Conservative Theories

John Kekes. Handbook of Political Theory. Editor: Gerald F Gaus & Chandran Kukathas. 2004. Sage Publication.

Conservatism is a political morality. It is political because it aims at political arrangements that make a society good, and it is moral because it holds that a society is good if it enables people living in it to live good lives, that is, lives that are personally satisfying and beneficial for others. Conservatism, like liberalism and socialism, has different versions, partly because conservatives often disagree with each other about the particular political arrangements that ought to be conserved. There is no disagreement among them, however, that the reasons for or against those arrangements are to be found in the history of the society whose arrangements they are. This commits conservatives to denying that the reasons are to be derived from a hypothetical contract, or from an imagined ideal order, or from what is supposed to be beneficial for the whole of humanity. In preference to these and other alternatives, conservatives look to the history of their own society because it exerts a formative influence on their present lives and on how it is reasonable for them to want to live in the future. The conservative attitude, however, is not an unexamined prejudice in favour of the historical arrangements of the conservatives’ society. They are in favour of conserving only those arrangements that their history has shown to be conducive to good lives.

Another reason for the disagreements among conservatives is that, although they agree in regarding certain questions as basic to political morality and in identifying the range of reasonable answers to them, they nevertheless give answers that fall at different points within that range. The combination of the questions that are thought to be basic and the answers to them that are thought to be reasonable defines different versions of conservatism, explains their differences, and distinguishes between conservative, liberal, socialist, and other theories.

These questions are:

  • To what extent should political arrangements be based on history?
  • How does the diversity of values affect political arrangements?
  • What should be the relation between individual autonomy and social authority?
  • How should political arrangements respond to the prevalence of evil?

The discussion will proceed by considering these questions and the different answers conservatives give to them. It will conclude by identifying a version of conservatism that appears to be the most reasonable.

To What Extent Should Political Arrangements Be Based on History?

Conservatives agree that history is the appropriate starting point, but some of them believe that it is not a contingent fact that certain political arrangements have historically fostered good lives, while others have been detrimental to them. Conservatives who believe this think that there is a deeper explanation for the historical success or failure of various arrangements. There is a moral orders in reality. Political arrangements that conform to this order foster good lives, those that conflict with it are bound to make lives worse. These conservatives are committed to a

belief about the nature and scope of rational understanding, which, on the one hand, confines it to the promulgation of abstract general propositions and, on the other hand, extends its relevance to the whole of human life – a doctrine which may be called ‘rationalism.’ And there is as much difference between rational enquiry and ‘rationalism’ as there is between scientific enquiry and ‘scientism,’ and it is a difference of the same kind. Moreover, it is important that a writer who wishes to contest the excessive claims of ‘rationalism’ should observe the difference, because if he fails to do so he will not only be liable to self-contradiction (for his argument will itself be nothing if it is not rational), but also he will make himself appear the advocate of irrationality, which is going further than he either needs or intends to go. (Oakeshott, 1993: 99-100)

Rationalistically inclined conservatives are willing to learn from history, but only because history points beyond itself toward more fundamental considerations. That these considerations centre on a moral order is agreed to by all of them. But they nevertheless disagree whether the order is providential, as it is held to be by various religions; or a Platonic chain of being at whose pinnacle is the Form of the Good; or the Hegelian unfolding of the dialectic of clashing forces culminating in the final unity of reason and action; or the one reflected by natural law, which, if adhered to, would remove all obstacles from the path of realizing the purpose inherent in human nature; or some further possibility.

Such disagreements notwithstanding, rationalist conservatives are convinced that the ultimate reasons for or against specific political arrangements are to be found in the moral order of reality. They attribute disagreements to insufficient rationality, and they believe that there is an absolute and eternal truth about these matters. The problem is finding out what it is, or, if it has already been revealed, finding out how the canonical text ought to be interpreted. This belief is held not only by some conservatives, but also by some left-wing and right-wing radicals who otherwise disagree with conservatives. These radicals believe that the laws that govern human affairs have been discovered. Some say that the laws are those of history, others that they are of sociology, psychology, sociobiology, or ethology. Their shared view is, however, that a good society is possible only if its political arrangements reflect the relevant laws. Misery is a consequence of ignorance or wickedness, which leads to arrangements contrary to the laws. History, as they see it, is the painful story of societies banging their collective heads against the wall. They have found the key, however: the door is now open, history has reached its final phase, and from here on all manner of things would be well, if only their prescriptions were followed.

