Posts Tagged With: philosophy

. . . Then Why Be Conservative?

In his defense of conservatism and radical change (below), Edmund Babbitt writes:

[C]onservatism is cautious about attempts to reform political society and generally favors limited and incremental rather than drastic and immediate change. . .  Nevertheless, conservatives recognize that uneasiness about change does not translate into adamant and unqualified opposition to all attempts at improvement—even radical ones. . . .

In order to avoid the assumption that the present period possesses a monopoly on wisdom, conservatism tries to consider all the evidence presented by human history.  As a result, conservatives may reject a significant trend which has developed in a given political society over years and decades as inconsistent with the concrete evidence found throughout the vast experience of history.  Thus, the demand for a significant change is not necessarily inconsistent with conservatism.  It may be conservative to reject a major development within a tradition and it may be profoundly anti-conservative to support the status quo.  The ultimate determination of whether an action is conservative depends on the basis for accepting or rejecting a policy and not on whether the acceptance or rejection constitutes opposition to or support for change. (Emphasis added.)

This seems like an uncontroversial definition of conservatism. Still, all it really amounts to is the claim that conservatives are cautious and skeptical about sweeping change, and will evaluate each proposed change rationally and on its merits.

But, who doesn’t believe that? No one really supports immoderate, ill-thought-out change just for its own sake. You can be a radical rationalist and also believe that you should proceed cautiously in practical affairs. For instance, the medieval Scholastics were steeped in their own tradition and come across as humble, moderate folk. But the meat of their philosophy was based on rational deduction from self-evident facts of nature, and had nothing to do with what we would today call “conservatism.”

At best, then, it seems that conservatism is a warning bell, telling us to think twice before we try something new. But if that is true, then I see no reason to accept “conservatism” as a philosophy in the first place. You could just be a careful communist or a cautious libertarian, or whatever else. That is, you can keep the rationalist substance of your philosophy and just adopt the conservatives’ spirit of not going overboard.

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Puritans: Then and Now

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful that, in the years since the Pilgrims first landed here, Massachusetts no longer lives under a Puritan theocracy. H.L. Mencken called Puritanism “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

But, though the old Puritan theocrats are no longer with us, it’s instructive to consider how the modern Left has evolved into a moralistic, Puritanical philosophy that tolerates no dissent. Here’s some examples from recent months:

  1. Local Democratic politicians seek to ban ant-gay-marriage restaurants from doing business in their cities.
  2. The FDA requires graphic anti-smoking images on cigarette packs.
  3. Fordham University bullies the Fordham College Republicans into canceling politically incorrect speeches.
  4. Campus speech codes prohibiting politically incorrect speech proliferate.
  5. The Southern Poverty Law Center rakes in money by creating blacklists of people and trends that the Left doesn’t like.
  6. The First Lady launches a campaign demonizing fatty foods and forcing school children to eat what she considers healthy.
  7. The UN fights (democratically approved) marijuana legalization.
  8. Meanwhile, the Obama administration starts an unprecedented crack-down on medical marijuana dispensaries.
  9. “Women’s rights” requires employer-subsidized contraception.
  10. The President is loath to allow Catholic hospitals to avoid his contraception mandate.
  11. And all the while, the people subject to prosecution and incarceration for violating federal regulatory law keeps skyrocketing. One prominent lawyer estimates that the average person commits three felonies a day.

We tend to think of Puritanism as a historical relic for elementary school Thanksgiving plays (as long as religion isn’t mentioned, lest the ACLU bring suit). But if we understand it as the desire to impose a narrow set of austere ideological preferences on both willing and unwilling alike, then Puritanism is alive and well on the modern Left. Just because the old Puritans hated drinking, atheism, and fun, whereas the new ones hate smoking, traditional religion, and fun, doesn’t mean that the two don’t share the same philosophical roots.

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Jason Brennan: Why Most Voting Is Immoral

Speaking of uninformed voting, Jason Brennan at Bleeding Heart Libertarians calls the entire practice “morally rotten.”  His argument is elegantly simple:

In the market, most of my fellow citizens are my civic friends, part of a great cooperative scheme. One of the vile and repugnant features of democracy is that it transforms these people–people who should be my civic friends–into my civic enemies. . . .

The overwhelming majority of them haven’t put in the proper care to develop their political beliefs in a rational way, on the basis of the best available evidence. They are like drunk drivers who force me to drive with them. They are like incompetent surgeons who force me to go under their knives. They are like jurors trying a capital murder case, who find the defendant guilty without having paid attention to the evidence, or because they evaluated the evidence in a bigoted or irrational way.

Those who exercise power over others have a moral duty to do so competently and in good faith. The overwhelming majority of my fellow citizens will violate this duty today. This makes them my enemies, when they should have been my friends.

