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Is conservatism to the point?

I got another note from my Finnish correspondent, who continues to express some dissatisfaction with conservatism (he is specially concerned with Russell Kirk). As in the past (here and here) his questions seemed worth editing and passing on, together with my attempts to answer them:

Finnish Correspondent: Nothing changes. When communism failed, its adherents switched to political correctness. Anti-socialist reforms are undertaken out of economic necessity on purely utilitarian grounds and are seen as something very different from ethics. Will history move like a pendulum, or will the situation stabilize on a level where sheer collapse is avoided, but the system remains unhealthy?

Jim Kalb: The problems with current social and moral ideals are quite basic, and people will patch things up and deny the obvious as long as possible rather than change their fundamental orientation. Still, paralysis can turn to radical change very suddenly when an outlook has lost plausibility and no longer offers satisfaction or hope. The way things are looks impenetrable and rocklike but that’s an illusion. These things are purely human and man is changeable. It’s unpredictable when something dead will fall apart though.

I suppose a basic question is whether some things are natural to man, so they tend to reappear, and others are unnatural, so they tend to fall apart and require special conditions that don’t last to keep them going. To me it seems clear that the latter is how things are. I think it’s part of what’s involved in saying morality is objective.

In any case I very much doubt that the situation will stabilize and the current orientation continue indefinitely. At the crudest level, if the Europeans don’t have children the European way of life will disappear.

FC: Most people do not have the ability to reason about ethical problems. As long as tradition is intact, they may follow it and live rightly, whereas efforts to justify the good life by rational arguments may backfire when they venture into unknown terrain. Abstaining from such efforts, however, means that philosophy and ethics are left to liberals; another result is that people become dull and uninspired. Teaching unconscious acceptance when the cake of custom is broken is difficult. But even if we can unite traditionalism and belief in a moral order with critical minds, the problem of identifying the moral order remains. You cannot believe in a moral order in general; it is only when you know what that order prescribes that it has any significance. A seriously damaged tradition does not point to anything, nor is it validated by anything.

JK: When a tradition crashes it’s not easy to put the pieces back together. Such things aren’t completely in our control. That’s one reason faith and hope are necessary. Still, we can help make things ready for the return of a better way of life. I think we have to work toward each aspect of a good way of life—toward reason, even though it goes astray, and also toward good attitudes and habits, including the good attitudes, habits and understandings that constitute good tradition. We can do that even though those things no longer exist widely except in a fragmentary form and can’t simply be willed into existence. We certainly have to do everything we can to oppose things that attack reason and tradition. Examples include subjectivism and irrationalism generally, as well as the belief that man by his will and technical skill creates his world.

I agree that saying “reason and tradition are necessary and good” does not by itself establish moral order even if everyone is persuaded it’s true. It clears the way though for whatever can lead men to hate what is false and destructive and love what is good, beautiful and true. If nothing else, recognizing that reason and tradition are necessary and good teaches us that our will is not the law, that we are part of a larger moral order that precedes us and that we must accept. That’s a good start. The recognition also suggests how to start thinking about that moral order and where to look for it.

FC: How do practices and institutions help us to grasp the good for man? Isn’t the function of these rather to help us realize something we have already grasped? If we expect the good for man to reveal itself successively as we accept it, we still need some criteria to identify its main outline in the first place. The ancient philosophers, the schoolmen and the reformers had much useful to say about the good for man and about the nature of a good social order, without referring much to tradition.

JK: Do we learn by starting with particulars or with first principles? It seems to me more the former, although we need both. And if we need a criterion before we can recognize anything as good then it seems to me we need an infinite chain of criteria—a criterion for goodness, a criterion for that criterion, and so on. Since the good is the final criterion, we must be able simply to recognize it. Otherwise, thought couldn’t even get started.

