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A Liberal Critique of Conservatism
By Stephen R. C. Hicks
This is piece is a response to Dr James Orr’s article defining Conservatism which can be found here.
It is a pleasure to read and respond to Professor Orr’s learned statement of a conservatism, one that is both rooted in tradition and updated to the contemporary.
Conservatism’s top values, we learn, are order, hierarchy, a sense of belonging to a particular community in a particular time and place, a deference to tradition, and a resistance to changes that are too sweeping or too quick.
Simultaneously, conservatism is distrustful of abstract definitions, eschews commitments to universal principles and certainties, preferring the empirical, the particular, and the pragmatic.
Professor Orr devotes a paragraph or two to explicating further each of those core concepts.
As a political philosophy, then, conservativism makes a pair of commitments—one in the value realm (order, tradition, etc.) and one in the epistemic realm (particular, pragmatic, etc.) Integrated, those commitments tell us to begin with our current particularities as they have emerged from the contingencies of history and to conserve the core of those as distilling the wisdom and practicality of the ages, at the same time allowing for the possibility of incremental changes for the better.
In the spirit of constructive conversation, I will now critique and question conservatism’s key themes, enumerating them for ease of reference.
1. On the normative claims:
We cannot begin by generally valorizing order, hierarchy, or tradition because there are good and bad orders, moral and immoral hierarchies, and decent and wicked traditions. Totalitarian socialisms, for example, strive for order; rigid feudalisms insist upon hierarchies; and by appealing to tradition, some tribalists resist attempts to stop clitorectomies on pubescent girls.
This piece is part of an exchange between James Orr and Stephen Hicks. I am so keen for everyone to enjoy it that I’ve made it available for free, however, if you are able to please support my work so I can do more of these!
I am certain that Professor Orr also rejects such practices as wrong. Yet it is necessary for conservatives to make clear the evaluative standard by which we are to sort orders, hierarchies, and traditions into good and bad.
We do not, though, find such a standard in Professor Orr’s essay, and that strikes me as an important omission.
2. Here the epistemic attitude of conservatism becomes important and perhaps partly explains the omission. Conservatism is characterized as reluctant to identity certain standards, to define, to make universal claims.
In Professor Orr’s words, definition is not “comfortable.” The word “certainties” is paired with “horror.” The idea of universal principles “disturbs the conservative’s instinct.”
Modest skepticism can be a healthy reaction to the many religious dogmatisms that historically have been socially devastating and, in more recent times, the free-floating rationalistic schemes that have also wrought destruction.
So in the face of that history, a call for being more careful epistemologically—seeking empirical evidence, sometimes being content with possibilities rather than demanding certainties, and asking what actually works—is a good cognitive corrective.
Yet being skeptical on principle throws babies out with the bathwater.
3. To see this, let us consider what I, speaking for Liberalism, take to be some of modern liberalism’s achievements: identifying universal human rights to life, freedom, and property; the principled elimination, in theory and in practice, of women’s second-or third-class status; its moral certitude in identifying slavery as an evil and banishing it to illiberal, underground outposts.
That is, liberalism does use the language of universal principles, clear definition, and often of certainty in drawing the line between good and evil.
By contrast, if conservatism views certainty with something like horror, then that implies it is not certain that slavery is wrong—that possibly slavery is acceptable in some circumstances. If conservatism’s instinct is to find universal principles as disturbing, then it is not disturbed by some human beings’ not having rights to life and property. If conservatism is uncomfortable with seeking clear definitions, then it will have to accept fuzzy and shifting deployments of (for example) “rape,” “harassment,” and “flirtation”—or of “genocide,” “terrorism,” “violence,” and “speech”—with negative consequences for the social and legal order it also values.
In contrast to conservativism’s skepticism, liberalism is indeed cognitively optimistic. Liberalism’s operating principle has been that learning from experience and generalizing to sound universal principles is possible. We can define slavery and know it is wrong. We can learn for sure that both men and women are capable of self-responsibility and self-governance. We can abstract from ethnic/racial/religious particularities and grasp that individuals’ rights are universal.
The danger of conservatism, then, is that if it begins with a vague deference to order and tradition combined with a reluctance to define its standards rigorously, then it is, as Professor Orr suggests, a “temperament”—or at worst a prejudice—and not a principled philosophy. And if politics is basically a matter of temperaments and/or prejudices, then—since those are highly variable—conservativism’s soft skepticism devolves into relativisms. From there it is a short step to old-fashioned tribalisms and new-fashioned postmodernisms.
Yes, epistemology is complicated and we are still learning about how humans’ cognitive powers work and can work better. Yes, there are in academic philosophy persistent empiricist/rationalist and is/ought dichotomies that many have not overcome. Yet skepticism is not the only alternative to religious dogmatism and fact-free rationalism.
One important lesson here is that political debates—such as this one between conservatism and liberalism—are not fundamental but depend upon philosophical debates in epistemology and meta-ethics.
4. Politics is about defining, sorting, enabling, and enforcing values in a social context, with special attention to the role of government. Societies, as Professor Orr rightly emphasizes, are complex along several dimensions. One of those dimensions is the voluntary-compulsory dimension. What values will be sought through voluntary social methods and which will be sought through compulsory social methods?
So if we take for granted the conservative list of top values—order, hierarchy, tradition, belonging, and so on—then an essential question of politics is: Will those values be pursued by individuals making voluntary choices, or will that 800-pound gorilla of social institutions—the government—make them happen?
Governments assert that their sovereignty is universal over society, and they use instruments of compulsion (police, courts, prison, the military) to enforce their sovereignty. So any political philosophy must have a clear principle for determining which subset of values the government is responsible for.
Liberalism makes its principle clear: individuals are to be free, and governments exist properly only to protect individuals’ freedoms. All other values are to be pursued by individuals themselves or by individuals’ voluntarily working together. Further, liberalism highlights the fact that the government itself is a uniquely powerful institution—and that historically it has been a uniquely dangerous institution—such that its positive powers and proscribed limits must be made crystal clear.
Yet, by contrast I did not find in Professor Orr’s essay any such principle of government on behalf of conservatism, and again that strikes me as an important omission. “Government” is mentioned once, in a paragraph that says that conservatism endorses examples of wide-ranging policies across many times and places, some of those policies in tension (if not contradiction) with each other, and with no clear demarcation between what government is responsible for and what individuals and voluntary social institutions are responsible for.
We are left, then, without a conservative theory (or even a principle) of government. Are we to assume that if, say, order is the top value for conservatives, then governments may in principle do anything to preserve order? Or if, say, tradition is a basic warrant, then the fact that traditionally governments have asserted power over pretty much every aspect of human life—that in principle conservatism warrants a continuation of those traditions?
By contrast, liberalism says clearly that individuals should be free to run their own lives—religiously, artistically, sexually, intellectually, economically, and so on—and that government power is limited to objective threats to or violations of individuals’ liberty.
5. One concluding thought that is perhaps more of a question than a point. In his opening essay, Professor Orr explicitly identifies some of conservatism’s enemies: not only liberalism but also socialism, egalitarianism, anarchism, and libertarianism.
While “conservatism” is often a big-tent label, Professor Orr’s emphasizes that conservatism is particular, changing, and pragmatic—and that it should reject worldviews that are universalistic, timeless, ideal, and held with certainty. Yet consider most of the world’s major religions and the religious conservatisms based upon them: they emphatically assert universal, eternal, and ideal truths to be accepted as absolutely certain. Should such religious worldviews be added to the conservatives’ enemy list, explicitly?