Saturday, November 09, 2002


John Jay Ray posts that I collapsed too soon in defending what he calls my "pragmatic" definition of conservatism (scroll to Nov. 9 on his blog). Perhaps! He posts some interesting references. Philosoblog will report back on these references soon. I'll add to the list John Kekes, A Case for Conservatism.

Maybe I'll un-collapse a bit. Consider 'conservatism' as a cluster concept. It is a cluster of ideas: the desire for smaller government, a tragic view of values (the star-crossed intention to try to maximize them all without clinging to any of them lopsidedly - anti-radicalism/anti-fanaticism), a certain deference to tradition as trusted, tried, and true, and a resulting reluctance to change without overwhelmingly good evidence, and a reminder to make changes only to the extent warranted, and to avoid systemic changes that might upset parts of the system one would rather not change. Conservatism as merely the desire for a smaller government leaves too much out of the concept, it seems to me. Libertarianism fails to weigh in on conserving our allegiance to the tradition of values that make life so much better than it would otherwise be. If unwilling to recommend that one stick to our Western heritage of value without fully knowing the reasons why it is good, one can't count as a conservative. And if a libertarian is willing to make the recommendation, then he implies that one ought to relinquish some of one's liberty to to this tradition. Do libertarians make every effort to instill in their children the values I have in mind? Do they give their children the upbringing Aristotle recommended: teach your kids to take pleasure in good things and to despise bad things? If so, they're conservatives, not libertarians. (In addition, John Adams and David Hume would scold libertarians for being rather un-conservative about security. More later on that.)

Nevertheless, John had a good point in his earlier post about facts. If one is pro-abortion and in favor of legalizing drugs, this might appear un-conservative, rather libertarian to those conservatives who believe that the evidence favoring these positions is not overwhelming yet. So, we have, in addition to the fundamental concept of conservatism, the standards of applying the term (rough-and-ready set of conditions under which one should apply it).

By the way, A Sharp Knife waxes conservative and anti-libertarian today (no permalink available).

This issue will preoccupy us for quite some time on Philosoblog.