(This post is an excerpt, with some minor updating, from the longer essay in the post What Is Rick Perry Talking About? )
What is Conservatism?
Conservatism is the morality which is built on all of the moral foundations in equal balance, as illustrated in this 19 minute video on TED.com: The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives
I believe that moral foundations are much more deeply ingrained in us than the video might lead one to believe. I think they determine not only what we think about morality, but also how we think. I believe that moral foundations are not only the building blocks of our moral constructs (as described in the video), but they are also the color-receptors of our moral eye, and they are the cognitive tools we use to construct the moral and political arguments with which we defend our own ideas and attack the ideas of the other side. And finally, I believe that, through all of these things, moral foundations define the scope of our reality, and by extension, of the possible. In short, moral foundations define our moral and cognitive “vision” in every sense of the word.
As the video illustrates, social science research reveals that the conservative vision “sees” the full spectrum of human nature. I believe that this perception, this vision, of human nature leads to an unblinkingly honest grasp of it, and thus to several of the “Recurrent Conservative Assumptions and Predispositions” that are described by Jerry Z. Muller in the opening essay of the book Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought from David Hume to the Present, the first two of which, as listed by Muller, are “Human Imperfection” and “Epistemological Modestly.” Of the former, Muller says “Conservative thought has typically emphasized the imperfection of the individual, an imperfection at once biological, emotional, and cognitive.” Of the latter, he says “Conservatives have also stressed the cognitive element of human imperfection, insisting upon the limits of human knowledge, especially of the social and political world.” (page 10). I agree with Muller, but I disagree with the conventional wisdom that this means conservatism takes a pessimistic view of human nature. Rather, I believe that the all-foundation, full spectrum perception of the conservative morality yields a realistic view of not only what is (i.e., our reality) but also of what can be (i.e., the possible).
Recognizing the fallibility of human thought, conservatism mistrusts reason alone as the basis for policy initiatives, preferring instead to use reason in combination with a relatively much heavier dose of the wisdom gained from experience.
Because of the complexity of human society, and because of the limits of human thought, memory, and knowledge, reason alone is really, really bad at predicting the most likely outcome of any policy initiative. But all that complexity it already built-in to experience; the outcome of every past initiative is much easier to know. Even though reason may be insufficient to explain why things happen the way they do, we can usually see from experience that whenever we do X we get Y. As the Founders said, “Experience is our surest guide.”
[NOTE: I believe this interpretation of conservatism diverges from the conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom maintains that conservatism is about resisting change and maintaining the status quo of customs, traditions, and institutions for their own sake. I believe this is a misinterpretation of conservatism; one that, in spite of his other insights about conservatism, even Muller is guilty of. He uses some form of the word “institution” somewhere on the order of 140 times in his essay. It’s not about institutuions! It’s about respecting experience as represented by institutions.
This may seem to be a small distinction, but I personally think it is huge. If more people understood conservatism as what I believe it really is, which is a respect for, and defense of, the collected wisdom of the ages gained through direct human experience, rather than as something it is not, which is an unreflective defense of custom, tradition, and institutions, then more people would understand conservatism, and the political divide might be just a little bit smaller.]
And last but not least, I think it follows from the full-spectrum perspective of humanity that conservatism tends to be focused on society as a whole, as well as on the individuals within it because, metaphorically speaking, a healthy hive is a prerequisite for healthy bees.