Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Conservatism is Indexical

Reader Stephen Krueger writes in:
I've read some of John Ray's writings on the meaning of "right" and "left". What I took away from it is he was defining them as conservative and progressive, respectively. Conservatism meaning a general temper for experience or what came before, and progressivism meaning a temper for changing the standing order. The terms are not to be taken as determining what level of government is acceptable. So your statement: "It means that libertarians are to the right of conservatives, and anarchists still further to the right," doesn't fit.
Well, yes, but there is more to be said.

By "indexical" I mean referring to a certain thing. Political and moral conservatism is a conservative stance about a certain thing; it is not just a conservative stance about anything. And it that certain thing is a certain set of ways of life; it is not just any ways of life. There is a reason that there are no leftist conservatives, and it's not a superficial reason.

Of course conservatives are known for loving and preserving traditional ways of life inherited from history. This being so, one might set of a right-left spectrum in which those who want a new society are on the left and those who do not - conservatives - are on the right. This dichotomy might render the terms "left" and "right" more sensibly than the dichotomy between totalitarianism and liberty. In this way one could not be too conservative and anarchists would not be nonsensically placed to the right of conservatives.

However, this allows for the possibility of communist conservatives, anarchist conservatives, and so forth. In any society in which totalitarianism or anarchy held sway, the conservative, we would have to say, would favor maintaining the totalitarianism or anarchy. You might be satisfied with that sense of "conservative," in which the term applies to anyone who wants to keep his society the way it has been for some time. But this is not the best sense of the term.

The term "conservative" is indexical. It refers to the desire to preserve the ways of life suitable to our nature; "our" is an indexical term, a pointer. Take an analogy: "great lover." We don't mean someone who demonstrates deft and fervently amorous behaviors behaviors about just anything - bicycles, twigs, people, water, string, chunks of ice in Saturn's rings, etc. We mean he does demonstrates these behaviors toward human beings, and even certain human beings, at that, ones worthy of his affections. Similarly a man who reflexively aims to preserve his countries old totalitarian, welfare-statist, or anarchist system is not a conservative any more than a member of the Charles Manson clan would have been had one of them devoutly tried to preserve its traditions.

Therefore, what drives conservatism is human nature. Conservatism aims at obtaining and maintaining moral and political values which are appropriate to the kind of beings we are, which promote our flourishing and enable us to live decent and good lives. Fondness for tradition isn't conservatism without this tether to human nature. Conservatism is a disposition to keep to traditions but within the constraint that the traditions track the facts about human nature. You needn't be fully aware of this tethering and tracking to be a conservative; you need only have a sense that something like this is what you are trying to do in preserving your values.

To be conservative, then, you have to get it right. Conservatism is indexical. If you haven't pointed your conservative dispositions at the right set of ways of life, you are not a conservative. You may be a crank or a reactionary, but you aren't a conservative. You might think you are a conservative, but you would be mistaken, just as a child who doesn't know anything about soccer at all may play with a ball and think he's playing soccer but be utterly mistaken.

There are two points downstream of this. First, the right-left spectrum is still not very helpful here. There is a sweet spot called conservatism in which we get a variety of values right and intend to preserve them. Then, again, there is a variety of directions in which one may diverge from these values: libertinism, anarchism, libertarianism, welfare-statism, and totalitarianism. I suppose if you would like to call the sweet spot in the middle "the right" and all the deviations away from it collectively "the left," then you may. But I don't know why anarchists and totalitarians are leftists. No, the left-right spectrum is not useful.

Secondly, conservatism is indexical but has a less-than perfectly strict threshold for accuracy. If you took yourself to be a conservative but in aiming to preserve all the right values you didn't get everything right, but got almost everything right, then you would still be a conservative. The more you get wrong, however, the more we are inclined to remove you from the category "conservative" and place you in the category of "ideologue" or "reactionary crank." (Do not confuse "conservative" with "reactionary." Leftists can be reactionaries and there are many such leftists about today. A reactionary who will not take any criticism of his tendentious and unproven views seriously but will instead excoriate his critics.) Still, like many other concepts, "conservatism" is one the fulfillment of which doesn't require absolute perfection. This is why conservatism is a big tent. Conservatives have much to deliberate about, to disagree on, and to debate. It isn't easy to get all the right values right.