The question then is how we develop our recognition of what is good. It seems to me tradition is an essential part of that, at least in general. Here’s an extract from a long piece I’m writing about reason by itself, reason and tradition together, and the Church, which combines reason, tradition and faith in concrete institutional form:

“The natural human way for the highest goods to become concrete and usable for us is the development of tradition. Although ultimate principles can’t be clearly stated, we recognize them in part, act on them, and come to know them better through experience. The goods we recognize become encoded in habits and attitudes that seem good to us, to which we attach ourselves, and by which we and others find it good to live. The deeper and the more widespread and durable the recognition of the goodness of a practice or attitude the more settled it becomes as a tradition. The practical demands of life force us to bring traditions and thus the goods to which they relate into a system that distinguishes lesser and greater goods. The traditions we follow—the crystallized experience of the society to which we belong—thus come to embody the ordered understanding of the highest good that is at the base of the common life we share.”

It seems to me that past philosophers didn’t have to deal with tradition to the extent necessary today because they didn’t face the comprehensive attack we see today on tradition in everyday life—an attempt, backed by the power of modern communications and organizational techniques, to reconstruct everything on rational utilitarian principles. Still, Confucius was explicitly a traditionalist. Aristotle emphasized accepted practices and understandings as the basis for any reliable philosophical grasp of things. Plato insisted that the Good could not be rationalized or grasped altogether propositionally. And the schoolmen, as Catholic Christians, said that doctrine was not enough, that concrete institutions, the Church and the Sacraments, passed down by tradition, were also necessary for salvation.

FC: More on aristocracy—How can it be justified? Should its benefits be expected to correspond to the degree of inequality?

JK: I wouldn’t think so. Still, there are always elites, you can’t make everybody equally responsible for everything, and it seems that it’s better for those with heavier and more comprehensive responsibilities to feel those responsibilities as an aspect of what they are rather than as something only contingently or worse instrumentally connected to their fundamental personal concerns. That line of thought suggests a reason for aristocracy.

There is always power. The question is how to humanize it. There is an American expression that someone who acts in a clumsy and abusive way “has no class.” There’s something to that I think. If we debunk utilitarianism and social rationalization it indirectly supports aristocracy. Aristocracy of some sort or other tends to arise if attitudes accept it or at least don’t oppose it. It’s not something that can or should be legislated directly.

Is there anything that can replace the particular contribution the European aristocracy made to the arts, literature and public life generally? If such things are strictly dependent on government, the market, popular approval, organized professional bodies and the like it connects them much too closely to personal and social interests and limited institutional perspectives. If social hierarchy is somewhat settled then people are freer to form their own thoughts and say what they actually think since they’re not constantly jockeying for position. Aristocracy makes possible a self-assured independent point of view that can’t be reduced to an expression of social function and doesn’t need to be in the immediate service of personal or social interests. I think that’s very valuable.

FC: On the question of liturgy—why not go directly to doctrine? It is a far clearer and more unambiguous source of transcendent truth. Also, if the bottom line of conservative morality and politics is revealed religion, it’s strange that theology is shunned by its theorists.

JK: But doctrine becomes real and present to people through practice, and in particular through liturgy. Liturgy is the authorized common prayer of the Church. It’s enormously important. It closes the gap between the propositional and the existential. Closing that gap is central to the religion of the Word made flesh. Current “renewed” liturgies, with their this-worldliness and present-day-mindedness, make that function hard to see. It’s nonetheless essential.

I think the reason conservative theorists shun theology is that their intention is to make something plausible or at least acceptable to people who aren’t already believers. Conservatism is not a complete self-contained thing. It’s a theoretical defense of something other than itself that’s more concrete. It’s a mid-level thing, neither an ultimate concern nor an immediate practical solution.

FC: On the issue of government economic regulation and intervention, prudence seems to be the right principle, rather than Kirk’s dogmatic insistence that Leviathan will grow uncontrollably once you start to feed him.

JK: Actually, I don’t know the specifics of Kirk’s views on economics. I think it’s probably true that once the government gets involved in assuring particular economic outcomes to particular people there’s no stopping it at least in a democratic age. I think it does matter that Kirk lived in a country that is very much larger and more diverse than Finland. At the national level in the US things have to be run on very general principles and it’s hard to have special limited arrangements to handle particular situations. So it’s understandable that Kirk was more dogmatic on the point than you would be inclined to be.

