Saturday, April 26, 2008


The opposite of "conservative" is not "liberal" but "radical". The essence of conservatism is not unthinking resistance to any form of change, but rather a respect for practices that have proven successful in the past, and a reluctance to replace them with new ones which have only theoretical support. A sensible person is conservative to an extent, but not excessively so. New practices should be tried in small experiments before widespread adoption unless the arguments that they will prove superior are overwhelming or continuing in the old practices is for some reason no longer an option. No matter how confident one is in the value of one's own ideas, one should understand that others will be justifiably less so.

The basis of conservative thought is not so much pessimism as intellectual humility. We are not necessarily more intelligent nor more moral than were our ancestors, although we are more technologically advanced. The radical, on the other hand, suffers from intellectual hubris. If can find no theoretical justification for a long established custom, he ascribes its persistence to mere habit and superstition. He does not consider the argument that the persistence of a custom is itself evidence that the custom has empirically proven itself to be adaptive to be a valid one.

It is certainly possible that practices can continue for centuries or even millenia no other reason than cultural inertia, but one should only conclude this is what is occurring after having spent a reasonable amount of effort searching for other possibilities. Somewhat more plausible is the possibility that traditions benefit a privileged few who are responsible for their persistence. But even this implies a level of stupidity on the part of the general populace that should not be too readily assumed. People often are stupid and ignorant, of course, but they tend to be most so in areas where it would not practically benefit them to be wise.

I think conservatism has largely failed to attract intellectuals in America for two main reasons: intellectual hubris is a lot more fun than intellectual humility, and it has become associated with revealed religion, in particular with a literal interpretation of scripture which requires a belief in facts which have been fairly conclusively proven to be empirically false. The religious association is largely spurious. Religious institutions have often been radical rather than conservative voices, and have often attempted to justify their radical positions on (novel interpretations of) scripture. But conservative social institutions really don't have much in the way of direct scriptural support.

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