"Conservatism is like liberalism and socialism in having several differents versions. Conservatives disagree with each other about basic questions, just as liberals and socialists do. It is, therefore, especially important to make clear at the beginning that the present work aims to develop and defend a particular version of conservatism." (p.X)
"The aim of this book is to convince reasonable and morally committed people that good lives are more likely to be lived under conservative political arrangements than under any other alternative currently available." (p.1)
"One distinctive feature of the conservatism defended here is its commitment to four basic beliefs: skepticism, pluralism, traditionalism, and pessimism. These beliefs are not theoritical constructs invented as external standards for evaluating political arrangements. They are constitutive features of the arrangements themselves, features that partly explains why the arrangements have been conducive to good lives. They beliefs are extracted from political arrangements rather than imposed on them as conclusions derived from some philosophical, political, or moral theory." (p.1)
"A good society must prohibit certain ways of living and acting. What these ways are depends on the universal, social, and individual requirements of good lives as they are historically conceived in the political morality of a particular society." (p.2)
"[This book] is not about the history of conservatism ; it is not a description of the tought of various contemporary conservatives ; it is not centrally concerned with practical conservative politics, although of course it has significant implications for it ; it is not an attempt to present a certain temperament that inclines people to adopt a conservative position ; it is not a mere survey of some central conservative values, ideals, doctrines, or principles ; and it is not a critical reflection on the present state of society from a conservative point of view. It is rather an attempt to articulate the basic beliefs of conservatism, show that they true and defend them against criticism." (p.3)
"That case has been deeply influenced by the political ideas of Aristotle, David Hume, and Michael Oakeshott." (p.3)
"Before reasonable politicies could be proposed it is necessary to formulate and defend the basic beliefs from which they could follow." (p.3)
"Is there then no context in which natural conservatism would be an inappropriate attitude ? Of course there is: the bad times in history. These are the times in which the prevailing conditions are so wretched, the enjoyment of life is restricted to so few, and the prospects of a better future are so poor for so many people that drastic change is called for. At these times, it is reasonable to take risks, as it was in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. As the history of revolutions shows, however, taking risks can lead to loss. Drastic changes can make a bad state of affairs even worse, as they have done in Russia in 1917 and in Iran in 1979." (p.9)
"Evil is the most severe condemnation that our moral vocabulary affords, and it should not be used lightly. But it is appropriate to use it to condemn the violation of the conditions of good lives. For what is at stake are not luxuries that add spice to life -chamber music, golf, and air conditioning- but necessities without which no life can be good. The conditions are of a civilized existence in which there are rules that prohibit destructive conduct, provide ways of adjudicating conflitcts, assign responsibility for the production of basic goods, and maintain the means to their own enforcement. Such rules are essential to order, security, prosperity, and hope, and they are conditions of good lives, no matter how differently they are conceived. When the rules hold, civilized life is possible ; when they do not, barbarism looms -a state in which anything goes because nothing is prohibited or required." (pp.9-10)
"Natural attitudes are unreflective, uninformed, and liable to go wrong in countless ways. That is why they need to be controlled by reflection. And this is why natural conservatism must be transformed and made reflective.
Of the multitude of conditions of good lives, reflective conservatism concentrates on those that can be best secured by political arrangements. Not all conditions can be secured, and not all that can be ought to be, because there are ares of life that should be left to the discretion of individuals. Reflective conservatism, therefore, is not an ambitious view about the nature of good lives, but a much more modest view about the political conditions that make good lives possible." (p.13)
"Some liberals start with a contract that rational and self-interested agents would supposedly arrive at in a hypothetical situation, and evaluate political arrangements on the basic of how closely they conform to the terms of the supposed contract. Utilitarian liberals start with some ideal of individual or collective welfare, and aim to change political arrangements so as to be better means to the achievement of their ideal. Socialists start with the desirability of a classless or egalitarian society and criticize the prevailing arrangements for failing to conform to what they regard as most worth having. Revolutionaries and terrorists start with the goal of destroying the existing arrangements because they regard them as evil. Romantics and reactionaries start with some idyllic Golden Age in the past, and they see the present as a corrupt falling away from it. In starting thus, all these opponents of conservatism begin with a presumption against the existing political arrangements. And they will take themselves to have arrived at their destination if they succeed in transforming these arrangements into what they think they ought to be. Conservatives differ from them because they start with a presumption in favor of the existing political arrangements, unless they are incorrigibly evil, and they aim to correct them only to the extent that coping with the conflicts makes necessary.
