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.


  1. The basic terminology endures, but the content keeps changing without warning or reason.

    This essay captures the latest shifts very well, I think:

    "With ecologism, we move up a notch: The guilty party is humanity itself, in its will to dominate the planet. Here there is a return to the fundamentals of Christianity: Evil is the pride of the creatures who are in revolt against their Creator and who exceed their prerogatives. The three scapegoats can be cumulated: Ecologism can reject the capitalism invented by a West that preys on peoples and destroys the earth. It is a system of Russian dolls that fit one inside the other until the final synthesis is reached. That is why so many old Bolsheviks are converting to ecologism in order to broaden their palette of accusations. This amounts to recycling anticapitalist clichés as one recycles wastewater: Ecologism adds a supplementary layer of reprobation, claiming to be the culmination of all earlier critiques."

  2. Lots of good material in that article. Agree with the gist of it. Very rhetorical though. Like listening to a long (albeit enlightened) sermon. He used the phrase 'psychic fatigue'. I'm feeling it...

  3. You sound skeptical, as usual, about any frame of reference (ideological or methodological) sufficient to resolve theoretical issues, or practical issues either. As usual, you express a strong affinity for the psychology at the root of anyone's preferences, which also in this essay comes back, flat out, as "the personal becomes the political." Nothing can truly get to the root of "personal" for every individual (because each person brings his/her own psychology to bear), but that means it's not possible to get to the root of the political either.

    I absolutely agree the individual is born completely uncooked, and that a humanoid raised in a cultural vacuum could not become a human being -- we evolved as social beings, we develop as social beings, and we behave socially (or anti-socially) in the context of our (accidentally inherited) cultures. Tabula rasa all the way. Each of us is a bundle of experiences (mostly random and accidental) which the physical organism processes on its own, albeit with the advantage of language and logic, should we choose to apply them well, but for the most part formed around emotional/psychological predelictions that are probably inherited (anxiety runs in some families, sanguinity in others, so to speak).

    But exactly because each individual is a bundle of experiences and precisely because we are molded by the accidental influences around us, and entirely because we have language, logic and cultural influences to steer by, each of us is, in scientific terms, a completely unique (somewhat random) bundle which no ideology, psychology or methodology can completely predict. I don't care if my "self" is an illusion. It's still my illusion, to do with as I please. And so I celebrate my weird randomness by living as fully as I can, Socratically questioning myself constantly regardless what good it will do, and embracing the weird occasional tack of progressivism I sometimes display in a mostly conservative nature -- because I'm me and there's nothing anyone can do about it.

    Having embraced my own individuality, I find I am free. Freer than the ideologists, the methodologists, the philologists and all the other -ism mongers of the world. Like Socrates I have discovered that the examined life is best, and it's possible to examine (and overcome) one's predispositions in thought -- even when the inner beast is emotionally screaming otherwise, I can think.

    There lies the path: "The social matrix within which we grow is an essential component of our individuality and our very humanity." We cannot be self-sufficient, but self-contained is another matter -- KNOW THYSELF.

    And from there, action. Preferably in service of the libertarian party . . . LOL

    1. The tabula rasa idea has been thoroughly discredited by advances in brain science and behavioral genetics. But I think you may be using the term in an idiosyncratic way, because another part of your comment (and previous comments, as I recall) suggest that you are fully cognizant of the relevant science.

      I certainly agree with the uniqueness point you are making even if there remains something in your potentially inspiring vision that I pull back from.

  4. When Locke called the mind a tabula rasa he was not denying that humans have natural propensities. He was denying that they have "innate Ideas" -- a vague concept, but one that makes some sense. We are not born with a bundle of beliefs, we have to acquire them from experience.

    Does your account of current science take a different view? Or is it focused on propensities?

  5. I know Locke is the main source, but I relate the term 'tabula rasa' to the nature/nurture debate, and associate it with mid-twentieth century social science orthodoxy (roughly: nurture is everything).

    The scientific consensus has since shifted, though some still argue for something like the older view.

    From Wikipedia: "... [T]here has been an enduring claim by a minority in the fields of psychology and neurobiology that the brain is tabula rasa, at least with respect to its behavioural repertoire. Thus several psychologists ... have argued against the existence of innate talent...

    Other psychologists and neurobiologists recognize that the entire cerebral cortex is indeed preprogrammed and organized in order to process sensory input, motor control, emotions, and natural responses. These programmed mechanisms in the brain then act to learn and refine the ability of the organism. For example, psychologist Steven Pinker argues that while the brain is 'programmed' to pick up spoken language easily, it is not programmed to learn to read and write, and a human generally will not spontaneously learn to do so.

    Important evidence against the tabula rasa model of the mind comes from behavioural genetics, especially twin and adoption studies. These indicate strong genetic influences on personal characteristics such as IQ, alcoholism, gender identity, and other traits..."

    (Such as the emotional/psychological tendencies that GC alludes to (anxiety, etc.), and even possibly predispositions to certain general attitudes and approaches to political and religious questions.)