Social conservatism

Social conservatism

Social conservatism is a political philosophy in which supports and defends what are considerred to social, political and economic institutions, including family values, charity, prohibition of drugs. Social conservatism can be differentiated from neo-conservatism, libertarianism, corporatism and fundamentalism which are often all considered to be part of the political right. Social conservatism is particularly popular among those who also support evangelism.

Politically, philosophical conservatives are cautious in tampering with forms of political behavior and institutions and they are especially skeptical of whole scale reforms; they err on the side of tradition - not for tradition’s sake, but from a skeptical view of our human ability to redesign whole ranges of social values that have evolved over and adapted to many generations; detrimental values will, conservatives reason, fall into disuses of their own accord.

Conservatives typically possess a pessimistic vision of human nature, drawing on the modern tradition, on Thomas Hobbes’s belief, that were it not for strong institutions, men would be at each others’ throats and would constantly view one another with deep suspicion. (Their emphasis is thus not on the ensuing hypothetical pacifying social contract but on the prevalence of fear in human society). Conservatives are highly skeptical of power and our human desire to use it, for they believe that in time it corrupts even the most freedom loving wielders: hence, the potential accession to any position of supreme power over others, whether in the guise of a national or international chamber, is to be rejected as being just as dangerous a state as Hobbes’s vision of the anarchic state of nature.

For conservatives, the value of institutions cannot always be examined according to the rational analysis of the present generation. This imposes a demand on conservatism to explain or justify the rationale of supporting historical institutions. Previously, conservatives implicitly or explicitly reverted to the myths of our human or of a particular culture’s origins to give present institutions a sacred status - or at least a status worthy of respect; however, evolutionary thinkers from the Scottish Enlightenment (e.g., Adam Ferguson), whose insights noted the trial and error nature of cultural (and hence moral and institutional) developments generated a more precise and historically ratifiable examination of institutions and morals – cf., the work of Friedrich Hayek especially.

Accordingly, in contrast to many liberals, conservatives decry the notion of a social contract – or even its possibility in a modern context. Since societies evolve and develop through time, present generations possess duties and responsibilities whose origins and original reasons may now be lost to us, but which, for some thinkers, still require our acceptance. Justifying this is problematic for the conservative: present cultural xenophobia may emanate from past aggressions against the nation’s territory and may not serve any present purpose in a more commercial atmosphere; or present racism may emerge from centuries of fearful mythologies or again violent incursions that no longer are appropriate. But conservatives reply that since institutions and morals evolve, their weaknesses and defects will become apparent and thereby will gradually be reformed (or merely dropped) as public pressure against them changes. What the conservative opposes is the potential absolutist position of either the liberal or the socialist who considers a form of behavior or an institution to be valid and hence politically binding for all time.

Conservatives thus do not reject reform but are thoroughly skeptical of any present generation’s or present person’s ability to understand and hence to reshape the vast edifices of behavior and institutions that have evolved with the wisdom of thousands of generations. They are thus skeptical of large scale planning, whether it be constitutional or economical or cultural. Against socialists who become impatient with present defects, the conservatives counsel patience: not for its own sake, but because the vast panoply of institutions that are rallied against – including human nature – cannot be reformed without the most detrimental effects. Conservatives – following Edmund Burke – thus typically condemn revolutions and coups as leading to more bloodshed and violence than that which the old regime produced.

Some conservatives argue that a modicum of redistribution is required to ensure a peaceful non-revolutionary society. Whereas modern liberals justify redistribution on the grounds of providing an initial basis for human development, conservatives possess a pragmatic fear of impoverished masses rising up to overthrow the status quo and its hierarchy stems from the conservative reaction to the French Revolution. The conservative critique by Edmund Burke was particularly accurate and prescient, yet the Revolution also served to remind the political hierarchy of its obligations (noblesse oblige) to the potentially violent masses that the revolt had stirred up. The lesson has not been lost on modern conservative thinkers who claim that the state has certain obligations to the poor – including perhaps the provision of education and health facilities, or at least the means to secure them. In contrast to socialists though (with whom some conservatives may agree with a socialized system of poor relief), conservatives generally prefer to emphasize local and delegated redistribution schemes (perhaps even of a wholly voluntary nature) rather than central, state directed schemes.

In affinity with classical liberals, conservatives often emphasize the vital importance of property rights in social relations. Liberals tend to lean towards the utilitarian benefits that accrue from property rights (e.g., a better distribution of resources than common ownership or a method of providing incentives for further innovation and production), whereas conservatives stress the role private property in terms of its ability to check the power of the state or any other individual who seeks power. Conservatives see private property as a sacred, intrinsically valuable cornerstone to a free and prosperous society.

The broad distribution of private property rights complements the conservative principle that individuals and local communities are better assessors of their own needs and problems than distant bureaucrats. Since conservatives are inherently skeptical of the state, they prefer alternative social associations to support, direct, and assist the maturation of civilized human beings, e.g., the family, private property, religion, as well as the individual’s freedom to make his own mistakes.

Conservatives of the English Whig tradition (Locke, Shaftesbury) have much in common with classical liberals, whereas conservatives of the English Tory tradition have more in common with modern liberals, agreeing to some extent with the need for state intervention but on pragmatic rather than necessary grounds. Those of the Whig tradition accordingly ally themselves more with individualism and rationalism than Tory conservatives, who emphasize community and ‘one-nation’ politics and its corresponding duties and responsibilities for the individual. The two, initially opposing doctrines, merged politically in the late Nineteenth Century as liberalism shifted its ground to incorporate socialist policies: the two sides of conservativism enjoyed a particularly visible and vocal clash in the late Twentieth Century in the political reign of Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom.

Sources and Resources:

Political Philosophy - Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy