Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Conservatism: Form or Content?

John Jay Ray posts about my definition of conservatism. John thinks that I'm trying to give a formal definition of conservatism - cynical, pragmatic - as well as a contentious definition. I enjoy his incisive comments. We'll get to the bottom of this yet! The content I built into conservatism is that conservatives are commited to traditional ways of life, traditional values, until overwhelming evidence shows that they should not be. However, there is not much content here, so the definition is still formal. A conservative in one society and a conservative in a traditionally very different society are both just that: conservatives. Even though they are commited to different values, they are both commited to traditional values. There are more than one sets of values to which a society may be commited. Anyone in any society, no matter how different the values from those of other societies, is a conservative if he is reluctant to change the system of values and adopt a new one. What conservatives from various societies share is a pragmatic commitment to the wisdom of generations upon generations of value-formation, values formed by prolonged experience and passed down from generation to generation. The commitment to tradition is pragmatic, and the definition of conservatism is formal. Confucians are conservatives, and so are the folks over at NRO.

I would also argue that conservatism is a logical truth. It is never rational to change one's values, as long as one prefers the values, they are consistent with the relevant facts, and they are consistent with each other. Value is simply preference, and it is never rational to do what you do not, all things considered, prefer. The good is the rationally desireable, Hobbes and Hume would have said. But the "reason" part is merely slave to the desires. Rationalism, on the other hand, holds that value is independent of preference. Look at the link between rationalism and progressivism/radicalism: Plato was a rationalist and utopian radical. I submit that Kant is the hero of the 20th C. progressive left. He's Rawls's inspiration. The idea of rationalism is that there is a highly intelligent elite who know what's best even though the rest of us would not prefer it. But as long as you define "prefer" as "coherently and with full information to desire," then rationalism may be seen to be the lunacy that it is: that there can be something desireable that is not desireable.

There are stark options: conservatism v. progressivism. Conservatism is the moderate choice (as I've argued below), and the only one that makes sense. It is therefore a logical truth (a truth the denial of which is literally nonsense).