Jackson Doughart
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Conservatism and the civic virtue of temperance

Prince Arthur Herald, 04 July 2013

Undergraduate students of political science are required to study the rudiments of great works in political philosophy, even if they do not intend to pursue political theory as the concentration in their degrees. Since the political science discipline helps to feed the upcoming generation of pundits, advisers, speech writers, lawmakers, academics, and judges, society has a considerable interest in the exposure of such people to a reading regime that adequately reflects the diverse history of political thought. Accordingly, decent programs mandate that students read not only the Ancients (Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine), the Moderns (Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau), Karl Marx and his acolytes, and contemporary liberal thinkers (Isaiah Berlin, Robert Nozick, John Rawls), but also the great conservative thinkers, such as Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre. Yet in our postmodern age, replete with ahistorical and “pragmatic” approaches to the resolution of political disputes, the utility of this conservative tradition cannot simply be assumed. Nor should it be included in curricula for the mere appearance of fairness and balance. Rather, it needs to be defended as intrinsically valuable to contemporary thinking about politics.

The word conservative here might elicit some confusion, as I am using it differently than most people do when describing partisan competition between “liberals” and “conservatives”, where the latter refers to economic, social, or religious views about either general or specific policies. In the United States, these labels correspond nearly perfectly, for the moment at least, with the Democratic and Republican parties, to give a frame of reference. But there is an appreciable conceptual distinction between conservatism as a political program and conservatism as an attitude or disposition. And while there is considerable overlap between the two in practice, separating them analytically should help to show that attitudinal conservatism, to coin an expression, is needed not only for a polity in a wide sense, but also for the proper ordering of every individual’s political soul.

This conservative attitude is a kind of ideological temperance, rooted in a reasoned pessimism about human nature and an appreciation of the limits to humanity’s control over its fate and environment. It is also hostile to the kind of excessive idealism that is emblematic of utopianism while not rejecting a sense of justice. It is critical of change for change’s sake. Strictly speaking, attitudinal conservatism is not rational — after all, if a change in policy or convention is determined to be just, why would it be rational to delay the amelioration of the injustice? But conservatism is nevertheless reasonable on epistemic grounds: sometimes the consequences of a particular change are simply unknowable before it has been implemented, meaning that incremental changes, which allow for the evaluation of experience, are preferable. And if this line of reasoning is correct, it follows that conservatism is itself a reason to put the proverbial breaks on a new initiative, even if the initiative is shown to be theoretically defensible. And just as one should be suspicious of those who do not share any of the libertarian impulse, one should recognize the danger in affording political power to persons who do not possess this conservative virtue.

Finally, attitudinal conservatism should be broad in application, leading to both a left-wing moderation and a right-wing moderation, whose pursuit of core ideological principles would be tempered by these considerations. Many foundational liberal-democratic institutions, such as the separation and division of powers, the advent of jury trials, the requirement that defendants in court be proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and limits placed on the power of law enforcement officials, are deeply informed by the virtue of temperance, which resists any effort to organise political and legal progressions around the principle of efficiency. Indeed, viewing conservatism in this way allows one to acknowledge that both the left and the right can be responsible for unmoderated ideas. And the striking thing about reading the core texts from Burke — and I would add the contemporary thinkers Michael Oakeshott, Irving Kristol, and Roger Scruton to the mix — is the emphasis that one finds on the attitudinal aspects of conservatism in lieu of strident policy demands.

What one is chiefly quarrelling with here is the visible hope of many people on both sides of the political aisle — though more commonly on the Left — that attitudinal conservatism will one day be overcome, perhaps simply by the death of the curmudgeonly figures who embody it. It follows that this will lead to an age where “progress” will triumph, based on the totalising discourse of scientific rationalism and without the troublesome objections of those who resist seemingly straightforward projects for individual and collective betterment. But the reality is that the inhabitants of Western society need to be imbued with a conservative disposition more than ever before. The scientific and technological advancements with which we are endowed — such as the ability to more directly manipulate human biology, to conduct surveillance with increasing covertness, and to conduct warfare with unprecedented efficiency — create the temptation for leaps in social and political change, often before enough time has passed to adequately contemplate their significance. The alternative of “steps” in change, as demanded by the conservative attitude, serve as a safeguard from serious errors, which is, among many reasons, why such a persuasion deserves to be upheld and defended.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com