Conservatives start with this presumption because they take the endurance of the traditional arrangements of quite good and not-so-bad societies to be a strong initial reason for supporting them, and because they think that the arrangements are unlikely to have endured unless they hepled those subject to them to live good lives. This initial reason may be overridden if it is found on further reflection that the arrangements contributed to good lives only negligibly or that there are stronger reasons in favor of other ways of trying to make lives better. It is also true, of course, that the traditional arrangements of bad societies are so wretched as to exclude any presumption in their favor. In which case, conservatives will not be even initially disposed to support them.
The widespread rejection of the conservative starting point creates a climate of opinion that plays a significant role in the prevailling hostility toward conservatism. There is all the difference between starting with a presumption in favor of the existing political arrangements and starting with a presumption against them. The arrangements are often faulty, hard and costly to maintain, and interfere with people's doing as they please. Conservatives see, however, that it is in the nature of political arrangements that they make people feel put upon and that this feeling is not a sufficient reason against having them. Good reasons for some of them can be found, the hardships involved in maintaining some of them need to be borne, and their imperfections may be made tolerable by the alternatives' being much worse. In the minds of their opponents, the hardhips and the imperfections are uppermost because their political vision is colored by some ideal compared to which they find the existing arrangement grossly defective." (pp.14-15)
"Conservative reflection aims to find that resolution which, in the, existing circumstances, is most conductive to good lives." (p.21)
"These conditions, in alphabetical order, are: civility (reciprocal good will among citizens), equality (in the legal and political status of mature and responsible citizens), freedom (from interference and to live according to one's conception of a good life), healthy environment (the absence of pollution), justice (criminal and distributive), order (maintained through the relu of law), peace (domestic and international), prosperity (hight enough living standard to provide citizens with the means to live according to their conceptions of a good life), rights (guaranteed by a written Bill of Rights, precedent, or unwritten tradition), security (from physical violence and social coercion), toleration (non-interference with unpopular ways of life and conduct), and welfare (a decent level of education, employment, health care, housing, and nutrition). [...]
It is desirable to have each to as high a degree as possible, but it is most unlikely that any of them could obtain fully." (p.22)
"An essential feature shared by all opponents of conservatism, therefore, is the aim of resolving conflicts always in favor of some small number of specific conditions of good lives at the expense of others.
An essential feature of conservatism is the rejection of this aim. The conservative aim is to identify, maintain, and protect the system formed of all the political conditions of good lives. This aim requires resolving conflicts concerning these conditions and attributing overriding status to some of them. But the great difference between conservatives and their opponents is that conservatives believe that it cannot specified in advance which condition should be overriding and that any condition can be only temporarily overriding, whereas their opponents believe the contrary." (pp.23-24)
"The conservative standard is not theoretical, a priori, or global, but the concrete, practical, and local one of always resolving conflicts concerning the political conditions good lives so as to protect the whole system of conditions. What the resolution comes to in particular contexts cannot be specified in advance because it always depends on contingent historically changing considerations. But this does not make the standard arbitrary. For the standard relfects the ultimate aim of conservatism, which is to protect the political conditions of good lives. Their protection sometimes requires that freedom, equality, justice, and rights should override order, prosperity, security, and peace, and it sometimes requires the reserve. [...]
Conservatives, therefore, will not think that it is always unjustified to place [...] peace over the freedom to advocate the violent overthrow of the governement, or civility over the toleration of sado-masochistic pornography." (p.24)
"Unlike their opponents, conservatives look to the history of their own society to decide what arrangements are likely to lead to the joint realization of the conditions that are necessary for good lives. And what they will gain from reflection on their history are the arrangements that have stood the test of time and continued to command the allegiance of the people who have lived in their society. The reflection is conservative, therefore, because it interprets the general commitent to protecting the conditions of good lives in terms of the particular, concrete, and local arrangements that have been traditionally made in the interpreters' society.