FC: Please explain a little more the difference between propositions that have an organic relationship to the good, beautiful and true, which you say are conservative “principles,” and things like freedom, equality, efficiency and inclusiveness, which you say are liberal “abstractions.”

JK: It seems to me that the latter are based on a refusal to recognize qualitative distinctions and a decision to treat all desires as equally worthy. They insist on neutrality among varying conceptions of the good, beautiful and true. If so then there can’t be anything organic about them. They refuse to grow out of anything in particular but insist on holding everything at arm’s length. Traditional moral principles seem to me quite different and much more closely connected with upholding and strengthening particular qualitative goods and concrete ideals of the good life that already exist at least to some degree in practice.

FC: Can it be that conservatism would attract more adherents if it were able to formulate clearer goals and ideals? Protecting and conserving a heritage that is not immediately threatened is not so inspiring; moving forward toward a goal that can be seen and realized is a challenge that can energize our capacities.

JK: I agree that at this point greater specificity of principle and goal is needed. If things are basically OK you can mostly bend with the wind while criticizing excesses and assume good sense will prevail and things will right themselves. I don’t think that’s the position we’re in. Maybe what that shows is that we’re in a post-conservative age, that we need fewer appeals to continuity and settled practice and a more explicit doctrine what’s wrong with things and what would set them right.



FC’s question on liturgy is to the point. I know about lex orandi, lex credendi, but for the reluctant agnostic or the lapsed Catholic still interested in the Church, attending Sunday mass can be unpleasant to think about. In most parishes, you cannot assume that the folks in the pews, or even the priests, believe anything in particular. Turnabout’s response seems to be that sound, beautiful liturgy will bring forth common, orthodox belief. Perhaps, that the Latin Mass would do more than official letters from Ratzinger, Medina, or Arinze.


I pruned the discussion too much, so it was no longer clear that I was talking primarily about traditional liturgies, which I view as indispensible. I just added something to make that point a bit clearer. The “renewed” liturgies don’t make it obvious that they do something that a lecture on doctrine followed by a social hour wouldn’t do better.

FC asks,

“Can it be that conservatism would attract more adherents if it were able to formulate clearer goals and ideals?”

How about changing its name to one that doesn’t have to be explained to people and sort of apologized for? Some of us don’t like being classified by the left or labeled in relation to them, which is how the label “conservative” stikes me—a label I’ve never felt comfortable applying to myself but must by convention. We’re—I’m—“conservative”? Not unless one counts the left as normal, which they’re not. Since abnormalness and degenerateness (which are what the other side espouses) can never lead to social progress or liberal behavior, the other side has no business calling itself progressive and liberal. All social progress springs first and foremost from antecedents characterised by normalness, a necessary (not sufficient, of course) pre-condition. If normalness and truth not only can lead to social progress and liberalness but are all that can, why is our side calling itself by a name that implies its primary characteristic is instead to “conserve” things? Let’s cut right to the chase in naming ourselves, shall we? I feel my primary characteristic is to forge ahead making progress with the best of them—all progress being possible of course only when certain bedrock foundations of normalness are respected. The side I favor’s primary characteristic is not to conserve things but to cleave to normalness. What if ninety percent of society’s set-up needed to be discarded and our side went about it. Would we then still be “conserving” things as our primary defining trait? Or would we be decidedly cleaning house, tossing a megaton of rubbish? Social progress can come through no side but ours. I don’t see why we shrink from calling ourselves progressives. That name’s already taken? So what. It’s time the pretenders, the impostors, the usurpers, were elbowed out of the way.

On a different subject: all by itself, FC’s riveting opening remark explains a tremendous amount about what’s been going on:

“Nothing changes. When communism failed, its adherents switched to political correctness.”

Those eleven words speak VOLUMES.

A View from Finland

TurnaboutIn an exchange between Turnabout and a Finn concerning conservatism: Finnish correspondent: Nothing changes. When communism failed, its adherents switched to political correctness. PC likely means something a little different in Finland. But i…