The historical record of societies whose political arrangements were inspired by rationalistic schemes is most alarming. They have tended to impose their certainties on unwilling or indoctrinated people, and they have often made their lives miserable, all the while promising great improvements just after the present crisis, which has usually turned out to be permanent. If the last century has a moral achievement, it is the realization that proceeding in this way is morally and politically dangerous.

Opposed to these rationalistically inclined conservatives and non-conservative utopians are sceptical conservatives. Their scepticism, however, may take either an extreme or a moderate form. The extreme form is fideism. It involves reliance on faith and the repudiation of reason. Fideistic conservatives reject reason as a guide to the political arrangements that a good society ought to have. (It follows from their nature that systematic arguments for fideistic conservatism are rare. One notable exception is Maistre, 1965.) It makes no difference to them whether the reasons are scientific, metaphysical, or merely empirical. They are opposed to relying on reason in whatever form it may take. They believe that all reasoning is ultimately based on assumptions that must be accepted on faith.

Their rejection of the guidance of reason, however, leaves fideistic conservatives with the problem of how to decide what political arrangements they ought to favour. The solution they have historically offered is either to be guided by faith, or to perpetuate the existing arrangements simply because they are familiar. The dangers of these solutions have been made as evident by the historical record as the dangers of the preceding approach. Faith breeds dogmatism, the persecution of those who reject it or who hold other faiths, and it provides no ground for regarding the political arrangements it favours as better than contrary ones. Whereas the perpetuation of the status quo on account of its familiarity makes it impossible to improve the existing political arrangements.

Between the dangerous extremes of rationalistic politics and the fideistic repudiation of reason is scepticism that takes a moderate form. Conservatives who hold this view need not deny that there is a moral order in reality. They are committed only to denying that reliable knowledge of it can be had. Sceptical conservatives are far more impressed by human fallibility than by the success of efforts to overcome it. They think that the claims of revelation, canonical texts, and knowledge of eternal verities stand in need of persuasive evidence. They regard these claims only as credible as the evidence that is available to support them. But the evidence is as questionable as the claims that rest on it. According to sceptical conservatives, it is therefore far more reasonable to look to the historical record of various political arrangements than to endeavour to justify or criticize them by appealing to metaphysical or utopian considerations that are bound to be less reliable than the historical record.

Scepticism, however, does not lead conservatives to deny that it is possible to evaluate political arrangements by adducing reasons for or against them. What they deny is that good reasons must be absolute and universal. The scepticism of these conservatives, therefore, is not a global doubt about it being possible and desirable to be reasonable, to base beliefs on the evidence available in support of them, and to make the strength of beliefs commensurate with the strength of the evidence. Their scepticism is about deducing political arrangements from metaphysical or utopian premises. They want political arrangements to be firmly rooted in the experiences of the people who are subject to them. Since these experiences are unavoidably historical, it is to history that sceptical conservatives look for supporting evidence. They will not try to deduce from metaphysical premises which orifices of the body are suitable for sexual pleasure, or evaluate people’s desires on the basis of their conformity to some utopian ideal that the people do not share. Scepticism thus avoids the pitfalls of basing political arrangements on speculation about what lies beyond experience and of suspecting all efforts to make reasonable political arrangements because of a global distrust of reason.

It seems, then, that the most reasonable answer to the question about the extent to which political arrangements should be based on history follows from moderate scepticism. There is a presumption in favour of the arrangements that have endured. Their endurance is a prima facie reason for supposing both that they have been supported by the people subject to them and that they have enhanced the possibility of living lives that are personally satisfying and beneficial for others. If this presumption is justified, then there is a reason against changing the arrangements that have stood the test of time. The presumption, of course, may not be justified. The arrangements may have endured because opposition to them was made too dangerous by powerful interests or because people were manipulated into accepting them. If the case for changing them is based on a cogent claim that the arrangements have endured because of force or manipulation, then it should be seriously considered. But if the case for changing them is inspired by the latest utopian, metaphysical, or revolutionary theory, then much more needs to be said in support of it to represent a reasonable challenge to the presumption.

How Does the Diversity of Values Affect Political Arrangements?

Conservatives are committed to political arrangements that foster good lives, so they must have a view about what lives are good, about what obligations, virtues, and satisfactions are worth valuing. They must have a view, that is, about the values that make lives good. Values, however, appear to be diverse. There are countless obligations, virtues, and satisfactions, countless ways of combining them and evaluating their respective importance, and so there seem to be countless ways in which lives can be good. Conservatives, therefore, must have a view about the diversity of values because it has a fundamental influence on the reasons that can be offered for or against particular political arrangements. The problem is that there are three widely held but mutually exclusive views: absolutism, relativism, and pluralism.