It is essential to understanding conservatism, however, that the decisive consideration in favor of the conditions that conservatives aim to protect is not that they have become traditional, but that they actually are conditions of good lives. Conservatives acknowledge, indeed they insist, that the particular interpretations of them that have been favored in their society may or may not be reasonable, that they stand in need of justication, and that they may be criticized and revised or abandoned. What is crucial to the conservative position is that the activities of adducing reasons pro or con and offering justifications or criticisms must be done in terms of the historical arrangements and conceptions of a good life that exist in that society. This necessity is logical, not psychological, moral, or political. For nothing could be recognized as having a justificatory or critical force, unless it appeals to the pre-existing commitentments of the people in question." (p.25)
"Lives are good if the balance between the satisfactions enjoyed and the benefits conferred, on the one hand, and the dissatisfactions suffered and the harms inflicted, on the other, is strongly in favor of the former. The fundamental aim of the political morality of conservatism is to conserve the political arrangements that have historically shown themselves to be conducive to good lives thus understood." (p.27)
"The four basic beliefs jointly constitute the strongest version of conservatism and distinguish it both from other versions of conservatism and from other non-conservative political moralities." (p.28)
"All conservatives agree that history is the appropriate starting point for their reflection, but some of them believe that it is not a contingent fact that certain political arrangements have historically fostered good lives, while others have been detrimental to them. Conservatives who believe this think that there is a deepter explanation for the historical success or failure of various political arrangements. They believe that there is a rational and moral order in reality. Political arrangements that conform to this order foster good lives, those that conflict with it are bound to make lives worse." (p.28)
"Opposed to these rationalistically inclined conservatives and nonconservative Utopians are skeptical conservatives. Their skepticism, however, may either take an extreme or a moderate form. The extreme form of skepticism is fideism. It involves reliance on faith and the repudiation of reason. Fideistic conservatives reject reason as a guide to the political arrangements that a good society ought to have. It makes no difference to them whether the reasons are metaphysical, scientific, or merely empirical. They are opposed to relying on reason whatever form it may take. Their opposition is based on their belief that all forms of reasoning are ultimately based on assumptions that must be accepted on faith and that it is possible to juxtapose to any chain of reasoning another chain that is equally plausible and yet incompatible with it.
Their rejection of the guidance of reason, however, leaves fideistic conservatives with the problem of how to decide what political arrangements they ought to favor. The solution they have historically offered is to be guided by faith or to perpetuate the existing arrangements simply because they are familiar. The dangers of either solution have been as evident in the historical record as the dangers of the preceding approach. Faith breebs dogmatism, the persecution of those who rejetct it or who hold other faiths, and it provides no ground for regarding the political arrangements it favors as better than contrary ones. Whereas the perpetuation of the status quo on account of its familiarity makes it impossible to improve the existing political arrangements.
A via media between the dangerous extremes of rationalistic politics and the fideistic repudiation of reason is skepticism that takes a moderate form. Conservatives who hold this view need not deny that there is a rational and moral order in reality. They are committed only to denying that reliable knowledge of it can be had. Skeptical conservatives are far more impressed by human fallibility than by the success of efforts to overcome it. They think that the claims that some truths are revealed, that some texts are canonical, that some knowledge embodies eternal verities stand in need of persuasive evidence. They regard these claims only as credible as the evidence that is available to support them. But the evidence is as questionable as the claims are that it is adduced to support. According to skeptical conservatives, it is therefore far more reasonable to look to the historical record of various political arrangements than to endeavor to justify or criticize them by appealing to meta-physical or utopian considerations that are bound to be less reliable than the historical record.
Skepticism, however, does not lead conservatives to deny that it is possible to evaluate political arrangements by adducing reasons for and against them. What they deny is that good reasons must be absolute and eternal." (pp.30-31)
"There are countless satisfactions and benefits, there are countless ways of combining them and evaluating their respective importance, and so there are countless ways in which can be good. If conservatives are committed to political arrangements that foster good lives, then they must have a view about what lives are good, what satisfactions and benefits are worth valuing. They must have a view, that is, about the values that make lives good. The second distinction that poses questions for conservatives is between two views about the diversity of values. These views have a fundamental influence on the kinds of reasons that their defenders offer for or against particular political arrangements.
