January 30, 2005


What is Conservatism (John Kekes)

One of the safest generalizations is that conservatives tend to be pessimists. In some conservative writings - Montaigne's, Hume's, and Oakeshott's - cheerfulness keeps breaking through, but even then, it does so in spite of their doubts about the possibility of a significant improvement in the human condition. Conservatives take a dim view of progress. They are not so foolish as to deny that great advances have been made in science, technology, medicine, communication, management, education, and so forth, and that they have changed human lives for the better. But they have also changed them for the worse. Advances have been both beneficial and harmful. They have certainly enlarged the stock of human possibilities, but the possibilities are for both good and evil, and new possibilities are seldom without new evils. Conservatives tend to be pessimistic because they doubt that more possibilities will make lives on the whole better. They believe that there are obstacles that stand in the way of the permanent overall improvement of the human condition.

Conservatism has been called the politics of imperfection. This is in some ways an apt characterization, but it is misleading in others. It rightly suggests that conservatives reject the idea of human perfectibility. Yet it is too sanguine because it implies that, apart from some imperfections, the human condition is by and large all right. But it is worse than a bad joke to regard as mere imperfections war, genocide, tyranny, torture, terrorism, the drug trade, concentration camps, racism, the murder of religious and political opponents, easily avoidable epidemics and starvation, and other familiar and widespread evils. Conservatives are much more impressed by the prevalence of evil than this label implies. If evil is understood as serious unjustified harm caused by human beings, then the conservative view is that the prevalence of evil is a permanent condition that cannot be significantly altered.

The politics of imperfection is a misleading label also because it suggests that the imperfection is in human beings. Conservatives certainly think that human beings are responsible for much evil, but to think only that is shallow. The prevalence of evil reflects not just a human propensity for evil, but also a contingency that influences what propensities human beings have and develop independently of human intentions. The human propensity for evil is itself a manifestation of this deeper and more pervasive contingency, which operates through genetic inheritance, environmental factors, the confluence of events that places people at certain places at certain times, the crimes, accidents, pieces of good or bad fortune that happen or do not happen to them, the historical period, society, and family into which they are born, and so forth. The same contingency also affects people because others, whom they love, depend on, and with whom their lives are intertwined in other ways, are as subject to it as they are themselves.

The view of thoughtful conservatives is not a hopeless misanthropic pessimism, according to which contingency makes human nature evil rather than good. Their view is rather a realistic pessimism that holds that whether the balance of good and evil propensities and their realization in people tilts one way or another is a contingent matter over which human beings and their political arrangements have insufficient control. This point needs to be stressed. Conservatives do not think that the human condition is devoid of hope. They are, however, realistic about the limited control a society has over its future. Their view is not that human beings are corrupt and that their evil propensities are uncontrollable. Their view is rather that human beings have both good and evil propensities and neither they nor their societies can exercise sufficient control to make the realization of good propensities reliably prevail over the realization of evil ones. The right political arrangements help, of course; just as the wrong ones make matters worse. But even under the best political arrangements a great deal of contingency remains, and it places beyond human control much good and evil. The chief reason for this is that the human efforts to control contingency are themselves subject to the very contingency they aim to control. And that, of course, is the fundamental reason why conservatives are pessimistic and skeptical about the possibility of significant improvement in the human condition. It is thus that the skepticism and pessimism of conservatives reinforce one another.

It does not follow from this, and conservatives do not believe, that it is a matter of indifference what political arrangements are made. It is true that political arrangements cannot guarantee the victory of good over evil, but they can influence how things go. Whether that is sufficient at a certain time and place is itself a contingent matter insufficiently within human control. The attitude that results from the realization that this is so has a negative and positive component. The negative one is acceptance of the fact that not even the best political arrangements guarantee good lives. The positive one is to strive nevertheless to make the political arrangements as good as possible. The impetus behind the latter is the realization that bad political arrangements worsen the already uncertain human condition.

If the choice of political arrangements is governed by this conservative attitude, it results in arrangements that look both to foster what is taken to be good and to hinder what is regarded as evil. One significant difference between conservative politics and most current alternatives to it is the insistence of conservatives on the importance of political arrangements that hinder evil. This difference is a direct result of the pessimism of conservatives and the optimistic belief of others in human perfectibility. Their optimism rests on the assumption that the prevalence of evil is the result of bad political arrangements. If people were not poor, oppressed, exploited, discriminated against, and so forth, it is optimistically supposed, then they would be naturally inclined to live good lives. The prevalence of evil is thus assumed to be the result of the political corruption of human nature. If political arrangements were good, there would be no corruption. What is needed, therefore, is to make political arrangements that foster the good. The arrangements that hinder evil are unfortunate and temporary measures needed only until the effects of the good arrangements are generally felt.