Absolutists believe that the diversity of values is apparent, not real. They concede that there are many values, but they think that there is a universal and objective standard that can be appealed to in evaluating their respective importance. This standard may be a highest value, the summum bonum; other values can be ranked on the basis of their contribution to its realization. The highest value may be happiness, duty, God’s will, a life of virtue, and so forth. Or the standard may be a principle, such as the categorical imperative, the greatest happiness for the greatest number, the Ten Commandments, or the Golden Rule. If a choice needs to be made between different values, then the principle will determine which value ought to take precedence. Absolutists, then, give as their reason for preferring some political arrangements over others that the preferred ones conform more closely to the universal and objective standard than the alternatives to it.

Absolutism often has a rationalistic basis. For the most frequently offered reason in favour of the universality and objectivity of the standard that absolutists regard as the highest is that it reflects the moral order of reality. This is the inspiration behind the attempts to establish ecclesiastical polities, on the right, and egalitarian, utopian, or millennial ones, on the left. Nevertheless, the connection between absolutism and rationalism is not a necessary one. Standards can be regarded as universal and objective even if they are not metaphysically sanctioned. If, however, their advocates eschew metaphysics, then they must provide some other reason for regarding some particular standard as universal and objective. One such reason will be considered shortly.

It is a considerable embarrassment to absolutists that the candidates for universal and objective standards are also diverse, and thus face the same problems as the values whose diversity is supposed to be diminished by them. Absolutists acknowledge this, and explain it in terms of human shortcomings that prevent people from recognizing the one and true standard. The history of religious wars, revolutions, left-wing and right-wing tyrannies, and persecutions of countless unbelievers, all aiming to rectify human shortcomings, testifies to the dangers inherent in this explanation.

Opposed to absolutism is relativism. Relativists regard the diversity of values as real: there are many values and there are many ways of combining and ranking them. There is no universal and objective standard that could be appealed to in resolving disagreements about the identity and comparative importance of values. A good society, however, requires some consensus about what is accepted as a possibility and what is placed beyond limits. The political arrangements of a good society reflect this consensus, and the arrangements change as the consensus does. What counts as a value and how important it is depends, then, according to relativists, on the consensus of a society. A value is what is valued in a particular context; all values, therefore, are context-dependent.

This is not to say that values and the political arrangements that reflect them cannot be reasonably justified or criticized. They can be, but the reasons that are given for or against them count as reasons only within the context of the society whose values and political arrangements they are. The reasons appeal to the prevailing consensus, and they will not and are not meant to persuade outsiders. The ultimate appeal of relativists is to point at their arrangements and say: this is what we do here. If relativism takes a conservative form, it often results in the romantic celebration of national identity, of the spirit of a people and an age, of the shared landscape, historical milestones, ceremonies, stylistic conventions, manners, and rituals that unite a society.

Just as absolutism is naturally allied to a rationalistic orientation, so relativism is readily combined with fideism. If there is no discernible moral order in reality, then the best guide to good lives and to the political arrangements that foster them is the faith that has prevailed in a society. But the faith of one society is different from the faith of another. It is only to be expected therefore that good lives and political arrangements will correspondingly differ.

Relativism appears to avoid the dangers of dogmatism and repression that so often engulf absolutism, but it does not. Relativism is no less prone to dogmatism and repression than absolutism. From the fact that the political arrangements of the relativist’s society are not thought to be binding outside of it, nothing follows about the manner in which they are held within it. If the world is full of people and societies whose values are hostile to the values of the relativist’s society, then there is much the more reason to guard jealously those values. If the justification of the political arrangements of a society is the consensus about values that prevails in it, then any political arrangement becomes justifiable just so long as a sufficiently large number of people in the society support the consensus favouring them. Thus slavery, female circumcision, the maltreatment of minorities, child prostitution, the mutilation of criminals, blood feuds, bribery, and a lot of other political arrangements may become sanctioned on the grounds that that is what happens to be valued here.

These pitfalls of the rationalistic aspirations of absolutism and the fideistic orientation of relativism make them unreliable sources of reasons for evaluating political arrangements. It is with some relief then that conservatives may turn to pluralism as an intermediate position between these dangerous extremes. Pluralists are in partial agreement and disagreement with both absolutists and relativists. According to pluralists, there is a universal and objective standard, but it is applicable only to some values. The standard is universal and objective enough to apply to some values that must be recognized by all political arrangements that foster good lives, but it is not sufficiently universal and objective to apply to all the many diverse values that may contribute to good lives. The standard, in other words, is a minimal one. (For accounts of pluralism in general, see Kekes, 1993; Rescher, 1993.)

