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Author Topic: What does conservatism mean to you?  (Read 402 times)

shuddemell

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What does conservatism mean to you?
« on: August 24, 2020, 08:04:20 AM »
This subject came up on another thread, and it was suggested that it would make a good topic of discussion itself. I present an article that I believe pretty well sums up what I (more or less) believe sums up what ideas are most important to conservative thought.

THE SIX CORE BELIEFS OF CONSERVATISM
July 31, 2018 By Russell Kirk
The following is excerpted from The Essential Russell Kirk, a collection of his finest essays and writings.

"What is conservatism?" Abraham Lincoln inquired rhetorically, as he campaigned for the presidency of the United States. "Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?" By that test, the candidate told his audience, Abraham Lincoln was a conservative.

Other definitions have been offered. In Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary one encounters this:

"Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others." . . .
Although it is no ideology, conservatism may be apprehended reasonably well by attention to what leading writers and politicians, generally called conservative, have said and done. . . . "Conservatism," to put the matter another way, amounts to the consensus of the leading conservative thinkers and actors over the past two centuries. For our present purpose, however, we may set down below several general principles upon which most eminent conservatives in some degree may be said to have agreed implicitly. The following first principles are best discerned in the theoretical and practical politics of British and American conservatives.

1. TRANSCENDENT ORDER
First, conservatives generally believe that there exists a transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society. A divine tactic, however dimly descried, is at work in human society. Such convictions may take the form of belief in "natural law" or may assume some other expression; but with few exceptions conservatives recognize the need for enduring moral authority. This conviction contrasts strongly with the liberals' utilitarian view of the state (most consistently expressed by Bentham's disciples), and with the radicals' detestation of theological postulates.

2. SOCIAL CONTINUITY
Second, conservatives uphold the principle of social continuity. They prefer the devil they know to the devil they don't know. Order and justice and freedom, they believe, are the artificial products of a long and painful social experience, the results of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice. Thus the body social is a kind of spiritual corporation, comparable to the church; it may even be called a community of souls. Human society is no machine, to be treated mechanically. The continuity, the lifeblood, of a society must not be interrupted. Burke's reminder of the social necessity for prudent change is in the minds of conservatives. But necessary change, they argue, ought to be gradual and discriminatory, never "unfixing old interests at once." Revolution slices through the arteries of a culture, a cure that kills.

3. PRESCRIPTION
Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription. "The wisdom of our ancestors" is one of the more important phrases in the writings of Burke; presumably Burke derived it from Richard Hooker. Conservatives sense that modern men and women are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see farther than their ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time. Therefore conservatives very frequently emphasize the importance of "prescription"--that is, of things established by immemorial usage, so "that the mind of man runneth not to the contrary." There exist rights of which the chief sanction is their antiquity--including rights in property, often. Similarly, our morals are prescriptive in great part. Conservatives argue that we are unlikely, we moderns, to make any brave new discoveries in morals or politics or taste. It is perilous to weigh every passing issue on the basis of private judgment and private rationality. "The individual is foolish, but the species is wise," Burke declared. In politics we do well to abide by precedent and precept and even prejudice, for "the great mysterious incorporation of the human race" has acquired habits, customs, and conventions of remote origin which are woven into the fabric of our social being; the innovator, in Santayana's phrase, never knows how near to the taproot of the tree he is hacking.

4. PRUDENCE
Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence. Burke agrees with Plato that in the statesman, prudence is chief among virtues. Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. Liberals and radicals, the conservative holds, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away. Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they are to be effective. The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences. Sudden and slashing reforms are perilous as sudden and slashing surgery. The march of providence is slow; it is the devil who always hurries.

5. VARIETY
Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety. They feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems. For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality. The only true forms of equality are equality in the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law; all other attempts at leveling lead, at best, to social stagnation. Society longs for honest and able leadership; and if natural and institutional differences among people are destroyed, presently some tyrant or host of squalid oligarchs will create new forms of inequality. Similarly, conservatives uphold the institution of private property as productive of human variety: without private property, liberty is reduced and culture is impoverished.

6. IMPERFECTION
Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectibility. Human nature suffers irremediably from certain faults, the conservatives know. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created. Because of human restlessness, mankind would grow rebellious under any utopian domination, and would break out once more in violent discontent--or else expire of boredom. To aim for utopia is to end in disaster, the conservative says: we are not made for perfect things. All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering continue to lurk. By proper attention to prudent reform, we may preserve and improve this tolerable order. But if the old institutional and moral safeguards of a nation are forgotten, then the anarchic impulses in man break loose: "the ceremony of innocence is drowned."

Such are six of the major premises of what Walter Bagehot, a century ago, called "reflective conservatism." To have set down some principal convictions of conservative thinkers, in the fashion above, may be misleading: for conservative thought is not a body of immutable secular dogmas. Our purpose here has been broad description, not fixed definition. If one requires a single sentence--why, let it be said that for the conservative, politics is the art of the possible, not the art of the ideal.

