On the conservative quarrel with reason

Left-liberalism is the ideology of the elite, and the inculcation of its doctrines is what is regarded as education, so of course liberals are on average smarter, better behaved, richer, more industrious, fitter, and more sexually attractive than conservatives. Failure to conform is almost always a sign of defect; almost never a sign of being more perceptive than one’s host society. However, when liberals say that conservatives are hostile to reason, they are making a more interesting claim, one about the role of public reason in our system compared to theirs.

Unfortunately, there have been few first-rate conservative epistemologists, and some, like Burke and Maistre, have spoken rather too sweepingly on this matter, so liberals cannot be blamed for any inaccurate conclusions on our attitude toward reason. We should admit that, while reason has a role in conservative governance, it is more subordinate than in liberal governance. We really do have a lower estimation of man’s ability to deduce principles of social justice from a priori reasoning. In this sense, conservatism is anti-reason in the same way that empirical science is anti-reason. Just as scientific reasoning begins from observations about the world and may not appeal to a priori reasoning to demand the data be different, so conservative moral reasoning begins with inherited practices and may not appeal to a priori reasoning to demand an overthrow of tradition.

Let’s try to draw this distinction more sharply, to be as fair as possible to both political traditions. Most liberals recognize that we first learn particular normative practices of an established social order, and then, by generalizing from them, apprehend abstract concepts such as fairness or equality. They would say, though, that once apprehended, such concepts are intelligible in themselves and can be used to critique the social order itself.

Conservatives lean toward more emergentist, less Platonist, understandings of abstract moral imperatives. A conservative would say that general normative principles–“treat others as ends and not merely as means”, “love thy neighbor”, etc–abstracted from a social context have very little definite content, that we need a society and its tradition to say what it means to treat someone fairly, what it means to recognize persons as ends in themselves, and which people are to be regarded as equal in what way. The particular rules always serve as a guide to understanding the general principles, so that when the former seem to conflict with the latter, it is usually our understanding of the principles that must be corrected.

There is another way conservatives could be said to assign reason a more humble role, regarding not what our intellects are able to prove but what they are able to say. What we can articulate is not the totality of what we know or to what we can commit ourselves. Conservatives often emphasize the importance of tacit knowledge and the power of symbolism, sacrament, myth, and ritual. Magnanimous liberals will often admit that ritual and symbolism can embody knowledge beyond the powers of the ignorant masses to directly comprehend, but they will usually assume that if this is true knowledge then the elite can know it in explicit propositional form, dispensing with all non-literal packaging. Conservatives will insist that the meaning of the sacraments is inexhaustible, that the fact that they are not literal speech allows them to exceed the limits of literal speech, and that we never outgrow our need for them, no matter how smart or articulate we get. The fact that most of us are not very smart or articulate perhaps makes it easier for us to accept this truth, but truth it remains.

Appendix: notes on natural law and tradition (stuff I’ve covered many times elsewhere but which might be useful to some readers here)

Aristotle relocated Plato’s Ideas out of a transcendent realm, making them the forms embodied in concrete beings. The conservative likewise grounds his ethics in the given intelligibility he finds in the world. I have been emphasizing the social world, but conservatives also famously find normative structure in the biological world, the “natural law” grounded in “human nature”. Here again, morality emerges from existing ordered being rather than as dictates of abstract practical reason, so the conservative has no ground to subject human nature itself to critique. In particular, the different reproductive roles of the two sexes and the natural attachment to kin he sees not only instinct but meaning, a calling grounded in our bodies to particular types of self-giving. He would not wish to change arrangements he regards as natural in order to make them more fair. A human construct fairer by some abstract measure (communal child rearing, identical sex roles, cosmopolitanism), being unnatural, would also be alienating, less personal, and less beautiful.

Conservatives appeal to tradition and natural law in similar ways. This would seem to introduce a potential tension–what if natural law and inherited tradition disagree? Even if that never happens, if we have nature, why do we need tradition? The reason, as pointed out by the scholastics, is that the natural law is too general in itself and needs human positive law and custom to give it definite form. Without these social contexts, we would have no way to connect natural law commands, such as to honor the dead and to dress modestly, with concrete actions and rules. To sum up, natural law needs law and custom to be concrete and actionable; law and custom need natural law to be intelligible.

Although conservatives consider it to be an unusual and pathological situation, there remains the logical possibility of conflict between tradition and natural law. This is far less common than supposed by Whig historians. There is a difference between widespread practice and normative tradition, and no one doubts that the former may have undesirable elements. Also, the fact that a genuine tradition violates liberal sensibilities is not enough to condemn it, because we conservatives do not recognize the authority of those sensibilities. A tradition can only be condemned by its contradiction of an equally concrete, equally venerable prohibition. Furthermore, the possibility that the two could be reconciled by a more refined understanding of the prohibition (based on deeper understanding of it, not ad hoc qualifications), would have to be eliminated. Tradition should have benefit of doubt, because discarding it will certainly make some aspect of the natural law less concrete and accessible.