It is possible to establish with reference to it some universal and objective values required by all good lives, but the standard does not specify all the values that good lives require. It regards some political arrangements as necessary for good lives, but it allows for a generous plurality of possible political arrangements beyond the necessary minimum. The standard operates in the realm of moral necessity, and it leaves open what happens in the realm of moral possibility. The standard thus accommodates part of the universal values of absolutism and part of the context-dependent values of relativism. Absolutism prevails in the realm of moral necessity; relativism in the realm of moral possibility.

The source of this standard is human nature. (For a general account of the political significance of human nature for politics, see Berry, 1986. For the specific connection between human nature and conservatism, see Berry, 1983.) To understand human nature sufficiently for the purposes of this standard does not require plumbing the depths of the soul, unravelling the obscure springs of human motivation, or conducting scientific research. It does not call for any metaphysical commitment and it can be held without subscribing to the existence of a natural law. It is enough for it to concentrate on normal people in a commonsensical way. It will then become obvious that good lives depend on the satisfaction of basic physiological, psychological, and social needs: for nutrition, shelter, and rest; for companionship, self-respect, and the hope for a good or better life; for the division of labour, justice, and predictability in human affairs; and so forth. The satisfaction of these needs is a universal and objective requirement of all good lives, whatever the social context may be in which they are lived. If the political arrangements of a society foster their satisfaction, that is a reason for having and conserving them; if the political arrangements hinder their satisfaction, that is a reason for reforming them.

If absolutists merely asserted this, and if relativists merely denied it, then the former would be right and the latter wrong. But both go beyond the mere assertion and denial of this point. Satisfying these minimum requirements of human nature is necessary but not sufficient for good lives. Absolutists go beyond the minimum and think that their universal and objective standard applies all the way up to the achievement of good lives. Relativists deny that there is such a standard. In this respect, pluralists side with relativists and oppose absolutists. Pluralists think that beyond the minimum level there is a plurality of values, of ways of ranking them, and of good lives that embody these values and rankings. According to pluralists, then, the political arrangements of a society ought to protect the minimum requirements of good lives and ought to foster a plurality of good lives beyond the minimum.

If pluralism takes a conservative form, it provides two important possibilities for its defenders. The first is a universal and objective reason in favour of those political arrangements of the conservative’s society that protect the minimum requirements and against those political arrangements that violate them. It motivates, gives direction to, and sets the goal of intended reforms. It makes it possible to draw reasonable comparisons among different societies on the basis of how well they protect the conditions on which all good lives depend. Pluralistic conservatism thus avoids the objection to relativism that it sanctions any political arrangement so long as a wide enough consensus supports it. Second, pluralistic conservatism is most receptive to the view that the best guide to the political arrangements that a society ought to have beyond the minimum level is the history of the society. It is that history, rather than any metaphysical or utopian consideration, that is most likely to provide the relevant considerations for or against the political arrangements that present themselves as possibilities in that society. It is thus that pluralistic conservatism avoids the dangers of dogmatism and repression that beset absolutism.

The most reasonable answer to the question of how the diversity of values should affect political arrangements is that the arrangements that concern the minimum requirements of good lives are not affected at all, but those that concern requirements beyond the minimum are affected. Political arrangements ought to protect the universal and objective conditions that must be met by all good lives. Societies and their arrangements can be reasonably compared and evaluated on the basis of how well they protect them. There are also other conditions that vary with societies. They are particular, not universal, and they reflect the diversity of values. They can also be reasonably evaluated, but only within the context of particular societies. Their evaluation depends on whether or not they have historically enhanced the chances of good lives. If they have, they ought to be protected; if they have not, they ought to be changed.

The political arrangements that pluralistic conservatives favour are committed to a familiar list of values: justice, freedom, the rule of law, order, legal and political equality, prosperity, peace, civility, happiness, and so forth. There is likely to be a significant overlap between the conservative list and those which liberals, socialists, or others may draw up. Nevertheless, there will be also a significant difference between pluralistic conservative politics and the politics of others: this kind of conservatism is genuinely pluralistic, whereas the politics of the alternative approaches are not. Liberals, socialists, and others are committed to regarding some few values as overriding. What makes them liberals, socialists, or whatever is their claim that when the few values they favour conflict with the less favoured ones, then the ones they favour should prevail. If they did not believe this, they would cease to be liberals, socialists, or whatever. Pluralistic conservatives reject this approach. Their commitment is to the conservation of the whole system of values of a society. Its conservation sometimes requires favouring a particular value over another, sometimes the reverse. Pluralistic conservatives hold this to be true of all values. They differ from others in refusing to make the a priori commitment that others make to the overridingness of any particular value or small number of values in the prevailing system of values.