Edmund Burke turned to first principles in politics only with reluctance, believing that "metaphysical" politicians let loose dreadful mischief by attempting to govern nations according to abstract notions. Conservatives have believed, following Burke, that general principles always must be tempered, in any particular circumstances, by what Burke called expedience, or prudence; for particular circumstances vary infinitely, and every nation must observe its own traditions and historical experience--which should take precedence over universal notions drawn up in some quiet study. Yet Burke did not abjure general ideas; he distinguished between "abstraction" (or a priori notions divorced from a nation's history and necessities) and "principle" (or sound general ideas derived from a knowledge of human nature and of the past). Principles are necessary to a statesman, but they must be applied discreetly and with infinite caution to the workaday world. The preceding six conservative principles, therefore, are to be taken as a rough catalog of the general assumptions of conservatives, and not as a tidy system of doctrines for governing a state.

How would your definition differ?
Science is the belief in the ignorance of the expertsRichard Feynman

Our virtues and our failings are inseparable, like force and matter. When they separate, man is no more.Nikola Tesla

A wise man can learn more from a foolish question than a fool can learn from a wise answer.Bruce Lee

He who lives in harmony with himself lives in harmony with the universe.Marcus Aurelius

For you see we are aimless hate filled animals scampering away into the night.Skwisgaar Skwigelf

Pat

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What does conservatism mean to you?
« Reply #1 on: August 24, 2020, 06:58:13 PM »
Haidt's moral foundations, most popularly expressed in The Righteous Mind, are probably worth mentioning:
  • Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
  • Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]
  • Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it's "one for all, and all for one."
  • Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
  • Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).
(Above quoted from: https://moralfoundations.org/)

Western culture is unique, because it has a group that de-emphasizes Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity and focuses almost exclusively on Care and Fairness (e.g. modern American liberals). Nearly every traditional culture around the world, as well as conservatives in Western culture, put roughly equal emphasis on all five.

Those are the core five discussed in the book. There are some additional proposed foundations, like:
[list=0]
  • Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.
(Same source.)

Liberty/oppression is basically an attempt to explain libertarianism, which puts overwhelming emphasis on that foundation. Both modern American liberals and traditional conservatives also support it, though only as one of their preferred values.
https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0042366

Basically, moral foundations theory's interpretation of conservatives boils down to the idea that they seek to preserve existing traditions and institutions, because those support the community. Things like respect for authority, group loyalty, and disgust are all about group cohesion over the individual.
« Last Edit: August 24, 2020, 07:00:15 PM by Pat »

Stephen Tannhauser

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What does conservatism mean to you?
« Reply #2 on: August 25, 2020, 01:13:30 AM »
I find a lot of the tension between conservatism and progressivism is embodied in this Chesterton quote, one of my favourites:

Quote
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."
-- from G.K. Chesterton's The Thing, 1929.

For me conservatism is a firm belief in, and respect for, the Law of Unintended Consequences.
Better to keep silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt. -- Mark Twain

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Pat

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« Reply #3 on: August 25, 2020, 02:22:18 AM »
Quote from: Stephen Tannhauser;1146334
For me conservatism is a firm belief in, and respect for, the Law of Unintended Consequences.

I rarely find it's the subtraction of things that leads to unintended consequences, and the barriers preventing removal are already so high that it almost never happens anyway. It's the feeble barriers to the addition of new things that has led to the ever-growing excrescence of the modern regulatory state.

Shardenzar

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« Reply #4 on: August 25, 2020, 06:38:56 AM »
Quote from: Pat;1146340
I rarely find it's the subtraction of things that leads to unintended consequences, and the barriers preventing removal are already so high that it almost never happens anyway. It's the feeble barriers to the addition of new things that has led to the ever-growing excrescence of the modern regulatory state.


Good thing that the barrier remaining unassailable is not the point of the principle... understanding the intended purpose of the barrier before arbitrarily decided its fate because it offends your sensibilities is the point, and a sound one.

Jeff

Steven Mitchell

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« Reply #5 on: August 25, 2020, 07:50:15 AM »
Quote from: Stephen Tannhauser;1146334
I find a lot of the tension between conservatism and progressivism is embodied in this Chesterton quote, one of my favourites:


-- from G.K. Chesterton's The Thing, 1929.

For me conservatism is a firm belief in, and respect for, the Law of Unintended Consequences.

I was waiting to reply until I had time to look up that exact quote.  For me, that embodies the very idea that conservatism is not so much a political philosophy as it is an attitude about life which sometimes informs one's politics.  It's a key part of conservatism that not everything is political, and certainly rejects the idea that "the personal is political".  

Of course, Chesterton didn't consider himself a conservative.  During his day, the label wouldn't have fit.  However, his "Little Englander" idea is not so different from Jefferson's thoughts on an agrarian society, though with a different emphasis given the relative availability of land in their respective nations.

