Your complimentary articles
You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please
On the Philosophy of Conservatism
Musa al-Gharbi outlines the varieties of conservative stances.
What do conservatives stand for? One popular idea is that conservatives cling to tradition and resist change. There is an element of truth to this description, in that conservatives do value tradition – albeit not for its own sake, but (following Edmund Burke), out of the conviction that systems and institutions that have proven themselves over the course of generations should not be hastily cast aside in favor of the untested (and typically ill-fated) vogue. But ultimately, this is a feature of conservatism rather than its essence. Conservatism is a response to progressivism. The point of divergence between them relates to the (im)perfectibility of man – a centuries-long debate with theological origins but profound present political implications. Progressives tend to view history in a generally linear fashion: they think that as a result of mankind’s essential goodness, or rationality, or else as a result of immutable suprahuman forces, humanity is on a trajectory towards some ‘end of history’ (the notion of progress is incomprehensible without an end-state. What would constitute progress on an infinite line?). Insofar as this climax is viewed as utopian and so desirable in nature, progressives often believe it is their responsibility to hasten this outcome, or even try to instantiate their ideal in the here-and-now. They typically view governments as a means to achieve these ends, appealing to some conception of the Good that the state is supposed to realize, often by means of some presumed superior mode of social arrangement. This is the impulse that undergirded the Enlightenment, Marxism, and myriad other revolutionary movements – and its negation forms the basis for conservatism.
Given their rejection of political perfectionism, conservatives tend to envision a much smaller role for the state. However, unlike (political) libertarians, conservatives emphasize community over the individual. Within communities, people are held to be responsible for, and accountable to, one another, without much need for state interference – typically by upholding traditional values and modes of social organization. Civil rights, civil liberties, and private property, are viewed as essential bulwarks against potential government overreach. The function of the state is not to promote any particular socio-political arrangement, but instead to protect and promote conditions for communities to arrange themselves as they see fit – principally through the enforcement of agreed-upon rules defining relations in and between communities, and by providing a forum for resolving disputes. The state also serves as a vehicle for protecting against outside threats and advancing common interests abroad. However, the scope of such duties is narrow: governments are not responsible for citizens of other countries, and they have no more of a mandate to advance particular ideals or socio-cultural arrangements internationally than they do domestically. Accordingly, the state should avoid costly, risky, or open-ended foreign commitments unless absolutely necessary. It should similarly abstain from jeopardizing public safety, interests or resources, by needlessly threatening or otherwise antagonizing other states.
Other Conservative Strains
Classical conservatism calls for realism and restraint, both domestically and abroad, then. Unfortunately, many contemporary politicians who describe themselves as ‘conservative’ reflect little of this. So-called ‘paleoconservatives’ embrace foreign policy restraint, but (often because they wrongly conflate pluralism with relativism) hold that society should be premised more-or-less exclusively upon Christian-derived Western norms and values – in the process providing intellectual cover for xenophobes or people who are otherwise intolerant in regard to immigration and diversity. Many associated with this line of thinking view with suspicion and sometimes contempt attempts by non-WASPs to form enclaves within society to protect or promote their cultural identities, generally holding that minorities have a duty to integrate with the prevailing order: a convenient position to take insofar as this order happens to reflect one’s own values and interests.
The self-described ‘neoconservatives’ are less concerned about social issues, and yet embrace ‘progressive absolutism’ in terms of foreign policy and national security. They hold that it is the responsibility of national governments to protect and advance the American-centric unipolar world order by virtually any means. These include forcibly spreading liberalism around the world; destroying incompatible political and economic systems and institutions; surveilling and disrupting internal dissent by means of pervasive law enforcement and security apparatuses; and by deploying oversimplified ‘good vs evil’ narratives that portray any skepticism of or resistance to their agenda as dangerously naïve or even outright traitorous.
For the sake of political expediency, most conservative libertarians seem to affiliate themselves with one of these camps, according to their priorities. But more generally, conservative libertarians tend to overemphasize individualism and a universalized albeit minimal government, with a streamlined set of rules, duties and rights that uniformly apply to all citizens.
Classical conservatism instead emphasizes communities. Perhaps its fullest realization would be a legally pluralistic system which empowers groups of like-minded citizens to arrange themselves as they see fit – thus including radically different economic, legal and political processes within their domains – ensuring that all citizens can live in a society which reflects their own interests and values, rather than being forced into the secular zero-sum pluralistic game over who gets to define the supposedly neutral position. The closest libertarian approximation of this view is captured in Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia. There are also a number of contemporary public intellectuals who have not defined themselves as conservative, but whose work exemplifies strains of classical conservative thought, and could serve as an accessible introduction to it. Among them are Nassim Nicholas Taleb, William Easterly, and Evengy Morozov.
© Musa al-Gharbi 2016
Musa al-Gharbi is a cognitive sociologist affiliated with the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC). Connect to his work and social media via his website, fiatsophia.org.