putting it. But it defines a fundamental attitude which distinguishes conservatives psychologically from their normal opponents. That this is how things have been is, for the conservative, a prima facie reason for their continuation. Various theories might be advanced to justify this attitude – for example, the theory that institutions and customs which have ‘stood the test of time’ are not to be tampered with; or the theory that they are successful adaptations in something like the Darwinian sense; or the theory that they are collective solutions that embody the accumulated knowledge of generations, which knowledge cannot be replaced by or contained in a plan. But the theories are always less important than the feelings that they are used to justify – feelings of loyalty and obedience towards the existing state of things. Hence in conservative thinking obedience trumps innovation, and established duties trump newly discovered rights. The point is sometimes expressed by saying that conservatives are ‘legitimists’ rather than ‘progressives’.
(v) A non-instrumental view of civil society. There is a tradition of social thinking among conservatives which downplays or denies the thought that human societies exist for some purpose. Thus Aristotle regarded friendship as the model of political order, and friendship as a paradigm case of a relation which is an end in itself. (If you have a friend for a specific purpose, then you are not his friend.) Later thinkers have defined civil society (Hegel) or civil association (Oakeshott) as sui generis, not to be understood in terms of the kind of deals people make with each other, when they embark on a common project.
There is a tension between this way of thinking and that of tradition (i). Are we saying that civil association is actually purposeless? In which case, does it not have the purpose of promoting the individual, and the freedom and fulfilment which are proper to individual existence? The response might be, yes, it does have that purpose, but the purpose is not detachable – i.e. not a purpose which could be fulfilled in any other way. Hence civil association is still to be viewed as an end in itself. (Hints of this view in Aquinas.)
Whatever way we look at it, this tradition makes conservatives sceptical of the social contract view of civil society, and more inclined to see civil society as rooted in long-standing custom, acquiescence, membership and proximity. That is Hume’s view, for example.
(vi) A bottom-up view of law. Conservatism as we know it arose in reaction to the Enlightenment, and in particular to theories, current in Hobbes, Rousseau and others, that treated sovereignty as the organizing principle of civil society, and law as the will of the sovereign. According to this view, law is handed down from the top of society to those at the bottom, and its primary form is that of a command from the sovereign (who may be an individual, a parliament or even the whole body of citizens, united in the form of a ‘General Will’). The conservative understanding of law belongs to a far older tradition, which is sometimes described as the ‘natural law’ tradition, though rather too many things go by that name. The conservative view sees law as intrinsic to civil society, arising spontaneously between rational beings. Law is the natural way of resolving the conflicts between members of society and defining the rights and duties that lie concealed within their daily dealings with each other. Just as long as every conflict or complaint is submitted to an impartial judge, a body of law will emerge, and it will express the tacit understandings on which the society is founded.
This is a very appealing idea, and it is not only conservatives who adopt it: you find a version of it in Ronald Dworkin’s early papers, for example. In conservatives it tends to go with a respect for the rule of law, as an institution that embraces and limits all powers within the state, including those of the state itself. It therefore forms the basis of a theory of limited government.
(vii) A tradition of respect for institutions, constitutions and associations. The thought here is that it is always easier to destroy than to create, that we are social beings who find our fulfilment in association, and that the institutions which have emerged from our mutual cooperation are therefore likely to embody a form of collective creativity that individuals may threaten with their plans and schemes for reform. It is not just that we should be cautious in changing or reforming things: it is that we should recognize the extent of our dependence on institutions and associations, and the ease with which we can, by shaking ourselves free of them, destroy our own contentment.
This is a sociological tradition, and an ancient one. For some people it identifies the core of common sense in conservatism – which is, in a thinker like Hume for example, a vision founded in scepticism towards individual ideals and acquiescence in communal realities. It is a tradition which encourages an external view of institutions – seeing them from outside, as organic features of a community, rather than from inside, as factors which depend upon and influence my own decisions. Humean conservatives therefore have a very complex attitude to religion – often seeing it as a vital part of the social organism, to be endorsed and upheld, even when sceptical towards its actual claims. Burke and Disraeli typify this outlook. Almost all anthropologists in the Victorian period were Humean conservatives, regarding the religion, laws and institutions of the tribes they studied. But they usually set sail for home at the first hint that they might be expected actually to accept the local faith.
(viii) In tension with that last feature is the conservative suspicion of, or even hostility towards, the managerial state, as this has emerged since the end of the nineteenth century. Conservatives do not, on the whole, endorse the ‘minimal state’ defended (e.g.) by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State and Utopia. They are prepared to admit that society needs a lot more guardianship and protection than is provided by its own spontaneous institutions. But they also recognize a danger in bureaucracy (which creates ‘rent seeking’, parasitism, and a perpetually expanding bureaucratic class), and also a further moral danger in the expropriation by the state of responsibilities that lie with, and ought to be assumed by, the individual. Hence a marked suspicion of the welfare state which, in some conservatives (e.g. James Q. Wilson) amounts to open hostility.
(ix) The preference for the instincts, judgements and intuitions that arise spontaneously in social conditions over the ideas, plans and schemes for social improvement that arise in the minds of intellectuals. Burke defended what he called ‘prejudice’ against the ‘rationalism’ of the French revolutionaries. Russell Kirk, following T.S. Eliot, advocates the ‘Permanent Things’ which have an immovable place in the human heart, against the airy fancies of political theory. The tradition here has adepts among sociobiologists (even E.O. Wilson on some days), many of whom regard our instinctive solutions to the problems of social living as adaptations of a genetically transmitted kind, and the attempt to replace them with rational plans as dangerous moves towards maladaptation. Of course the French, Russian, Chinese and Cambodian revolutions have done something to confirm this tradition of thinking. And it is often cited as a ground for some kind of conservative democracy: ordinary unthinking people are more likely to be right about social questions in which their own interests are activated than are intellectuals, who can usually avoid the cost of their own ideas. Hence it is better to put all important matters to the vote, and not to allow the experts to take over.
