Reasons and Conclusions in the Conservative Political Tradition

“To achieve the classical liberal ideals, for the reasons that lead to them being put forth, in a society so different, we must be led in a very different direction. It is superficial and erroneous to accept the conclusions which were reached for a different society and not to consider the reasoning that led to those conclusions.” -Noam Chomsky

When Burke condemned the French Revolution in 1789, after a period of ambivalence, he described France as a place “where the Elements which compose Human Society all seem to be dissolved.” This is a paradigmatic conservative statement. Such a state as Burke describes is surely contrary to the goals of any reasonable person, but a special place is reserved in the heart of conservatives for the notion that the new, particularly in the form of sudden change, is deleterious to society. Despite his interest in defending representative right and government over against monarchical rule, Burke’s reasoning held him back from supporting movements like the Revolution. Differing from Locke and Rousseau, Burke’s sense of human rights was based on natural law as reflected in the tradition of British charters, such as the Magna Carta. By contrast, Locke’s abstract and inalienable human rights stood separate from civic tradition, and in fact Locke saw them as forming the pre-conditions for society’s evolution, while Rousseau’s defense of individual freedom appealed to motivations that were pre-rational and anthropologically primitive.

Despite these differences of reason, all three came to a similar conclusion: powers external to the individual should be restrained for the sake of individual and public good. Here we find a distinction between reasons and conclusions that is important to understanding the conservative intellectual tradition. Within that tradition, we often find groups of thinkers converging on a conclusion, but for various, even inharmonious, reasons.

Consider again the French Revolution, which kicked off directly after Rousseau’s death. Rousseau’s philosophy played a heavy role with the Jacobin vanguards, to the extent his idea of the “general will” became an essential part of the Revolutionary vocabulary. It is nonetheless clear that the leaders of the Revolution, particularly during the Reign of Terror, applied Rousseau’s conclusions in a manner he would have abhorred, spurning virtue and individual rights in the name of reactionary power politics. The lesson: taken without consideration of original context and reasoning, the mere conclusions of a valuable philosopher, politician, movement, or tradition can be turned to ill ends.

This raises a crucial question: Is the basis of conservatism the reasons or the conclusions of our traditional forebears? Does being a conservative mean an allegiance to the tradition of reasons offered by conservative thinkers or to the conclusions they reached?

Now, one might object to this dichotomy by claiming reasons and conclusions are inseparable. The Burkean reasons for restraint of state power, or the Lockean reasons for individual liberty lead to the same conclusions today as when originally put forth, so the objection goes. However, our modern context only reinforces, rather than contradicts, the distinction between reasons and conclusions. Active control of external power, especially in the form of the state, remains a conservative conclusion about how society should be configured, but in many cases that idea is invoked for reasons that are anything but conservative. Consider the attempt by many corporations, in the name of limited government, to repeal environmental regulation which protects common goods. Seen in the eyes of conservative political philosophy, a conflict between reason and conclusion is apparent. Yes, government power should be constrained. But the commons must be protected from entities whose interests may stand in competition with individuals and the public good. Those who dogmatically support the enfeeblement of the government regardless of reason or circumstance are superficially applying popular conservative conclusions, without sensitivity to the reasons which justify them. Lacking the support of traditional thinking, mere reliance on traditional conclusions is insufficient for a meaningful conservatism.

This conundrum naturally reemerges as society changes. The world of Burke was directly post-feudal, early parliamentary, pre-capitalist, and democratically infantile. Where does his reasoning lead now? To what conclusions? Burke, Locke, and Rousseau were deeply concerned with the force of external power upon communities, and in the 18th century this led naturally to suspicion of church and state. These philosophers argued that human flourishing was incompatible with the status quo power structures of their day, yet they could not have foreseen the modern corporation, endowed by law with the rights of individual persons. The idea that corporations would become a serious threat to the well-being of the people was not on the agenda. Such a view is insufficient in today's world, but this will be missed by conservatives who focus on traditional conclusions while ignoring traditional reasons. Of course, I only use corporations as an example: many of the nuanced issues which confront modernity will do. It is concern with those nuances which characterize modernity which motivates one of the most serious objections to conservatism: that the allegiance to traditional modes of thinking prevent us from dealing with evolving circumstance. The allegation supposes irrelevance and an inability to adapt. ‘The world has changed; can you conservatives change with it or will you be left in the past?’

What can we say in response? The objection is not intuitively implausible. Why should the reasons or conclusions of, say, the 18th century guide us in the 21st? The general conservative response, that tradition is what got us here and gave us a reasonably good society, is strong but inadequate. It is inadequate because the conservatives themselves belong to a tradition that was formed through progressive changes. If a person were to describe their conservatism as meaning that they believed in small government, but then disavowed the reasons typically given in the tradition for why small government is good, I would say they are stuck in a conservatism of conclusions—what they are attempting to conserve is the conclusions reached, not the reasons which justified them. That is pragmatically inadequate and paradigmatically irrational. When evaluating, say, our economy, wherein both the government and private entities have a great deal of input, it will be inadequate for the conservative to conclude that the solution to any given problem will be to increase the freedom of private entities and diminish the role of the state. Doggedly insisting upon that conclusion, the conservative becomes a reactionary, rather than guiding, force in society.

Another example illustrates the point at issue. In Novum Organum, Bacon critiqued the Aristotelian scientific tradition for having failed to positively address human suffering, and proposed standards of pragmatic precision as a solution. So, in the 17th century, being in the Baconian tradition meant demanding that science become more instrumentally pragmatic because of the need to alleviate suffering. However, being a traditional Baconian today (if you accept the notion that conservatism should be about reasons over, and even against, conservative conclusions) would mean something very different. It would mean drawing the opposite conclusion that Bacon did, but still for his reasons. In order to better alleviate human suffering, science must become less instrumentally pragmatic; i.e. less concerned with efficiency. As Charles Taylor has put it, modern science must revive the “ethic of caring” that originally motivated it in Bacon and others. This reflects a conservatism primarily respectful of reasons, so that conclusions are allowed to change.

My proposal, not at all an original one, is that the conservative should respond to the critique of irrelevance by appealing to the distinction between conservative reasons and conservative conclusions, and avow the primacy of the former. This allows that what constituted a conservative conclusion in 1776 is not necessarily conservative in 2018. It allows change. This is easy to say about revolutionary activity, but it requires a reconsideration of traditional thinking in all areas, and an open-mindedness to believe that the conclusions of tradition might need to be amended, or even reversed, for the sake of a more meaningful and enduring tradition based on reasons.

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