Absolutists belive that the diversity of values is apparent, not real. They concede that there are many values, but they think that there is a universal and objective standard that can be appealed to in evaluating the respective importance of all these values. This standard may be a hightest value, and all other values then can be ranked on the basis of their contribution to its realization. The highest value may be happiness, duty, God's will, a life of virtue, and so forth. Or the standard may be a principle, such as, for instance, the catégorical imperative, the greatest happiness for the greatest number, the Ten Commandments, or the Golden Rule. If a choice needs to be made between differents values, then the principle will determine which value ought to take precedence. Absolutists, then, give as their reason for preferring some political arrangements over others that the preferred ones conform more closely to the universal and objective standard than the alternatives to it.
Absolutism, of course, often has a rationalistic basic. For the most frequently offered reason in favor of the universality and objectivity of the standard that absolutists regard as the highest is that it reflects the rational and moral order of reality. This is the inspiration behind the attempts to establish ecclesiastical polities, on the right, and egalitarian, utopian, or millenial ones, on the left. [...]
It is a considerable embarrassment to absolutists that the candidates for universal and objective standards are also diverse, and thus face the same problems as the values whose diversity is supposed to be diminished by them. Absolutists acknowledge this, and explain it in terms of human shortcomings that prevent people from recognizing the one and true standard. The history of religious wars, revolutions, left and right-wing tyrannies, and persecutions of countless unbelievers, all aiming to rectify human shortcomings, testifies to the dangers inherent in this explanation.
Opposed to absolutism is relativism. Relativists regard the diversity of values as real: there are many values and there are many ways of combining and ranking them. There is no universal and objective standard that could be appealed to in resolving disagreements about the identity and importance of the satisfactions and benefits that form the substance of values. A good society, however, requires some consensus about what is accepted as a possibility and what is placed beyond limits. The political arrangements of a good society reflect this consensus, and the arrangements change as the consensus does. What counts as a value and how seriously it counts depends, then, according to relativists, on the consensus of a society. A value is what is valued in a particular context ; all values, therefore, are context-dependent.
This is not to say that values and the political arrangements that reflect them cannot be rationally justified or ciritized. They can be, but the reasons that are given for or against them count as reasons only within the context of the society whose values and political arrangements they are. The reasons appeal to the prevailling consensus, and they will not and are not meant to persuade those who are not part of the consensus. The ultimate appeal of relativists is to point at their arrangements and say: this is what we do here. If relativism takes a conservative form, it often results in the romantic celebration of national identity, of the spirit of a people and an age, of the shared landscape, historical milestones, ceremonies, stylistic conventions, manners, and rituals that unite a society.
Just as absolutism is naturally allied to a rationalistic orientation, so relativism is readily combined with fideism. If there is no discernible rational and moral order in reality, then the best guide to good lives and the political arrangements that foster them is the historical faith that prevails in a society. But the faith of one society is different from the faith of another. It is only to be expected therefore that good lives and favored political arrangements will correspondingly differ.
Relativists appear to have the advantage of avoinding the dangers of dogmatism and repression that so often engulf absolutism. This appearance, however, is deceptive. Relativism is no less prone to dogmatism and repression than absolutism. From the fact that the political arrangements of the relativists' society are not thought to be binding outside of it, nothing follows about the manner in which they are held within it. In fact, if the world is full of people and societies whose values are often hostile to the values and political arrangements of the relativist's society, then there is much the more reason to guard jealously those values and political arrangements. If the justification of the political arrangements of a society is the consensus that prevails in it, then any value and any political arrangement becomes justifiable just as long as sufficiently large number of people in the society support the consensus favoring them. Thus slavery, female circumcision, the maltreatment of minorities, child prostitution, the mutilation of criminals, blood feuds, bridery, and a lot of other political arrangements may become sanctioned on the grounds that that is what happens to be valued here.