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Hope, Change and the Staid President

My apologies to readers and fellow contributors to the blog; this is later in the day than I wanted to post. That being said, here it is.

Up to this post, our readers have been given advice (with one notable exception) to behave in a way that in practice results in a repudiation of the two-party system in which we participate. I do not think that voting third-party is an effective behavior; I think it is a radical behavior that is contrary to the tenets and the practice of conservatism. So, like Chuck O’Shea, I advocate the support of one of the major two-party candidates in this election. The candidate I support will be the one running against him. I believe that a conservative should support President Barack Obama for re-election in 2012.

This post is broken up into two sections: the first section will provide an anchor for the argument by way of description of a practical conceptualization of the kernel of conservatism as uncertainty; the second section will shift to a description of a case (through secondary sources) for why President Obama has governed as a conservative and why this should be sufficient to persuade conservatives to support him for re-election.

Part 1: Conservatism as Uncertainty

The arguments that have dominated this blog revolve around the definition of conservatism and the corollary of who and what qualifies as conservative today? Many of us on this blog have input time and energy into answering a question that pundits more important than we are
have dwelt. This suggests a broadness, perhaps more accurately and precisely, a foundational uncertainty to be the characteristic which is hallmark of conservatism. Conservatism, in a sense, is so dysfunctional and confused (or at least antifoundational) that a prominent conservative magazine is subjecting itself to an identical tortured process that we are conducting at the same time we are conducting it.

This uncertainty can be understood as an effect of a fluidity the vocabulary of the traditionalist-historicist conservative would recognize as the universal being expressed in the particular; further, in its vocabulary, it is what the rationalist would recognize as a fundamental abstract principle being applied to or filtered by and through reality: it is a cornerstone of a conservative case to support President Obama for re-election in 2012.

Part II: President Obama as Conservative, or the Prudence of Practice

Let me move to the second portion of this post, which lays out a case for the conservative support of President Obama by a brief examination of his policies in his first term.

Bruce Bartlett summarizes the case for Obama the conservative in the following bullet points (h/t to paul krugman

His stimulus bill was half the size that his advisers thought necessary;
He continued Bush’s war and national security policies without change and even retained Bush’s defense secretary;
He put forward a health plan almost identical to those that had been supported by Republicans such as Mitt Romney in the recent past, pointedly rejecting the single-payer option favored by liberals;
He caved to conservative demands that the Bush tax cuts be extended without getting any quid pro quo whatsoever;
And in the past few weeks he has supported deficit reductions that go far beyond those offered by Republicans.

I think that list makes a compelling case for the conservative to support President Obama for re-election in 2012. This is not about abstractions such as ideological purity, pro-life bona fides or any other conceptualization of conservatism whose essence exists outside of time and space; rather, this is about an on-the-ground, historically contingent conservatism which recognizes that history puts us in a set of circumstances in which liberal “big government” of the New Deal and Great Society are essential, defining characteristics of the relationship between a citizenry and its government; furthermore, that to recognize this relationship is to be cognizant of the historical concreteness that is, allegedly, at the core of conservatism. Such that this historical reality of post-New Deal and post-Great Society liberalism means that President Obama is the one conservative candidate running for President during this election. The other choices you have – which have been discussed on this blog – occupy positions on the ideological branches of the left and the right. When the pundits recognize a continuity between the two major parties’ candidates’ policies; and, when progressives recognize you to be a conservative and make a case against your candidacy for re-election, then you must be doing something right behind which conservatives (no pun intended) can throw their support.

If other conservatives want to make a convincing case that Obama is a liberal or a left-wing President of any type, then they will have to respond to the policies that he has implemented by effectively demonstrating how they represent a liberal rather than a conservative style of governance. References to a vague, amorphous, and essentially content-less notion of history or tradition will not be a strong foundation for a persuasive case against the conservative’s support for President Obama’s re-election. Nor will an effective case be made by attempting to demonstrate that his policies are contrary to certain principles (free-market, big government, etc) which are inherently conservative, at least not in an American sense of the term; nor is it sufficient to argue (however effectively one does make the argument), that in certain instances he has been an advocate, instigator or ally of policymakers or policy proposals that are contrary to alleged tenets of traditional culture (e.g., religious freedom or individual rights in the example of the health care reform bill): cherry picking is left for the fruit, it does not belong in a philosophically abstract or an empirical argument against a case for the re-election of President Obama.