What Should Be the Relation between Individual Autonomy and Social Authority?

It is common ground among most political moralities that human beings are essentially social in their nature. In good lives, therefore, the individual and social constituents are inextricably connected. That, however, still leaves the question of which constituent should be dominant. It has far-reaching political consequences in how it is answered. If the individual constituent dominates over the social one, then the desirable political arrangements will foster individual autonomy at the expense of social authority. If, on the other hand, the social constituent is ultimately more important, then the favoured political arrangements will strengthen social authority. The answer that favours individual autonomy over social authority is typically given by many liberals, especially those influenced by Kant. The opposing answer is usually championed by absolutist conservatives, on the right; socialists and Marxists, on the left; and communitarians, somewhere in between. This leaves room for yet another answer, to be considered shortly, offered by conservatives who are sceptics and pluralists.

Putting individual autonomy before social authority faces two very serious problems. First, it assumes that good lives must be autonomous and cannot involve the acceptance of some form of social authority. If this were so, no military or devoutly religious life, no life in static, traditional, hierarchical societies, no life, that is, that involves the subordination of the individual’s will and judgement to what is regarded as a higher purpose, could be good. This would require thinking of the vast majority of lives outside of prosperous Western societies as bad. The mistake is to slide from the reasonable view that autonomous lives may be good to the unreasonable view that a life cannot be good unless it is autonomous. This is not only mistaken in its own right, but also incompatible with the pluralism to which liberals who think this way claim themselves to be committed.

Second, if a good society is one that fosters the good lives of the individuals who live in it, then giving precedence to autonomy over authority cannot be right, since autonomous lives may be bad. That the will and judgement of individuals take precedence over social authority leaves it open whether the resulting lives will be sufficiently satisfying personally and beneficial for others to be good. Autonomous lives may be frustrating and harmful. The most casual reflection on history shows that social authority must prevail over the individual autonomy of fanatics, criminals, fools, and crazies, if a society is indeed dedicated to fostering good lives.

The problems of letting social authority override individual autonomy are no less serious. What is the reason for thinking that if social authority prevails over individual autonomy, then the resulting lives will be good? Lives cannot just be pronounced good by some social authority. They must actually be satisfying and beneficial, and that must ultimately be judged by the individuals whose will is unavoidably engaged in causing and enjoying the satisfactions and the benefits. Their will and judgement may of course be influenced by the prescriptions of a social authority. But no matter how strong that influence is, it cannot override the ultimate autonomy of individuals in finding what is satisfying or beneficial for them. As the lamentable historical record shows, however, this has not prevented countless religious and ideological authorities from stigmatizing individuals who reject their prescriptions as heretics, infidels, class enemies, maladjusted, or living with false consciousness, in bad faith, or in a state of sin. The result is a repressive society whose dogmatism is reinforced by specious moralizing.

How then is the question to be answered? Which constituent of good lives should be regarded as primary? The answer, as before, is to eschew the two extremes and look for an intermediate position that accommodates the salvageable portions of both. There is no need to insist that either individual autonomy or social authority should systematically prevail over the other. Both are necessary for good lives. Instead of engaging in futile arguments about their comparative importance, it is far more illuminating to understand that they are parts of two interdependent aspects of the same underlying activity. The activity is that of individuals trying to make good lives for themselves. Its two aspects are the individual and the social; autonomy and authority are their respective parts; and the connecting link between them is tradition. The intermediate position that is reasonably favoured by conservatives may therefore be called traditionalism.

A tradition is a set of customary beliefs, practices, and actions that has endured from the past to the present and attracted the allegiance of people so that they wish to perpetuate it. A tradition may be reflective and designed, like the deliberations of the Supreme Court, or unreflective and spontaneous, like sports fans rooting for their teams; it may have a formal institutional framework, like the Catholic Church, or it may be unstructured, like mountain climbing; it may be competitive, like the Olympics; largely passive, like going to the opera; humanitarian, like the Red Cross; self-centred, like jogging; honorific, like the Nobel Prize; or punitive, like criminal proceedings. Traditions may be religious, horticultural, scientific, athletic, political, stylistic, moral, aesthetic, commercial, medical, legal, military, educational, architectural, and so on and so on. They permeate human lives. (For an account of tradition in general, see Shils, 1981; see also Casey, 1978; Kekes, 1998: ch. 6; MacIntyre, 1981: ch. 15; Eliot, 1975.)