These pitfalls of the rationalistic aspirations of absolutism and the fideistic orientation of relativism make them unreliable sources of reasons for evaluating political arrangements. It is with some relief then that conservatives may turn to pluralism as an intermediate position between these dangerous extremes. Pluralists are in partial agreement and disagreement with both absolutists and relativists. According to pluralists, there is a universal and objective standard, but it is applicable only to some values. The standard is universal and objective enough to apply to some values that must be recognized by all political arrangements that foster good lives, but it is not sufficiently universal and objective to apply to all the many diverse values that may contribute to good lives. The standard, in other words, is a minimal one.
It is possible to establish with reference to it some universal and objective values required by all good lives, but the standard does not specify all the values that good lives require. It undertemines the nature of good lives. It regards some political arrangements as necessary for good lives, and it allows for a generous plurality of possible political arrangements beyond the necessasy minimum. The standard operates in the realm of moral necessity, and it leaves open what happens in the realm of moral possibility. The standard thus accomodates part of the universalistic aspiration of absolutism and part of the historicist orientation of relativism. Absolutism prevails in the realm of moral necessity ; relativism prevails in the realm of moral possibility.
The source of this standard is human nature. To understand human nature sufficiently for the purposes of the standard does not require plumbinh the depths of the soul, unraveling the obscure springs of human motivation, or conducting scientific research. It does not call for any metaphysical commitment and it can be held without subscribing to the existence of a natural law. It is enough for it to concentration on normal people in a commonsensical way. It will then become obvious that good lives depends on the satisfaction of basic physiological, psychological, and social needs: for nutrition, shelter, and rest ; for companionship, self-respect, and the hope for a good and better life ; for the division of labor, justice, and predictability in human affairs ; and so forth. The satisfaction of these needs is a universal and objective requirement of all good lives, whatever the social conext may be in which they are lived. If the political arrangements of a society foster their satisfaction, that is a reason for having and conserving them ; if the political arrangements hinder their satisfaction, that is a reason for reforming them.
If absolutists merely asserted this, and if relativists merely denied it, then the former would be right and the latter wrong. But both go beyond the mere assertion and denial of this point. Satisfying these minimum requirements of human nature is necessary but not sufficient for good lives. Absolutists go beyond the minimum and think that their universal and objectvie standard applies all the way up to the achievement of good lives. Relativists deny that there is such a standard. And in this respect, pluralists side with relativists and oppose absolutists. Pluralists think that beyond the minmum level there is a plurality of values, a plurility of ways of ranking them, and a plurality of conceptions of good life embodying these values and rankings. This is why they think that human nature underdetermines the content of good lives. According to pluralists, then, the political arrangements of the society ought to protect the minimum requirements of good lives and ought to foster a plurality of good lives beyond the minimum.
If pluralism takes a conservative form, it provides two important possibilities for its defenders. In the first place, it provides a universal and objective reason in favor of those political arrangements of the conservative's society that protect the minimum requirements and against those political arrangements that violate them. It motivates, gives direction to, and sets the goal of intended reforms. Pluralism makes it possible to draw reasonable comparisons among differents societies on the basis of how well or badly they protect the conditions all good lives need. Pluralistic conservatism thus avoids the objection to relativism that it sanctions any political arrangements that is supported by a wide enough consensus.
In the second place, pluralistic conservatism is most receptive to the view that the best guide to the political arrangements that a society ought to have beyond the minimum level is reflection on the history of the society. It is that history, rather than any metaphysical or utopian consideration, that is most likely to provide the relevant considerations for or against the political arrangements that present themselves as possibilities in that society. It is thus that pluralistic conservatism avoids the dangers of dogmatism and repression that beset absolutism." (pp.32-36)
"The answer that favors individual autonomy over social authority is typically given by many liberals, especially those under the influence of Kant. The one that holds that social authority is more important than individual autonomy is characteristically championed by metaphysically oriented absolutist conservatives, on the right, and by communitarians, socialists, and Marxists, on the left. This leaves room for yet another -better- answer, to be considered shortly, offered by conservatives who are skeptics and pluralists." (pp.36-37)
"Putting individual autonomy before social authority raises two very serious problems. First, it assumes that good lives must be autonomous and cannot involve the systematic domination of their individual constituents by some form of social authority. If this were so, ni military or devoutly religious life, ni life in static, traditional, hierarchical societies, no life, that is, that involves the subordination of the individual's will and judgment to what is regarded as a highter purpose, could be good. This assumption entails thinking of the vast majority of lives lived outside of prosperous Western societies as bad. The mistake is to slide from the reasonable view that autonomous lives may be good to the unreasonable view that a life cannot be good unless it is autonomous. This way of thinking is not only mistaken in its own right, but it is also incompatible with the pluralism to which liberals who think this way claim themselves to be committed.
