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Monday, June 17, 2013

The adjective not the noun

I – and others – have been reflecting lately on the concept of political conservatism, and these reflections have prompted some inchoate – and totally non-partisan – meta-thoughts on the problems of political ideology which I have set out below.


One assumption behind most reflections on conservatism (or on any political ideology) is that it is desirable to have a consciously worked out (personal) political philosophy. And the assumption behind this is that it is possible somehow to assess alternatives in a rational manner and arrive at a satisfactory conclusion. This latter assumption – on which the value of the whole exercise depends – I am beginning to doubt.

When you reflect on these matters, you have to start somewhere. And where you start will be somewhat arbitrary, though it may well be in part determined by your values.

For example, you may want to maximize equality; or you may be more concerned with individual freedom; or order, or one of any number of other ideals or goals.

My starting point – reflecting perhaps the importance I place on a scientific view of the world free of metaphysical and religious baggage – would be the social nature of human identity.

Even those who think they have totally rejected the idea of a soul still cling, I believe, to a version of this idea. It is a natural belief for us to have, and I still feel it in myself.

Take this simple thought experiment. A human body could, presumably, be grown in a laboratory, nourished and exercised to develop muscles, etc. But, if it were deprived of all normal social interactions, linguistic and other cultural input, the brain would not develop normally and this body, though apparently perfectly formed and healthy, would not, as a result, constitute a person. It would not have a human identity, or human awareness. What rights would it have, if any?

This idea of a living human body with a radically undeveloped brain (due to the withholding of social inputs during development) is – to me at any rate – slightly shocking and confronting. It tells us something about ourselves: that our sense of self, our human identity comes just as much from without – from a particular social and cultural milieu – as from within. The social matrix within which we grow is an essential component of our individuality and our very humanity. We never were and can never be 'self-contained'.

This fact has implications for any social or political philosophy. I won't try to spell out the implications here, except to say that such a view is fatal for all forms of atomistic individualism.

Values, as well as often determining the starting-point for one's basic thinking about politics, also play a part in determining the direction of the argument. And this basic notion of the social self could clearly be developed in either a progressive or a conservative direction. The choice seems to depend on taste or predilection.

Which leads me to wonder whether developing such thoughts and arguments is worthwhile (other than for polemical or similar purposes).

Moral, social and political reflections and arguments move in a linear fashion like language. In fact, the thoughts only really crystallize when spoken or written down. But, clearly, this linear process does not do justice to our deepest values which are multidimensional. Arguably, such a process cannot represent our values accurately, much less enable us to assess or justify them.

We can, of course, describe, catalogue and consider the various political outlooks which others have elaborated and defined, seeing them as more or less internally consistent and competing frameworks. But, unfortunately, all these frameworks are – necessarily – highly simplified conceptual structures which are inadequate not only as models for how the (social and political) world works (or could work), but also as representations of the actual political beliefs and values of individuals and groups.

They are arguably post hoc rationalizations, and their main function, you could say, is to faciltate the formation of, and deepen solidarity within, social and political groupings. Part marketing tool, part reinforcement mechanism.

What I am saying essentially is that such frameworks are inevitably inadequate as serious belief systems.

But, though the various –isms are no good, the adjectives from which they derive do real and important work. So I think one can still usefully talk about conservative approaches to social, political and other questions, and distinguish them from, for example, liberal (or progressive) approaches.

Increasingly I see these matters in terms of individuals having – due mainly to various genetic and developmental factors – different psychological profiles and personality traits. These differences can, of course, be mapped and defined in different ways, but something like a conservative/progressive or conservative/radical contrast will, I think, continue to be a feature of models of human personality and cognition.