When individuals gradually and experimentally form their conceptions of a good life, what they are to a very large extent doing is deciding which traditions they should participate in. This decision may be taken from the inside of the traditions to which they belong, or from the outside by considering other traditions that appeal, repel, bore, or interest them. The decisions may be conscious, deliberate, clear-cut yes-or-no choices, they may be ways of unconsciously, unreflectively falling in with familiar patterns, or they may be at various points in between. The bulk of the activities of individuals concerned with living in ways that strike them as good is composed of participation in the various traditions of their society.

As they participate in them, they exercise their autonomy. They make choices and judgements, their wills are engaged, they learn from the past and plan for the future. But they do so in the frameworks of various traditions which authoritatively provide them with the relevant choices, with the matters that are left to their judgements, and with standards that within a tradition determine what choices and judgements are good or bad, reasonable or unreasonable. Their exercise of autonomy is the individual aspect of their conformity to their tradition’s authority, which is the social aspect of what they are doing. They act autonomously by following the authoritative patterns of the traditions to which they feel allegiance. When a Catholic goes to confession, a violinist gives a concert, a football player scores a touchdown, a student graduates, a judge sentences a criminal, then the individual and the social, the autonomous and the authoritative, the traditional pattern of doing it and a particular person’s doing of it are inextricably mixed. To understand what is going on in terms of individual autonomy is as one-sided as it is to do so in terms of social authority. Both play an essential role, and understanding what is going on requires understanding both the roles they play and what makes them essential. Traditionalism rests on this understanding, and it is a political response to it. The response is to have and maintain political arrangements that foster the participation of individuals in the various traditions that have historically endured in their society. The reason for fostering them is that good lives depend on participation in a variety of traditions.

Traditions do not stand independently of each other. They overlap, form parts of each other, and problems or questions occurring in one are often resolved in terms of another. Most traditions have legal, moral, political, aesthetic, stylistic, managerial, and a multitude of other aspects. Furthermore, people participating in one tradition necessarily bring with them the beliefs, values, and practices of many of the other traditions in which they also participate. Changes in one tradition, therefore, are most likely to produce changes in others. Traditions are intimately connected. That is why changes in one tradition are like waves that reverberate throughout the other traditions of a society.

Some of these changes are for the better, others for the worse. Most of them, however, are complex, have consequences that grow more unpredictable the more distant they are, and thus tend to escape human control. (This is one of the key ideas of Hayek, 1982; see Kukathas, 1989: 174-91 on the complicated connection between Hayek and conservatism.) Since these changes are changes in the traditions upon which good lives depend, the attitude to them of conservative traditionalists will be one of extreme caution. They will want to minimize the changes in so far as it is possible. They will want them to be no greater than what is necessary for remedying some specific defect. They will be opposed to experimental, general, or large changes because of their uncertain effects on good lives.

Changes, of course, are often necessary because traditions may be vicious, destructive, stultifying, nay-saying, and thus not conducive to good lives. It is part of the purpose of the prevailing political arrangements to draw distinctions among traditions that are unacceptable (like slavery), suspect but tolerable (like pornography), and worthy of encouragement (like university education). Traditions that violate the minimum requirements of human nature should be prohibited. Traditions that have shown themselves to make questionable contributions to good lives should be tolerated but not encouraged. Traditions whose historical record testifies to their importance for good lives should be cherished.

The obvious question is who should decide which tradition is which and how that decision should be made. The answer conservatives give is that the decision should be made by those who are legitimately empowered to do so through the political process of their society and they should make the decisions by reflecting on the historical record of the tradition in question.

From this three corollaries follow. First, the people who are empowered to make the decisions ought to be those who can and do view the prevailing political arrangements from a historical perspective. The political process works well if it ends up empowering these people. They are unlikely to be ill-educated, preoccupied with some single issue, inexperienced, or have qualifications that lie in some other field of endeavour. Conservatives, in a word, are not in favour of populist politics. Second, a society that proceeds in the manner just indicated is pluralistic because it fosters a plurality of traditions. It does so because it sees as the justification of its political arrangements that they foster good lives, and fostering them depends on fostering the traditions in which participation may make lives good. Third, the society is tolerant because it is committed to having as many traditions as possible. Its political arrangements place the burden of proof on those who wish to proscribe a tradition. If a tradition has endured, if it has the allegiance of enough people to perpetuate it, then there is a prima facie case for it. That case may be, and often is, defeated, but the initial presumption is in its favour.

This implies that a conservative society that is sceptical, pluralistic, and traditionalist will be in favour of limited government. The purpose of its political arrangements is not to bring heaven on earth by imposing on people some conception of a good life. No government has a mandate from heaven. The political arrangements of a limited government interfere as little as possible with the indigenous traditions that flourish among people subject to it. The purpose of its arrangements is to enable people to live as they please, rather than to force them to live in a particular way. One of the most important ways of accomplishing this is to have a wide plurality of traditions as a bulwark between individuals and the government that has power over them.