Second, if a good society is one that forsters the good lives of the individuals who live in it, then giving precedence to autonomy over authority cannot be right, since autonomous lives may be bad. That the will and judgment of individuals take precedence over the pronouncements of social authority leaves it open whether the resulting lives will be satisfying and beneficial enough to be good. Autonomous lives may be brustrating and harmful. The most casual reflection on history shows that social authority often has to prevail over the individual autonomy of fanatics, criminals, fools, and crazies, if a society is indeed dedicated to fostering good lives.
The problems of letting social authority override individual autonomy are nos less serious. What is the reason for thinking that if social authority prevails over individual autonomy, then the resulting lives will be good ? Lives cannot be good just because some social authority pronounces them to be such. They must actually be satisfying and beneficial, and whether they are must ultimately be judged by the individuals whose will is unavoidably engaged in causing and enjoying the satisfactions and the benefits. Their will and judgment may of course be influenced by the prescriptions of a social authority. But no matter how strong that influence is, it cannot override the ultimate autonomy of individuals in finding what is satisfying or beneficial for them. As the lamentable historical record shows, however, the importance of autonomy has not prevented countless religious and ideological authorities from stigmatizing individuals who reject their prescriptions as heretics, infidels, class enemies, maladjusted, or living with false consciousness, in bad faith or in a state of sin. The resultat is a repressive society whose dogmatism is reinforced by specious moralizing.
How then is to be answered ? Which constituent of good lives should be regarded as the decisive one ? The answer, as before, is to eschew the extremes and look for an intermediate assumption that accomodates the salvageable portions of both. There is no need to insist that either individual autonomy or social authority should systematically prevail over the other. Both are necessary for good lives. Instead of engaging in futile arguments about their comparative importance, it is far more illuminating to try to understand the connection between them. In fact, they are parts of two interdependent aspects of the same underlying activity. One aspect is as indispensable as the other. The activity is that of individuals trying to make good lives for themselves. Its two aspects are the individual and the social ; autonomy and authority are their respective parts ; and the connecting link between them is tradition. The intermediate belief that is reasonably favored by conservatives may therefore be called traditionalism.
A tradition is a set of customary beliefs, practices, and actions that has endured from the past to the present and attracted the allegiance of people so that they wish to perpetuate it. A tradition may be reflective and designed, like the deliberations of the Supreme Court, or unreflective and spontaneous, like sports fans rooting for their teams ; it may have a formal institutional framework, like the Catholic Church, or it may be unstructured, like mountain-climbing ; it may be competitive, like the Olympics ; largely passive, like going to the opera ; humanitarian, like the Red Cross ; self-centered, like jogging ; honoric, like the Nobel Prize ; or punitive, like criminal proceedings. Traditions may be religious, horticultural, scientific, athletic, political, stylistic, moral, aesthetic, commercial, medical, legal, military, educational, architectural, and so on and on. They permeate human lives.
When individuals gradually and experimentally form their conceptions of a godd life what they are to a very large extent doing is deciding which traditions they should participate in. This decision may be taken from the inside of the traditions into which they were born or in which they were raised, or from the outside of traditions that attract, repel, bore, or interest them. The decisions may be conscious, deliberate, clear-cut yes-or-no choices, they may be ways of unconsciously, unreflectively failling in with familiar patterns, or they may be at various points in between. The bulk of the activities of individuals concerned with living in ways that strike them as good is composed of participation in the various traditions of their society.
