No blog for you! I've got the flu. Everyone else does too.
So read this interesting comment left to my Disraeli post by one De Korenmaat. John Kekes' "What Is Conservatism?" in its entirety. (I'm guessing it was cut & pasted from here. The 'reprinted with kind permission' does my humble blog too much credit, I'm sure.)
OK, a bit more.
I found most interesting the subsection of the Keke's piece entitled "Should the diversity of values affect political arrangements?" Couple months ago when I was reading Russell Kirk I was genuinely surprised to find that he did not seem to regard plural conceptions of value as even worth a question mark, let alone an affirmation. I'll quote my Crooked Timber post to that effect:
Russell Kirk says that conservativism needs "affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and equalitarianism and utilitarian aims of most radical systems." After I heard this well-known Kirk tag, before I read the book, I always figured this would eventually be levered into a critique of, say, Bentham, in terms of an alleged incommensurable plurality of values that cannot be cranked through the clattering calculus of etc, etc. But no. As it turns out, it's a get out of philosophy jail free card for conservatives, pure and simple. If anyone catches you in a contradiction, and you are conservative, you say about the variety and mystery and you walk.
Hayek says the same about conservatives. It goes a long way towards explaining why he isn't one:
When I say that the conservative lacks principles, I do not mean to suggest that he lacks moral conviction. The typical conservative is indeed usually a man of very strong moral convictions. What I mean is that he has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions. It is the recognition of such principles that permits the coexistence of different sets of values that makes it possible to build a peaceful society with a minimum of force. The acceptance of such principles means that we agree to tolerate much that we dislike. There are many values of the conservative which appeal to me more than those of the socialists; yet for a liberal the importance he personally attaches to specific goals is no sufficient justification for forcing others to serve them.
So my curiosity was piqued by Keke's subsection. What is his answer? He acknowledges pluralism about conceptions of value as more plausible than absolutism (Kirk's position) or relativism. He then tries to argue that conservatives will be better, not worse, than liberals (or socialists) at acknowledging this:
The political arrangements that pluralistic conservatives favor are committed to a familiar list of values: justice, freedom, the rule of law, order, legal and political equality, prosperity, peace, civility, happiness, and so forth. There is likely to be a significant overlap between the conservative list and the ones liberals, socialists, or others may draw up. Nevertheless, there will be also a significant difference between pluralistic conservative politics and the politics of others: this kind of conservatism is genuinely pluralistic, whereas the politics of the alternative approaches are not. Liberals, socialists, and others are committed to regarding some few values as overriding. What makes them liberals, socialists, or whatever is their claim that when the few values they favor conflict with the less favored ones, then the ones they favor should prevail. If they did not believe this, they would cease to be liberals, socialists, or whatever. Pluralistic conservatives reject this approach. Their commitment is to the conservation of the whole system of values of a society. Its conservation sometimes requires favoring a particular value over another, sometimes the reverse. Pluralistic conservatives hold this to be true of all values. They differ from others in refusing to make the a priori commitment that others make to the overridingness of any particular value or small number of values in the prevailing system of values.
This seems to me a flagrant dodge. Liberals (and socialists) have to have principles or decision procedures or methods for realizing appropriate bundles of goods (values), while (one hopes) acknowledging plural conceptions of the good (values). You can't just say 'there are lots of values' and make no attempt to discern order in this plurality. You can't realize every value. You have to have some way to decide. So you end up giving certain values - liberty and equality, perhaps - an overriding status. Some values end up as procedures or criteria for determining what values get in the bundle of goods; and these bundle-determining values are themselves things in the bundles. I take it this is what Kekes is getting at. But the conservatives are hardly less narrow, surely. They, too, know you can't maximize every value. And they have their ways of making the cut. First, they overridingly value - well, conservation. There is a bias in favor of what is, against what might be. Thus do you find order in plurality. There is also an overriding value of traditionalism when it comes to determining what 'the system' of existing values is. You favor ancient values over parvenu preferences. I could go on.
That said, the piece is quite interesting. It makes me realize the importance of distinguishing between pluralism about values and pluralism about conceptions of value. Conservatives have the former, plausibly. It is the latter they lack. (I noticed that Kirk lacks it. And Hayek notices the same thing.) Roughly, this is because there is only one history, giving us the proper conception of value. But it is not a very orderly conception. (Nothing with a history can be defined. - Nietzsche.) Also, conservatism has an authoritarian, coercive aspect. Hayek writes of:
the characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened rather than that its power be kept within bounds. This is difficult to reconcile with the preservation of liberty. In general, it can probably be said that the conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes. He believes that if government is in the hands of decent men, it ought not to be too much restricted by rigid rules.
This sort of complacency is bad, if you acknowledge plural conceptions of value. (Also for other reasons. The history of authoritarianism is not without its blemishes.) Ergo, conservatives have a hard time being fully pluralistic about conceptions of values.
I blogged after all.