That tradition of conservative democracy is strong in America, but weak elsewhere. And it clashes with another tradition:
(x) Cultural conservatism. This connects with the anthropological tradition referred to in (vii) above. Although the instincts of the people are sound, they depend upon constraints, forms, institutions and cultural norms that are fragile, and which must be held in place by education and spiritual discipline. The tendency of democracy is to make all such things matters of popular choice, and vulnerable to changes in popular taste. In a democratic culture old forms of authority, old standards of excellence and refinement, old standards of the good, the beautiful and the true, are rapidly eroded. Hence there is a tradition of conservative hostility to democratic reform, and especially to the democratisation of educational and cultural institutions.
The tendency to break down old hierarchies and old forms of authority was attributed to capitalism by Marx, and insofar as capitalism (or at least the free market) can be seen as economic democracy, the cultural conservative agrees with Marx. (See the argument of Matthew Arnold, in Culture and Anarchy.) In modern times cultural conservatism has been a major force, since it engages the sympathies of intellectuals. The very same people who advocate respect for real social instincts as opposed to sentimental theories, also advocate an educational system which keeps intact the hierarchy of taste, according to which Shakespeare stands above Daniele Steel and Beethoven above Eminem. (See, for example, the writings and the career of Norman Podhoretz.) In general, cultural conservatives share with enlightened leftists the respect for the realm of ideas, and the belief that the real battles are ‘culture wars’, while at the same time believing (as leftists also believe) that these battles are about the real interests of the uneducated majority.
(xi) The suspicion of the liberal distinction between private and public. The tradition that has its roots in early Renaissance thinkers and passes through Locke and Mill to modern legal theorists in America, and which holds that the institutions of law and government should withdraw from engagement with those matters of morality and taste that are of purely private concern has long been opposed, either overtly or tacitly, by conservatives. There has been a strong tradition of conservative thinking which wishes to see an alignment between public and private values, and the public acknowledgement of norms that would reflect a shared conception of the decencies of civil life. It is difficult to put this point precisely, and without circularity – and the difficulty is shared by those who wish to deny what conservatives affirm (as when Mill formulated his famous ‘harm’ principle). But examples illustrate what is at stake: sexual conduct and education, public decency and obscenity, religious practice and its place in public institutions, etc. The conflicts here have been particularly important in America; less so in Europe .
(xii) The anti-egalitarian impetus in much conservatism. Again, as in the matter of democracy, conservatism has been pulled both ways, wishing both to endorse the idea of the equal value of all human beings, and also to acknowledge the need for hierarchies, privilege, the dignity of office, and the naturalness of unequal distributions, whether of wealth or favours, in a world where people are free to be what they are. This is reflected in the often very radical differences between conservative and liberal theories of justice – the first emphasizing equal procedures, the second equal outcomes. Equal procedures, the conservative will tend to say, means the advantage to those with brains and beauty, and we can take away this advantage only by destroying things that we rightly value. This is a matter that we shall discuss under the rubric of ‘social justice’.
Those twelve traditions do not summarize all the currents of opinion and feeling that have flowed into the great grey greasy river of conservative politics. But they identify attitudes and beliefs which are familiar to you, and which do tend to settle together in human minds. That they are in tension with each other is obvious. Less obvious is the idea that they have a single source or a single foundation. That is the idea that I wish to explore. Are there arguments that would lead us to believe that those traditions are not just habits of mind that have arisen somehow or anyhow, but the by-products of truthful reflection on the human lot? I believe that there are such arguments, but that they are often concealed by the peculiar stylistic characteristics of intellectual conservatism, which has tended to prefer the poetry of mourning pessimism to the prose of ironical acceptance.
Of course, with or without arguments, we might wish to say that there is a conservative frame of mind, which some people have and others don’t have. We might believe that this frame of mind is a good thing, a bad thing, or neither good nor bad. We might believe that every child is born either liberal or conservative; we might believe that the two temperaments (if there are only two!) are equally necessary or maybe mutually dependent. All those thoughts are relevant to an assessment of the conservative position in the world today. But the philosophical issue concerns the arguments that might be given in support of something that we could reasonably call conservatism. They may end up endorsing some of (i) – (xii) and repudiating others. That is surely highly likely.
What kind of philosophical arguments might deliver results, when considering those items of belief? The Marxist would say that all, or almost all, of those beliefs are ideological – meaning that they arise because they are functional in maintaining a particular power structure in being, and are in no sense determined by their truth or by our capacity to perceive the truth. A proper social science, the Marxist would say, would expose those beliefs as ideological, by revealing their true causality. It is worth becoming familiar with this way of arguing – which you find, in one form or other, not only in Marx but also in Foucault, Bourdieu, Eagleton and a host of similar thinkers, who do not confront their opponents directly, but slide into their shadow, so to speak, and attack them from there. The idea is not to refute a belief, but to explain it away. You explain it away by showing its origins, in class interest or whatever. But might the belief nevertheless be true? Marx took the position that a belief is either ideology or science, and that truth belongs exclusively to science. This is not obviously right.
In general philosophical defences of political positions call upon one or other of the following ideas:
(1) Utility: what makes for a happier or more stable society.
(2) Justice: what people are owed or deserve.
(3) Realism: this is how things are, and the opponent is denying their reality.
(4) Assorted arguments from morality.
(5) Assorted arguments from religion. Someone might claim to have a revelation in support of some political position. What do we say in response to this? Can you have a revelation that revelations ought to play no part in politics? Is the US Constitution such a revelation?