The responses the economic crisis, the policies of reform, and the foreign policy that President Obama has pursued and implemented during his first term in office, point to a candidate for re-election who chooses to maintain a steady course and extract a limited amount from the circumstances given to him. That is to say, his presidency has been a conservative one. Stories of his past notwithstanding, he makes a poor example of a radical liberal, and an even poorer boogeyman of conservative critique, analysis and alarm. President Obama has governed with restraint; he has pursued policies with an eye toward the possible and not just purity of principle; he has behaved in a way that conservatives can and should recognize to be in resemblance to the doctrine, tenets and canons of conservatism. It is easy to understand why that is the case if one disregards the rhetoric and emotion that are expended in response to President Obama, and consider for a brief moment the policies he has actually pursued and realize that he is a conservative (or at least a run-of-the-mill Democrat, who is, nevertheless, probably more conservative – in a non-ideological understanding of the term – than most Republicans or self-described conservatives are at this point in our political history).

At the end of the day, the conservative is not left wondering why he should support President Obama in 2012; rather, he is left to wonder why he should not.

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Smacking Down Academic Pretension

Theodore Dalrymple at Liberty Fund’s Library of Law and Liberty published a hilariously scathing attack on the socialist and Euro-centrist academic Jurgen Habermas.  Read the whole thing for a good deflation of academic pretentiousness, but one passage in particular stands out.

At the bottom of page 69 of this short but frivolously dense book entitled THE CRISIS OF THE EUROPEAN UNION: A Response , we read with respect to [Habermas's] scheme for a world body that will deliver universal justice (modeled more or less on the triumphantly successful European Union): “But any design for a world order aiming at civilizing the exercise of political authority, no matter how farsighted it might be, must take account of the fact that the historical asynchronicity of regional developments and the corresponding socio-economic disparities between the multiple modernities cannot be erased overnight.”

Do we really need a professor of philosophy  – indeed, do we need anyone – to tell us this? Professor Habermas tries to squeeze significance out of truisms, as a constipated man tries to squeeze stools out of a reluctant colon, by the use of locutions such as ‘multiple modernities’ and the printing of the word ‘overnight’ in italics. But is there a single person in the world who thinks that all economic differences between individuals and nations could be ironed out overnight, and who either needs to or would be disabused of this notion by Professor Habermas’s contradiction of it? Academic vacuity can go no further.

I’ve often thought that 95% of professional philosophy is all about restating things that everyone already knows, but doing so in abstruse and convoluted language in order to keep a reputation for profundity.  How much ink has been spilled trying to prove whether or not the external world exists?

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Questions for Historicist Traditionalists

In the back-and-forth debate over historicism, here are some questions for the historicist-traditionalist conservatives:

1. How does the historicist-traditionalist effectively discern whether or not the tradition in which he or she exists is an appropriate expression of the universal good, true and beautiful?

2. what is the method by which a historicist-traditionalist determines that his interpretation of the tradition is consistent with the actual tradition? Does the tradition exist independently of the person who experiences it, that is to say?

3. How are we to understand dynamics of actions such as change and transformation (such as revolution and counterrevolution) and continuity? Is there a point at which history does not matter? Can we tease out causes and effects at some general level or are we not supposed to? Is the hitoricist-traditionlist acknowledgement of historicity also an acknowledgment that we only make intelligible human action and deny the possibility of such an project of human knowledge?

4. How does the historicist-traditionalist reconcile the claims of a an often theological claim about a universal human nature, with the denial and downplay of the universality of our fallenness or determinedness across time and space? That is to say, how does the historicist-traditionalist affirm human nature while maintaining the primacy of the historicity of both experience and reality? It would seem that there would be a tension between affirming a human nature and affirming that human experience is defined by its historicity. Either we have a human nature and that this nature is not historically-dependent, but rather is universal and can be extrapolated from specific experiences and known abstractly; or we deny an immutable human nature because we humans cannot escape history and we cannot have knowledge outside of historical experience, which would cast doubt on the existence of an immutable and universal human nature (I am thinking of what edmund wrote about the “inexhaustible” source that universality is, but that just seems to me to suggest that this worldview provides someone with many many ways to really screw the world up, all in an effort to enjoy all the particular pleasures that are possibly found in that inspiration known as the universal). I think that the historicist-traditionlist is presupposing something else (such as Christianity) which necessarily colors, limits and guides historicism, which as a result, may be better understood as useful took to make sense of the world he experiences; it is not indicative or representative of human experience otherwise.

5. What does the historicist-traditionalist say to other conservatives who argue against historicism in favor of a foundation in some kind of knowledge or status that transcends history? Are non-historicist forms of traditionalism and conservatism compatible with each other or are they closed off to one another?

I’ll close with a Mises quote

“The theorems of economics, say the historicists, are void because they are the product of a priori reasoning. Only historical experience can lead to realistic economics. They fail to see that historical experience is always the experience of complex phenomena, of the joint effects brought about by the operation of a multiplicity of elements. Such historical experience does not give the observer facts in the sense in which the natural sciences apply this term to the results obtained in laboratory experiments. Historical facts need to be interpreted on the ground of previously available theorems. They do not comment upon themselves. The antagonism between economics and historicism does not concern the historical facts. It concerns the interpretation of the facts.”

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