Here’s an interesting philosophy paper which says a lot of what I’ve been saying over the past few years about conservatism.
The author of the paper, Juan Comesaña, argues that conservatism is really an attitude we take about those beliefs we have that are based on evidence we have forgotten.
Thus, a CONSERVATIVE would be someone who believes something because it has been believed in the past. Conservatism is, in essence, a policy of trusting in those things which have been believed consistently for long periods of time.
(This is not entirely a crazy idea. For a really good defence of this idea, I would suggest reading Edmund Burke – possibly the only conservative intellectual worthy of the name.)
Comesaña distinguishes preservationism and conservationism, variants of this idea, from the original concept, because it matters _how_ we got those ideas we had in the past.
The PRESERVATIONIST, Comesaña argues, is someone who only trusts beliefs from the past that were acquired rationally, and who distrusts beliefs from the past that were not acquired rationally. Like the conservative, the preservationist admires tradition, often seeking to preserve it. A preservationist observes that following past conventions often makes a great deal of sense. But the preservationist also notes that it is possible that conservatives are unquestioning adherents to irrationally acquired beliefs simply because they are beliefs of long standing.
Okay, now stick with me for the next part, this is where it gets interesting.
The CONSERVATIONIST, according to Comesaña, agrees that one should only trust beliefs from the past that were acquired rationally. But the conservationist does not enquire into this matter further, by questioning whether past beliefs actually _were_ acquired rationally. It would disturb the conservationist if these past beliefs were acquired irrationally. But essentially, the conservationist assumes that this is not the case.
Comesaña spends the rest of this article asking an obvious question – if the past reasons for belief are “forgotten evidence” into which no one enquires, isn’t a conservationist (who believes something because it is assumed there was a past rational justification for the belief in the past) exactly the same as a conservative (who believes something simply because it has been believed in the past)?
This is the sort of thing I ask about “moderate Republicans” and “light blue Tories” all the time! How can we distinguish them from full-out reactionary Republicans and dark blue Tories, when they have the same unquestioning attitude towards their beliefs? Really, I suppose the only distinction is that when following the old-timey prescriptions of forefathers and grandpappies leads to dreadful outcomes, the “conservationists” start to doubt whether their beliefs were acquired rationally, and adapt, while the “conservatives” redouble their efforts to live according to the old beliefs, however at variance with demonstrable facts.
Anyway, my summary of this article is about as long as the actual article is… 🙂 If you want to read it yourself, I recommend it. The reason I felt I should summarise, though, is to better explain what I think the real message is here – namely, that there is no variant of conservatism I respect which embraces old beliefs while at the same time never entertaining doubts as to the rationality of their basis. That there are decent traditions does not make all traditions decent. The danger lies not in the valuing of traditional knowledge, but in the undervaluing of critical reason.
To put it another way, any tradition worth supporting would be able to stand up to your questions.