8 thoughts on “On the conservative quarrel with reason

  1. @Bonald. Meta-comment. Don’t you feel that trying to maintain this category of ‘conservative’ (or reactionary) – and trying to build-in the assumption that this is a Good Thing – is counter-productive at this stage of things?

    Inevitably, this way of reasoning tends towards detaching conservatism from Christianity – trying to construct a ‘secular Right’ politics?

    This then leads to a way of thinking, evident in your exposition, that divides nations into two large groups of the Left-Liberals and the Conservatives (with broadly equivalent political parties) – when (surely?) the fact that all have become aware of in 2020 is that conservatives and left-liberals (thus defined) are merely two wings of a single Global Establishment Leftism (which now has totalitarian control). All of which is on board with virus-healthism, antiracism, CO2 global warming and the sexual revolution (in one of more of its platforms – which include, from 50-plus years ago – the good-ness of extra-marital promiscuity and no-fault, serial divorce/ annulment).

    It seems more valid (and clearer) to oppose Leftism with Christian – and to derive politics from Christian. And ackowledging that Christians are here and now (proportionately) very rare birds – without political representation.

    If we persist in trying to refine concepts of conservatism to practical use, then we get the common internet phenomenon of people judging Christianity by its conformity to conservative/ reactionary ‘principles’ – when, in truth, any validity to conservatism comes-from Christianity.

    Clearer and truer to begin with Christian *motivations*, and regard politics in terms of the presence or not of these motivations – the practicalities being matters of fluid expedience (rather than principles).

    • Hi Bruce,

      It seems to me that both Christians and conservatives are utterly marginal and irrelevant groups at this point. I probably wouldn’t bother talking about either if I weren’t one. The question is whether conservatism is a useful concept, whether it assists or hinders clear thinking. For political philosophy, I think it’s a useful concept. Unfortunately, political philosophy is basically a dead field now that Leftism has achieved hegemony, and there’s nothing fundamental left for people to argue about, at least nothing I would find interesting. I used to be very interested in the subject, though, and some of the best output of my misspent intellectual life was in its service under this pseudonym, so I like to take advantage of little dust-ups like the one between JMSmith and a.morphous to get an audience for my old arguments. It doesn’t seem to have worked though.

      • I read and enjoyed it, too. (You’re too quick to assume that lack of comments equates to lack of interest).

        But, perhaps as a modest attempt to spur discussion: what about a natural law proscription such as “Thou shalt not murder”? That seems pretty general already. Sure, you have to have a very basic concept of human nature to come to that conclusion, but how much in the way of particular traditions or social context do you need to have in order to know how to apply it?

      • The prohibition against murder is indeed a good example of a natural law proscription that is already pretty well determined and so gives a very minimal sort of guidance for interacting with people with no shared social context. Within a society, the main role of social context for this law is to determine exceptions like war and the death penalty. At least, that’s how it seems to me.

  2. Pingback: On the conservative quarrel with reason | Reaction Times

  3. I find this post to be valuable, Bonald. If “reason” broadly means “a faculty or process which enables us to grasp truth,” then we must use it. At the same time, the left (meaning the faction that hates Christians, whites, and other believers in traditional ways) tries to claim sole ownership of reason. Therefore those of us not on the left must have a right understanding of reason, lest we become either irrationalists (“I believe it just because that’s the way of my people”) or leftists.

    The best use of reason is to understand Scripture, God’s Revelation to mankind, and to understand the mundane world in which we live. But reason must properly be subordinated, lest we make it supreme and thereby endorse leftism. Therefore it is useful to be reminded that reason as an independent force is destructive, and that wisdom must be embedded in already-existing traditions, with Christianity as the most important part of tradition. The Protestant Reformers referred to the ministerial use of reason, in which Christianity is supreme and reason is its handmaid, as opposed to the magisterial use of reason, in which man thinks of himself as supreme.

    I also hold that “conservative” is still a useful category. With the understanding that normal, mainstream conservatism is now just a milder form of leftism, we still need a name for non-left. If the left is well-defined (the faction that hates us), then anti-leftism, commonly called “conservatism” remains a useful term, as long as we understand that the mainstream has completely sold out to the left.

    I’m not quite as pessimistic as you. If their system is false, eventually it will go away. But it will cause a lot of damage before that day dawns.


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