Conservatives reject this optimism. They do not think that evil is prevalent merely because of bad political arrangements. It needs to be asked why political arrangements are bad. And the answer must be that political arrangements are made by people, and they are bound to reflect the propensities of their makers. Bad political arrangements are ultimately traceable to the evil propensities of the people who make them. Since the propensities are subject to contingencies over which human control is insufficient, there is no guarantee whatsoever that political arrangements can be made good. Nor that, if they were made good, they would be sufficient to hinder evil.

Conservatives insist, therefore, on the necessity and importance of political arrangements that hinder evil. They stress moral education, the enforcement of morality, the treatment of people according to what they deserve, the importance of swift and severe punishment for serious crimes, and so on. They oppose the prevailing attitudes that lead to agonizing over the criminal and forgetting the crime, to perpetuating the absurd fiction of a fundamental moral equality between habitual evil-doers and their victims, to guaranteeing the same freedom and welfare-rights to good and evil people, and so forth. Conservatives reject, therefore, the egalitarian view of justice championed by liberals and socialists, which recommends taking economic resources from people who have more and giving them to those who have less without asking whether the first deserve to have them and the second deserve to receive them. Conservatives think that justice is essentially connected with desert, and its aim is, not equality, but the upholding of the rule of law that assures that people get what they deserve.

Political arrangements that are meant to hinder evil are liable to abuse. Conservatives know and care about the historical record that testifies to the dreadful things that have been done to people on the many occasions when such arrangements have gone wrong. The remedy, however, cannot be to refuse to make the arrangements; it must be to make them, learn from history, and try hard to avoid their abuse. Conservatives know that in this respect, as in all others, contingency will cause complete success to elude them. But this is precisely the reason why political arrangements are necessary for hindering evil. Their pessimism leads conservatives to face the worst and try to deny scope to it, rather than endeavor to build the City of Man on the illusion of human perfectibility.

Of course, all of that derives directly and exclusively from Judeo-Christianity.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 30, 2005 6:58 AM

Well, duh. What else has there been to "conserve" for 1600 years.

Posted by: Brandon at January 30, 2005 8:03 AM

So what this fool is saying is that whatever he thinks is good and positive is OK but whatever the Conservatives think is good is subject to abuse and negative? Looks to me like he is forgetting the nanny state attitude of I know better than you do what is good and you have to do what I say. That is not what the Conservatives are about; that is what the liberals of today are about. If you look at the Conservative platforms, they are far closer to classical liberalism and freedom for the people than the current liberal platforms are and they are far more likely to generate freedom than the liberals ever will.

What bothers me most about the current liberal positions is that they have no sense of history. They have, instead, a short term focus on the current situation and if that is not working then they will start a whole new "plan" by telling us the current one is flawed. They are very much like the little wizard behind the scenes in the Wizard of Oz and they are just about as clueless. They are destroyers, not builders.

Posted by: dick at January 30, 2005 12:50 PM

Actually, conservatives really are not pessimistic; they just seem that way compared to the bizzare Leftist belief that humans are perfectible.
Conservatism actually has a good sunny side, as Reagan demonstrated, and it's very important for conservatives to let the sunny side show in a nation as optimistic as the US. Americans HATE being lectured by dour downers (which is one of the main reasons why the Left gets relatively little traction here).

Posted by: Tom at January 30, 2005 8:47 PM

Orrin is as heterodox a conservative as he is a Christian.

Despite po'mouthin' the idea of perfectibility, he forgets himself and in the very next post applauds the improvements in this or that -- total saved capital, for example.

This raises an interesting question, though? If anything improves incrementally, does that not imply perfectibility?

If the Iraqi election is a good thing, why not pile better on good until the Garden of Eden is re-established?

Arguments against the possibility of perfection necessarily are self-contradictory.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at January 31, 2005 1:10 AM

Huh? Having money hasn't made us a better society. Iraq won't be perfect because of democracy. Indeed, the closer you come to a "perfect" democracy or a "perfect" savings rate the closer you are to disaster. Only the isms confuse change with perfection.

Posted by: oj at January 31, 2005 7:25 AM