If I had to put my own ideas into a nutshell, you wouldn't be far off with "classical liberal with a conservative attitude".  My main differences from Chesterton are in the areas of economics where I'm mostly a realist--I think most political systems have ideas about economics that improve their adherents prospects rather than dispassionately leading to the best outcome for the nation.

Pat

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« Reply #6 on: August 25, 2020, 12:09:46 PM »
Quote from: Shardenzar;1146345
Good thing that the barrier remaining unassailable is not the point of the principle... understanding the intended purpose of the barrier before arbitrarily decided its fate because it offends your sensibilities is the point, and a sound one.

Jeff
You completely missed my point -- the quote is rather one-sided. It's focused on the removal of things, when it should also be concerned about the addition of things, which is generally a more important consideration.

Shardenzar

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« Reply #7 on: August 25, 2020, 02:10:39 PM »
Quote from: Pat;1146378
You completely missed my point -- the quote is rather one-sided. It's focused on the removal of things, when it should also be concerned about the addition of things, which is generally a more important consideration.


I did not miss your point. You are missing Chestertons point as his gate is figurative in nature and could just as easily have been the need to bridge a gap. I think your reading of the passage is too narrow.

Simply put, Understanding the possible outcomes to change applies equally to additions as well as subtractions.

Jeff

Pat

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« Reply #8 on: August 25, 2020, 02:30:48 PM »
Quote from: Shardenzar;1146391
You are missing Chestertons point as his gate is figurative in nature and could just as easily have been the need to bridge a gap. I think your reading of the passage is too narrow.

Simply put, Understanding the possible outcomes to change applies equally to additions as well as subtractions.
That doesn't change the fact that it explicitly addresses subtraction, not addition. Metaphors have utility because of the associations they evoke, and Chesterton's channels thought in one direction and not the other, which weakens its broader utility.

Shardenzar

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« Reply #9 on: August 25, 2020, 02:57:54 PM »
Quote from: Pat;1146396
That doesn't change the fact that it explicitly addresses subtraction, not addition. Metaphors have utility because of the associations they evoke, and Chesterton's channels thought in one direction and not the other, which weakens its broader utility.



You are free to read that passage as narrow as you wish.  


Reforming as distinct from deforming doesn't read as a subtraction to me.
"Let us say for the sake of simplicity a gate or fence."  Reads as an arbitrary example to me.

I guess we just have different biases.

Jeff

Pat

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« Reply #10 on: August 25, 2020, 04:34:38 PM »
Quote from: Shardenzar;1146401
Reforming as distinct from deforming doesn't read as a subtraction to me.
"Let us say for the sake of simplicity a gate or fence."  Reads as an arbitrary example to me.

It's a metaphor, and all metaphors have limits. While I think it's a reasonable effective piece of prose, I think it misses a significant aspect. And the way he contrasted reforming with deforming makes it sound like deforming is what happens when the gate is torn down without reflection, not in any way that would expand the metaphor. Though the quote is separated from its context, which could change that.

Steven Mitchell

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« Reply #11 on: August 25, 2020, 05:28:16 PM »
Quote from: Pat;1146415
It's a metaphor, and all metaphors have limits. While I think it's a reasonable effective piece of prose, I think it misses a significant aspect. And the way he contrasted reforming with deforming makes it sound like deforming is what happens when the gate is torn down without reflection, not in any way that would expand the metaphor. Though the quote is separated from its context, which could change that.

It is very rare that Chesterton should be read literally.  He is after the central idea under the metaphor--preferably portrayed in a vivid way. Shardenzar has the correct sense of it in context.

Stephen Tannhauser

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« Reply #12 on: August 25, 2020, 05:31:33 PM »
Quote from: Pat;1146340
It's the feeble barriers to the addition of new things that has led to the ever-growing excrescence of the modern regulatory state.

True, mostly because passing new regulations is one of the only ways a politician in a luxurious, peaceful civilization can justify being elected and paid.

This then leads onto another element of conservatism: the belief that there are areas of internal social management which the formal apparatus of state is neither qualified nor entitled to oversee, regardless of whatever negative consequences might accrue from that lack of oversight. Put simply, you're a conservative if you believe there are areas other than the bedroom where the State has no place.
Better to keep silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt. -- Mark Twain

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Pat

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« Reply #13 on: August 25, 2020, 07:39:20 PM »
Quote from: Stephen Tannhauser;1146427
This then leads onto another element of conservatism: the belief that there are areas of internal social management which the formal apparatus of state is neither qualified nor entitled to oversee, regardless of whatever negative consequences might accrue from that lack of oversight. Put simply, you're a conservative if you believe there are areas other than the bedroom where the State has no place.

That's more a classic liberal view, which I would argue is not conservative.

Shasarak

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« Reply #14 on: August 25, 2020, 08:02:15 PM »
I dont know if it is conservative pov, but I believe in personal and fiscal responsibility.  And when people need it, give them a hand up not a hand out.

And keep your hand out of my pocket especially if you dont even have the decency of being able to run your own successful business.
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