“On the surface it is deeply puzzling that conservatism has disappeared from professional philosophy.” So writes Eric Schliesser (Amsterdam) in a post at Digressions & Impressions. He explains his puzzlement, but the main aim of his post is to provide an explanation for conservatism’s absence from contemporary political philosophy.
What do we mean by “conservatism”? Let’s not confuse political philosophy with political parties. “Conservatism” in political philosophy is no more accurately described by reference to the views of the typical self-identifying conservative voter than “liberalism” in political philosophy is accurately described by reference to the views of the typical self-identifying liberal voter. Rather, conservatism here is the conservatism of Burke, Oakeshott, and others. Schliesser elaborates:
Conservative political philosophy has an originating thought that goes something like this: political life is centered on groups or collectives that need to use violence to constitute and maintain themselves and, thereby, establish order…. [An] important consequence of the originating thought is that the order established can allow one to pursue the common good. That is to say, the conservative rejects the idea that the state must be neutral. Of course, the content of the common good is deeply contested even among conservatives (including among ones where one may, say, expect agreement, say Catholics)—some of the fiercest debates involve the role of religion and the status of the church or rites in this common good…. [T]he interest in the common good explains the conservatives’ special interest in institutions that help secure shared morality: education, family, religion, civic culture, etc. Or in institutions that help secure a certain commons sensibility: aesthetics, the arts, literature, etc.
He then offers two explanations for the relative lack of conservatism in political philosophy today. It’s worth noting he explicitly acknowledges externalist explanations, such as: the absence of conservatism may be owed to the lack of conservatives, which may be owed at least in part to conservatives not feeling sufficiently welcome in academia to pursue a career in it, or to political discrimination and bias in philosophy. But his focus in the post is on whether there are explanations that stem from conservative political philosophy itself. His two explanations are:
- Conservatives reject the terms of the debate among liberals vs Marxists and liberals vs libertarians. They are suspicious of what we may call ‘rights first’ accounts without accompanying obligations, and (more important) they reject the idea that the point of political life is to secure rights.
- Conservatism has an an instinctive mistrust of systematicity…. [T]hat raises an important problem…: working out what, say, Thomism or Right Hegelianism might mean today generally involves (i) a hermeneutic aspect, (ii) a reconstructive aspect, and (iii) a constructive (forward-looking) aspect. But the norms of the discipline in analytic philosophy today treat (i-ii) as ‘history.’ And while many normative theorists are interested in some historical figures, they have little appetite for engagement with (i) and (ii). And so taken as self-standing (iii) looks entirely ungrounded or unprincipled, that is, ‘bad philosophy,’ compared to the systematic rigor of utilitarianism and the method of reflective equilibrium of the Rawlsian.
See his post for the details.
I think Schliesser is on to something, particularly with #2, but there are at least two other explanations, which we can label “political speciation” and “pragmatic traditionalism”.
“Political speciation” is the idea that various parts of conservatism have been split off from it and developed into alternative views. For example, libertarianism can be seen as picking up on conservative elitism, subsidiarity, and appreciation of the dangers of political power. Marxism shares with conservatism its emphasis on the importance of history, the influence of institutions on human life, a normative conception of human nature, a discounting of the importance of justice, and a focus on the common good.
Speaking of the common good, remember communitarianism? Schliesser’s description above of conservativism’s focus on the common good could have been written about communitarianism. And I would venture that among contemporary political philosophers, the one who has gotten the most people to take seriously conservative political ideas is not the one proud conservative actually playing the political philosophy game (John Kekes) but “communitarian” Michael Sandel (Harvard). He will deny he is a conservative—fine—but look at how much overlap there is between conservatism and ideas he has put forward: the priority of the common good in political philosophy, the immorality of market commodification, a caution to appreciate what nature hands us rather than mess with it, a romanticization of the past.*
So if you’re looking for conservatism in contemporary political philosophy, you may not find it intact, but you will see elements of it in a variety of other views.
By “pragmatic traditionalism” I mean to emphasize the aspect of conservatism that is about valuing and preserving existing practices. This is tied to skepticism not just of, as Schliesser says, “systematicity,” but of abstract reasoning about practical matters. I take an important element of conservatism to be the view that knowledge about good lives, good communities, and good societies is not mainly, if at all, the product of a priori and hypothetical reasoning, but of observation of the practices which enable us to survive and flourish. Such practices embed knowledge that is not necessarily articulable by those engaged in and benefitting from them. If the knowledge is not articulable, how do we know it’s there? Because, despite our corruptible natures and limited understanding and agonistic inclinations, we are still here. Hence the importance of keeping things largely as they are, and being very slow and cautious about change. As Oakeshott famously says in “On Being Conservative”:
[W]henever there is innovation there is the certainty that the change will be greater than was intended, that there will be loss as well as gain and that the loss and the gain will not be equally distributed among the people affected; there is the chance that the benefits derived will be greater than those which were designed; and there is the risk that they will be off-set by changes for the worse.
From all of this the man of conservative temperament draws some appropriate conclusions. First, innovation entails certain loss and possible gain, therefore, the onus of proof, to show that the proposed change may be expected to be on the whole beneficial, rests with the would-be innovator. Secondly, he believes that the more closely an innovation resembles growth (that is, the more clearly it is intimated in and not merely imposed upon the situation) the less likely it is to result in a preponderance of loss. Thirdly, he thinks that the innovation which is a response to some specific defect, one designed to redress some specific disequilibrium, is more desirable than one which springs from a notion of a generally improved condition of human circumstances, and is far more desirable than one generated by a vision of perfection. Consequently, he prefers small and limited innovations to large and indefinite. Fourthly, he favors a slow rather than a rapid pace, and pauses to observe current consequences and make appropriate adjustments. And lastly, he believes the occasion to be important; and, other things being equal, he considers the most favorable occasion for innovation to be when the projected change is most likely to be limited to what is intended and least likely to be corrupted by undesired and unmanageable consequences.
So it’s not just that conservatives “reject the terms of the debate.” They reject the methods. An intellectual environment dominated by a priori claims and intuitions, in which empirical questions are “merely technical” matters to be dealt with later and by others, and in which something’s being traditional is not itself a reason in its favor—that is not, from the conservative point of view, conducive to wisdom about the political. And in turn, the inherently empirical and historical and cautious aspects of conservative political philosophy comprise a methodology that is alien to a community that believes it can conjure human flourishing from mere ideas and sees the past mainly as a museum of injustice.
But political philosophy is changing. We’ve had two decades of people arguing in favor of various forms of “non-ideal theory.” Efforts at demographic inclusiveness and canon expansion raise awareness of the geographic and historical situatedness of ideas. There seems to be more and more work on political epistemology and intellectual humility. The discipline is more open to critical race theory, which could be described as focusing on the interplay between social roles and institutional power. And philosophy seems to be becoming more religious.** So, from a high enough altitude, it looks like the landscape is changing in ways that, perhaps surprisingly, creates openings for conservatism—or at least for parts of it, here and there.
* Note that even when disguised as a kind of soft-left-anti-liberalism, these conservative ideas failed to gain much lasting support among political and moral philosophers.
** One piece of evidence for this, pace warnings about comparing the results, is the increase from 2009 to 2020 in PhilPapers survey respondents supporting theism. “Accept/Lean to Theism” went up from 14.6% to 18.93%, while “Accept/Lean to Atheism” went down from 72.8% to 66.95%. [Update: See the comment from David Wallace on this data. Also, in the sentence to which this note is attached, I changed “is” to “seems to be”.]