February 23, 2010


The conservative contradiction works: At its heart conservatism sees humans as social animals and offers a practical ethical framework for politics and society (Jesse Norman, 2/23/10, guardian.co.uk)

Conservatism in any form is notoriously hard to define, as the career of Benjamin Disraeli illustrates. The young Disraeli opposed social reform, for the sound conservative reasons that it eroded property rights and local independence while increasing taxation and regulation. The older Disraeli led social reform as prime minister, for the equally sound conservative reasons that it relieved poverty, squalor and hardship, and promoted social cohesion.

This tension between principles is intrinsic to conservatism itself. Independence, autonomy, freedom, loyalty, responsibility, aspiration, toleration, thrift and compassion are, in different ways, all conservative values. It is inevitable that they will conflict with each other on occasion. Conservatives accept this conflict, preferring the scope it offers to apply moral judgement in concrete situations rather than obey a foolish and ideological consistency. Indeed, the thought that there can be no absolutely consistent worthwhile ethical theory is a conservative insight, which has eluded some of the greatest moral philosophers.

If we step back from political thought to philosophy, then, what ultimately distinguishes conservatism from its rival creeds is not so much the views it holds – though some of these are unique to conservatism – as the way it holds them.

Socialism and liberalism are, at root, theories and ideologies – fundamental interpretations of the nature of history and of "the good", from which policy programs are somehow to be rationally inferred.

Conservatism is no such thing. It is instinctive, not theoretical; a disposition, not a doctrine; realistic and sceptical, not grandiose or utopian; accepting of the imperfectibility of man, not restless to overcome it; and seeking to improve the lot of the many not by referring to some plan, but by working with the grain of "the crooked timber of humanity". In ethics, it does not moralise or preach but works practically from case to case, preferring broad principles to hard and fast rules and eschewing the grand sweep of rationalist theories such as utilitarianism.

Is there, then, a distinctively conservative ethical tradition? There is, and it starts with Aristotle's claim in the Politics that "man is a social animal". The word for "social" here is politikos, which also means "political". What Aristotle means is that mankind is part of nature, and man's own nature is to be with others, in a polis (city-state).

"And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him."

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 23, 2010 8:32 PM
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