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.


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

    Not sure about that. The times when religion did provide such security were (I think) usually also times in which communities and families were very stable, even rigid. And sometimes religion has been a source of deep division and insecurity.

    The causal directions seem unclear.

    1. Religion can be a cause of (social) division and (social and individual) insecurity, but I am focusing here on what an individual feels him or herself to know, to be sure of.

      One of the attractions of traditional religion was that it seemed to provide some certainty about the important things in life. Historically metaphysics has played a similar role for intellectuals (e.g. 19th-century idealism).

      I take your point that strong religious belief has been associated with rigid social structures, and you're right, the causal link (and direction) is difficult to specify.

  2. it's not secure. not sure why you think i should make the argument you think i should make. anyway, just wanted to leave a comment that it would be nice if you corrected the spelling of my name. it's khan, not kahn. it's mispelled enough that sometimes google suggests i spell it the wrong way.

    1. I agree of course that religious people who believe that their convictions are 'anchored in something secure' are mistaken.

      But it seems to me that a desire for intellectual security and certainty is a part of the conservative mentality. And, as a matter of fact, it's very hard to find conservative thinkers who are/were not in some sense religious. (Burke was, of course.)

      Sorry about the misspelling. Will fix.

  3. But it seems to me that a desire for intellectual security and certainty is a part of the conservative mentality.

    not mine.

    and i don't think you are characterizing the intellectual currents appropriately. who was more certain, burke or bentham? in the 1980s conservatives were certain that communism was bad, while liberals were equivocal. but liberals were certain that social engineering was feasible, while conservatives were equivocal (the equivocation being manifest in the reality that it is difficult, though not impossible, for liberal social engineering programs to be rolled back by conservatives, who adapt and accommodate in this domain rather than innovate).

    you make a fair point about transcendent grounding, but this spans both left and right. most people implicitly think they have this.

    1. I look at it like this. Conservatives have tended to be conventionally religious or at least philosophical idealists. Left-wing and radical thinkers on the other hand tend to make a religion of politics.

      Arguably we all have a religious instinct (a desire for transcendent grounding, as you put it) and conservatives have the better politics precisely because they do not turn to politics to satisfy it.

      It's harder for secular conservatives because their religious instinct (if they have one) remains unsatisfied.

    2. i don't have a good idea of what you're trying to say in a precise fashion. i don't have a religious instinct. well, how is it unsatisfied? strikes me like like saying that my gay sex instinct is unsatisfied. technically true, since i don't have one, but trivial.

      in any case, i'm not sure of the empirical solidity of your assertions. in part because they aren't as sharply formulated as i'd like them to be for me to test them against my own internal data set of historical and philosophical knowledge. (i.e., in many nations it is conservatives who have defended the sacredness of the nation-state through the fusion of church and state; the cult of reason substituting the old church)

    3. It's impossible to make these sorts of things perfectly precise. One reason for this is that many of the words we use to talk about ideology and religion are context-dependent. ('Conservatism', for example.)

      It's certainly hard to convey (even sometimes to ascertain) our religious (or non-religious) instincts or intuitions. And, by the way, I meant to say earlier that I think one needs to distinguish between the transcendent certainty or assurance which religious people claim to feel, and certainty about the rightness of certain political policies. You can have the first without the second.

      It all gets very complicated - and frustrating. Nonetheless I think one can learn something by discussing these sorts of things. And by just listening to people and observing their behavior.

      For example, within my own extended family there are some seriously left-wing individuals for whom radical political ideas operate just like a religion does in other families. It is - I suspect you agree - quite a common phenomenon.

      When I read back over what I have written on this post, I generally feel that I could (given sufficient time and space) defend it (at least as a viable point of view).

      But I admit that the issues are not totally clear. For me this kind of writing and discussion is not only a way of clarifying but also of exploring.

  4. Very thoughtful, as usual. I confess to a sense of tension between the secular and the conservative. I only came to conservatism after many years in the world and some reading of history. Moreover, it's a fairly long explanation why the methods of the Left do not typically achieve the goals of the Left (or do so at a cultural cost that usually dooms a civilization). All this seems like special pleading to many people. It's hardly a sound-bite answer. On the other hand, conservatism sustained by religious values gives the feeling of being rooted in something beyond human casuistry. It may be an illusion, but it is a comforting illusion. In the end, it may have more instrumental value than all my arguments.

    1. A tension, yes. Moderate secular conservatism is just never going to be a popular position.

      I read something you wrote some months ago which suggested to me that you were toying with an attenuated form of religious belief. Maybe I misinterpreted. Just thought I'd mention it. Am always interested in what people believe deep down, and changes of belief, but maybe it's a mistake to try to be too explicit (and there is also the privacy issue).

    2. Perceptive as always. Years ago I was a strict atheist. I was so because I accepted the science of a steady-state universe and the logical point that if the universe could have always existed there was no need of God as a hypothesis. Science no longer supports a steady-state universe, and the attempts to get round the implications of the big bang seem to me like special pleading. There seems to be room for a first cause, and maybe even the need for a non-contingent being. Also, the initial conditions of space-time, to include entropy, the laws of physics, and the values of several dozen physical constants, are not plausible accidents. Taken together, these points suggest a creator with a plan. Nothing so far demands belief in any particular kind of creator. Indeed, both natural and human history suggest indifference--or worse. I sometimes wonder if we are part of a vast experiment.

    3. For some reason, I keep thinking that a solution to these perennial problems may be just around the corner. Our fundamental science has made great advances in the last hundred years, even in the last fifty, but we seem to be as far away as ever from answering the questions that matter from a human point of view. I have the sense that sentience or consciousness is at the heart of things (a universe becoming – through us and maybe others – conscious of itself...).

      I agree with you that a putative creator would appear, on the face of it, to have certain moral (or other) deficiencies.

    4. I have no evidence for the importance of consciousness other than my own hunch that you're right. It seems obvious to me that consciousness is a candidate phenomenon for center stage in either drama: creator's plan or universal destiny. Or, maybe it's just an emergent quality of trivial significance in a wholly determined naturalistic sequence of events.

      Personal question: Do you experience theological doubt as a feeling, or as a logical conviction? For me, it's a little of both.

    5. 'Theological doubt' sounds like something mainstream Christians or Jews might experience from time to time! My position is that the personal, morally-engaged God I used to believe in only really makes sense in the context of other beliefs about his historical interactions or links with various human figures and institutions. (Think of Pascal's God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob which he contrasted with the God of the philosophers.) Once I rejected (or saw as very implausible) that particular interpretation of history, there was nothing to sustain the view that my idea of God was anything more than an illusion or kind of fantasy. My rejection of (that kind of) theism was based on a reinterpretation of history, and so more on reason than feeling.

      With respect to the God of the philosophers, things are more complicated. Ancient philosophers often incorporated moral elements into their idea of a supreme being. To the extent that we are talking simply about a 'first cause' and so on, settling the matter seems to come down to science in the end. But science can't deal with the values side of things (and any humanly meaningful idea of a deity incorporates values).

      I am currently trying to clarify my ideas on consciousness (and personal identity) – but I am not optimistic about making progress.

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