Sunday, February 15, 2009

Conservatism and Moral Theory

I would like to tie some strands together. Bear with me; many of the strands are in archives. In the last little while we've been looking at human nature and conservatism. In the more distant past I've discussed moral theory, as well. You can see an intimate connection.

Conservatism has two levels: procedural and, let's call it, indexical. Procedural conservatism is the logical and empirical level. It is the commitment to conducting moral deliberation so as to maximize the fulfillment of preferences we have, rather than to import an arcane theory or particular creed as a fetish to hold above our preferences in austere and slavish reverence. It is the rejection of all moral theories that pretend to stand in judgment of the set of preferences we find ourselves with. With Hume, we acknowledge that reason can serve this set by seeking its most coherent version and consistency with all relevant facts; there is no Kantian or Rawlsian Reason, and no leftist or libertarian ideology, which this set ought to serve. Unlike the emotivists and subjectivists, we recognize that right and good cannot be directly read off of our desires and sentiments, the sentimentalist tradition having taken a wrong turn after Hume, thanks to Stevenson and Ayer. Tradition reflects natural preferences discovered through lengthy deliberation and experience. It is this reasonable tradition which procedural conservatism serves and which rationalists, ideological fetishists, subjectivists and the rest desire to overthrow or ignore.

Indexical, or cultural conservatism is the devotion to a certain set of values a certain culture we can point out. This culture rests upon lengthy deliberation and observation of human nature and in particular a certain set of preferences widely shared in a society. Ways of life flow from human nature and from procedural conservatism which are worth pursuing and preserving.

There is nothing to normative moral theory other than the recommendation that we use common-sense reasoning for coherence amongst our moral judgments and in turn (at the lowest level) amongst our desires. In other words, beyond procedural conservatism, as I've described it, there isn't much else to say in the way of normative theory. Kant, Rawls, Mill and the rest, including the enormous amount of ink spilled by 20th Century specialists in normative theory, a non-entity of a scholarly or philosophical field, should be seen as of little value and wrongheaded. Common-sense procedural conservatism has never been seriously injured by any critic, and Kantianism, utilitarianism, Rawlsianism, and the rest have been refuted over and over again with no hope of vindication in sight.

The lowest-level reason for this is that the link between what is right or good and what we prefer is logical. There is nothing we could count as evidence that a way of life was preferable (in a reflective equilibrium in which all things had been considered and thorough application of common-sense reasoning for coherence amongst our desires and consistency with the facts had been applied) and yet wrong. Nor is there anything we would count as evidence that something was right and yet detestable (in a reflective equilibrium in which all things...etc.) "Right" and "good" are thus reducible to desire. This is the direction in which the sentimentalist tradition of Hume should have gone and on this blog has gone.

To conclude: Conservatism is both procedural and substantive. If you've find what I've said about procedural conservatism a bit hard to grasp, don't worry. It is just ordinary common-sense prudential reasoning. If you are not biased in favor of one value over all others, if you try to determine what is best in view of the most coherent and fact-based set of all of the values we hold dear, then you practice procedural conservatism already; most people do, I think. Substantive conservatism is the disposition to preserve, and improve it via procedural conservatism, a certain culture which promotes good lives, suits what is important to us, and suits our nature. This explains why we find people listing particulars in effort to define conservatism, for example, Allen C. Guelzo in this week's National Review magazine:
If to love liberty, to hate slavery, and to believe that free labor holds out the best hope of "self-improvement" and "advancement" do not exemplify what American conservatism ought to be, then I am at a loss to know what does.
The overall view is, following Hume, sentimentalist in reducing good and right to what we prefer, where what we prefer is reducible to our desires, inclinations, and sentiments. Be careful over this point. As Jonah Goldberg says, also in this week's National Review magazine,
...redemption and meaning are derived not from indulging your "authentic" instincts and drives, but from striving to live up to external and timeless ideals.
That is so. Conservatism strives to preserve ways of life which suit our preferences. These ways are derived from lengthy experiment and deliberation amongst experienced inquirers. They are not derived from the individual's simply reflecting on what he wants (as certain philosophies of authenticity or existentialism and subjectivism or emotivism recommend.) Your culture has already discovered a plethora of ways of life which reflect lasting facts about you. You must reflect within yourself to discover which of these ways or novel innovation amongst them best suits you. You need them even more than you need authentic introspection. They embody truths about your nature which momentary "authentic" impulses do not.