The answer, then, to the question that heads this section is that, as traditionalist conservatives believe, a good society aims to have political arrangements that balance the claims of individual autonomy and social authority. This balance is reached by the mediation of the traditions of a society that make autonomy possible and provide many of the forms that it might take. But conservatives also believe that in a good society it is not assumed that lives cannot be good unless they are autonomous. It is certainly repugnant to force people to live lives that they would not otherwise live. But it is equally certain that many people live satisfying and beneficial lives that are neither autonomous nor forced on them.

How Should Political Arrangements Respond to the Prevalence of Evil?

One of the safest generalizations is that conservatives tend to be pessimists. In some conservative writings – Montaigne’s, Hume’s, and Oakeshott’s cheerfulness keeps breaking through, but even then, it does so in spite of their doubts about the possibility of a significant improvement in the human condition. Conservatives take a dim view of progress. They are not so foolish as to deny that great advances have been made in science, technology, medicine, communication, management, education, and so forth, and that they have changed human lives for the better. But they have also changed them for the worse. Advances have been both beneficial and harmful. They have certainly enlarged the stock of human possibilities, but the possibilities are for both good and evil, and new possibilities are seldom without new evils. Conservatives tend to be pessimistic because they doubt that more possibilities will make lives on the whole better. They believe that there are obstacles that stand in the way of the permanent overall improvement of the human condition.

Conservatism has been called the politics of imperfection (O’Sullivan, 1976: ch. 10; Quinton, 1978). This is in some ways an apt characterization, but it is misleading in others. It rightly suggests that conservatives reject the idea of human perfectibility. (For the history of the idea, see Passmore, 1970; Kekes, 1997.) Yet it is too sanguine because it implies that, apart from some imperfections, the human condition is by and large all right. But it is worse than a bad joke to regard as mere imperfections war, genocide, tyranny, torture, terrorism, the drug trade, concentration camps, racism, the murder of religious and political opponents, easily avoidable epidemics and starvation, and other familiar and widespread evils. Conservatives are much more impressed by the prevalence of evil than this label implies. If evil is understood as serious unjustified harm caused by human beings, then the conservative view is that the prevalence of evil is a permanent condition that cannot be significantly altered.

The politics of imperfection is a misleading label also because it suggests that the imperfection is in human beings. Conservatives certainly think that human beings are responsible for much evil, but to think only that is shallow. The prevalence of evil reflects not just a human propensity for evil, but also a contingency that influences what propensities human beings have and develop independently of human intentions. The human propensity for evil is itself a manifestation of this deeper and more pervasive contingency, which operates through genetic inheritance, environmental factors, the confluence of events that places people at certain places at certain times, the crimes, accidents, pieces of good or bad fortune that happen or do not happen to them, the historical period, society, and family into which they are born, and so forth. The same contingency also affects people because others whom they love and depend on, and with whom their lives are intertwined in other ways, are as subject to it as they are themselves.

The view of thoughtful conservatives is not a hopeless misanthropic pessimism, according to which contingency makes human nature evil rather than good. Their view is rather a realistic pessimism that holds that whether the balance of good and evil propensities and their realization in people tilts one way or another is a contingent matter over which human beings and their political arrangements have insufficient control. This point needs to be stressed. Conservatives do not think that the human condition is devoid of hope. They are, however, realistic about the limited control a society has over its future. Their view is not that human beings are corrupt and that their evil propensities are uncontrollable. Their view is rather that human beings have both good and evil propensities and neither they nor their societies can exercise sufficient control to make the realization of good propensities reliably prevail over the realization of evil ones. The right political arrangements help, of course, just as the wrong ones make matters worse. But even under the best political arrangements a great deal of contingency remains, and it places beyond human control much good and evil. The chief reason for this is that human efforts to control contingency are themselves subject to the very contingency they aim to control. And that, of course, is the fundamental reason why conservatives are pessimistic and sceptical about the possibility of significant improvement in the human condition. It is thus that the scepticism and pessimism of conservatives reinforce one another.

It does not follow from this, and conservatives do not believe, that it is a matter of indifference what political arrangements are made. It is true that political arrangements cannot guarantee the victory of good over evil, but they can influence how things go. Whether that is sufficient at a certain time and place is itself a contingent matter insufficiently within human control. The attitude that results from the realization that this is so has a negative and positive component. The negative one is acceptance of the fact that not even the best political arrangements guarantee good lives. The positive one is to strive nevertheless to make the political arrangements as good as possible. The impetus behind the latter is the realization that bad political arrangements worsen the already uncertain human condition.