As individuals participate in these activities, they of course exercice their autonomy. They make choices and judgments ; their wills are engaged ; they learn from the past and plan for the future. But they do so in the frameworks of various traditions which authoritatively provide them with the relevant choices, with the matters that are left to their jugements, and with standards that within a tradition determine what choices and judgements are good or bad, reasonable or unreasonable. Their exercice of autonomy is the individual aspect of their conformity to their tradition's authority, which is the social aspect of what they are doing. They act autonomously by following the authoritative patterns of the traditions to which they feel allegiance. When a Catholic goes to confession, a violinist gives a concert, a football player scores a touchdown, a student graduates, a judge sentences a criminal, then the individual and the social, the autonomous and the authoritative, the traditional pattern of doing it and a particular agent's doing of it are inextricably mixed. To understand what is going on in terms of individual autonomy is as one-sided as it is to do so in terms of social authority. Each plays an essential role, and undertanding what is going on requires undertanding both the roles they play and what makes them essential.
Traditionalism rests on this understanding, and is a political response to it. The response is to have and maintain political arrangements that foster the participation of individuals in the various traditions that have historically endured in their society. The reason for fostering them is that good lives depend on participation in a variety of traditions.
Traditions do no stand independantly of each other. They overlap, form parts of each other, and problems or questions occuring in one are often resolved in terms of another. Most traditions have legal, moral, political, aesthetic, stylistic, managerial, and a multitude of other aspects. Futhermore, people participating in one tradition necessarily bring with them the beliefs, values, and practices of many of the other otraditions in which they also participate. Changes in one tradition, therefore, are most likely to produce changes in others. Traditions are, as it were, organically connected. That is why changes in one tradition are like waves that reverberate throughout the other traditions of a society.
Some of these changes are for the better, others for the worse. Most of them, however, are complex, have consequences that become less predictable the more distant they are, and thus tend to escape from human control. Since these changes are changes in the traditions upon which good lives depend, the attitude to them of conservatrices traditionalists will be one of extreme caution. They will want to control the changes insofar as it is possible. They will want them to be no greater than what is necessary for remedying some specific defect. They will be opposed to experimental, general, or large changes because of their uncertain effects on good lives.
Changes, of course, are often necessary because traditions may be vicious, destructive, stultifying, nay-saying, and thus not conducive to good lives. It is part of the purpose of the prevailing political arrangements to draw distinctions among traditions that are unacceptable, suspect but tolerable, and worthy of encouragement -for exemple, slavery, pornography, and university education. Traditions that violate the minimum requirements of human nature are prohibited. Traditions that have historically shown themselves to make questionable contributions to good lives may be tolerated but not encouraged. Traditions whose historical record testifies to their importance for good lives are cherished.
The obvious question is who should decide which tradition is which and how that decision should be make. The answer conservatives give is that the decision should be made by those who are legitimately empowered to do so through the political process of their society and they should make the decisisions by reflecting on the historical record of the tradition in question. From this answer three corollaries follow. First, the people who are empowered to make the decisions ought to be those who can reflect well on the historical record. The political process works well if it ends up empowering these people. They are unlikely to be ill-educated, passionate about some single issue, inexperienced, or have qualifications that lie in some other field of endeavor. Conservatives, in a word, will not favor populist politics. Second, a society that proceeds in the manner just indicated will be pluralistic because it fosters a plurality of traditions. It will do so because it sees as the justification of its political arrangements that they foster good lives, and fostering them depends on fostering the traditions participation in which may make lives good. Third, the society will be tolerant because it is committed to having as many traditions as possible. This means that its political arrangements will place the burden of proof on those who wish to proscribe a tradition. If a tradition has endured, if it has the allegiance of enough people to perpetuate it, then there is a prima facia case for it. That case may be, and often is, defeated, but the initial presumption is in its favor.
A conservative society that is skeptical, pluralistic, and traditionalist will be in favor of limited governement. The purpose of its political arrangements will not be to bring heaven on earth by imposing on people some conception of a good life. No governement has a mandate from heaven. The political arrangements of a limited governmeent will interfere as little as possible with the many indigenous traditions that flourish among people subject to it. The purpose of its arrangements will be to enable people to live as they please, rather than to force them to live in a particular way. One of the most important ways of accomplishing this is to have a wide plurality of traditions as a bulwark between individuals and the governement that has power over them." (pp.37-41)
-John Kekes, A Case for Conservatism, Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 2001 (1998 pour la première édition), 239 pages.