Sunday, October 28, 2012

The intrinsic instability of secular conservatism

Razib Khan recently published an account of what secular conservatism means to him, and I am in sympathy with much of what he says. But he does not really come to terms with the anomalous nature of secular conservatism. It is an unstable and in many ways unsatisfactory position, but its unsatisfactoriness only becomes clear if one can see it from the point of view of a person with religious convictions.

Let's leave aside fundamentalist religion and its crazy, childish literalism and acknowledge that there are reasonably sophisticated forms of religious belief which are compatible with an intelligent approach to politics and social issues. Such approaches (unlike fundamentalist ones) are more or less within my intuitive range, and, from such a perspective, secular conservatism looks unappealing if not dubious.

Only a person with a religious perspective can have a strong sense of his or her conservative beliefs being anchored in something secure.

Sure, the non-religious conservative can look to history. But history is notoriously subject to alternative interpretations.

He or she can also look to extant social and cultural elements which exhibit some continuity with past practices, but here again there are problems. In a world like ours discontinuity rather than continuity is the norm. And, even then, the secular conservative must deploy a necessary - but also, in a sense, an arbitrary - bias against one (very important) class of cultural lore.

Razib skirts this problem. Why does his 'empirical conservatism' not apply to religious traditions? (If it did, by the way, it might begin to look something like William James's Pragmatism.)

There are clear psychological and practical advantages for those who find themselves able to embrace a set of religious doctrines or at least a religious outlook, to convince themselves that certain of their intuitions penetrate into a sacred realm rather than being mere tricks of the brain. It is potentially very appealing to feel linked to a higher power and bound in a profound and intimate way with one's co-religionists.

Arguably we evolved for this; it is natural for us. But reason and - in particular scientific reason, that particularly unnatural mode of thought - stands implacably opposed to religious modes of thought and feeling.

Scientific reason expels us from paradise and gives in return very little from the human point of view.

No wonder, then, that secular conservatism is an unstable and unsatisfying position. Much of what one values one is bound to question and possibly to reject. One is a conservative and yet (in the eyes of many) not a conservative, a liberal and yet not a liberal.

The temptation is always to flick the switch to something radical and irrational and more in line with our deeper, evolved natures. The Romantics knew this well, and out of Romanticism grew a whole range of potent ideologies of radical change and transformation.

Some of these ideologies - the most sinister in fact - looked to the past as well as the future. The radical conservatisms of continental Europe during the 1920s and 30s come readily to mind, and there are signs that groups with (albeit tenuous) links to this tradition of thought and action are gaining some support today, especially in economically distressed areas.

Razib Khan associates such traditions with what he calls rationalism, by which he means social or political thinking based on principles which are accepted as true or appropriate and applied willy-nilly. Top-down thinking as distinct from a bottom-up, empirical approach.

But rationalism can also be understood in a broader sense and contrasted with the irrational. And, in this sense, the author is clearly a rationalist.

Which is fine. But, as I have suggested, I think he fails sufficiently to see or at least appreciate the full extent of human irrationality, its depth, its inevitability.

The fact is that the elements of our nature which motivate action and drive us this way and that are dark and complex and a million miles from scientific reason.

Intellectuals are all too prone to retrospectively rationalize their choices, to present a favored view of things as consistent and empirically justified, as if an ideology were like a scientific theory.

In his article Razib Khan makes some good Burkean points about the wisdom implicit in cultural traditions etc., but the talk about human flourishing doesn't quite ring true to me.

This is partly because it is a jargon phrase based on reheated ancient philosophy. It is also because it is being presented as an ideal, a standard against which different systems may be empirically measured, and it seems to me too vague a concept to be so applied.

Vague, and maybe (in the wrong hands) dangerous.