If the choice of political arrangements is governed by this conservative attitude, it results in arrangements that look both to foster what is taken to be good and to hinder what is regarded as evil. One significant difference between conservative politics and most current alternatives to it is the insistence of conservatives on the importance of political arrangements that hinder evil. This difference is a direct result of the pessimism of conservatives and the optimistic belief of others in human perfectibility. Their optimism rests on the assumption that the prevalence of evil is the result of bad political arrangements. If people were not poor, oppressed, exploited, discriminated against, and so forth, it is optimistically supposed, then they would be naturally inclined to live good lives. The prevalence of evil is thus assumed to be the result of the political corruption of human nature. If political arrangements were good, there would be no corruption. What is needed, therefore, is to make political arrangements that foster the good. The arrangements that hinder evil are unfortunate and temporary measures needed only until the effects of the good arrangements are generally felt.

Conservatives reject this optimism. They do not think that evil is prevalent merely because of bad political arrangements. It needs to be asked why political arrangements are bad. And the answer must be that political arrangements are made by people, and they are bound to reflect the propensities of their makers. Bad political arrangements are ultimately traceable to the evil propensities of the people who make them. Since the propensities are subject to contingencies over which human control is insufficient, there is no guarantee whatsoever that political arrangements can be made good. Nor that, if they were made good, they would be sufficient to hinder evil.

Conservatives insist, therefore, on the necessity and importance of political arrangements that hinder evil. They stress moral education, the enforcement of morality, the treatment of people according to what they deserve, the importance of swift and severe punishment for serious crimes, and so on. They oppose the prevailing attitudes that lead to agonizing over the criminal and forgetting the crime, to perpetuating the absurd fiction of a fundamental moral equality between habitual evildoers and their victims, to guaranteeing the same freedom and welfare rights to good and evil people, and so forth. Conservatives reject, therefore, the egalitarian view of justice championed by liberals and socialists (inspired and defended by Rawls, 1971), which recommends taking economic resources from people who have more and giving them to those who have less without asking whether the first deserve to have them and the second deserve to receive them. Conservatives think that justice is essentially connected with desert, and its aim is, not equality, but the upholding of the rule of law that assures that people get what they deserve.

Political arrangements that are meant to hinder evil are liable to abuse. Conservatives know and care about the historical record that testifies to the dreadful things that have been done to people on the many occasions when such arrangements have gone wrong. The remedy, however, cannot be to refuse to make the arrangements; it must be to make them, learn from history, and try hard to avoid their abuse. Conservatives know that in this respect, as in all others, contingency will cause complete success to elude them. But this is precisely the reason why political arrangements are necessary for hindering evil. Their pessimism leads conservatives to face the worst and try to deny scope to it, rather than endeavour to build the City of Man on the illusion of human perfectibility.


The central concern of conservatism is with political arrangements that make a society good. Since conservatism takes the goodness of a society to depend on the goodness of the lives of the people who live in it, it is a moral view. Good lives, of course, require much more than what political arrangements can secure. The right political arrangements, however, do secure some of the conditions necessary for them. These arrangements, according to conservatives, are discovered by reflection on the history of the political arrangements that prevail in one’s society. This discloses that the society is partly constituted of various enduring traditions in which individuals participate because they conceive of good lives in terms of the beliefs, values, and practices that these traditions embody. The reasons for or against particular political arrangements are then to be found by reflection on their historical success or failure in fostering those traditions and participation in them that is conducive to satisfying and beneficial lives.

As a result of differences in history and circumstances, political arrangements, traditions, and lives that are reasonably regarded as good are likely to vary from society to society. Conservatives, therefore, do not seek to formulate a general theory that provides a blueprint for a good society. There is no such blueprint. This is why the most reasonable version of conservatism is sceptical and pluralistic. The absence of a blueprint, however, does not mean that conservative politics is doomed to arbitrariness. Good reasons in politics, beyond a basic level, are local and historically conditioned. Their concern is with the evaluation of the arrangements and traditions that provide the particular framework in which individuals can try to make good lives for themselves. This is why the most reasonable version of conservatism is traditionalist. But it is also realistically pessimist because it recognizes that the prevalence of evil is created by contingencies over which human control is imperfect, since the attempts at control are affected by the very contingency they aim to control.

Moderate scepticism about general theories in politics; pluralism about traditions, values, and conceptions of a good life; traditionalism; and pessimism about human perfectibility and the eradication of evil; these jointly define the version of conservatism that is the best alternative to its chief contemporary rivals, liberalism and socialism.