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February 27, 2005

Comments

bob mcmanus

hilzoy

There were two long discussions on the absolute value of free speech and pluralism last week at Obsidian Wings, initiated by conservative Paul Cella's objection to George Soros' "Open Society" foundation.

"The moment that the Open Society decides that certain opinions are unacceptable, and thus worthy of social, political and legal sanctions against them, it ceases to be an Open Society. It has closed certain questions and renounced its creed." ...Cella

Cella's point being that the refusal of liberal society to consider free speech and pluralism conditional or instrumental values is an internal contradiction. If banning the Communist Party is off the table, we are not a free society.

Long, with decent comments in it, on topic, if probably not on this level.

baa

You can't just say 'there are lots of values' and make no attempt to discern order in this plurality.

I imagine Kekes would concede that when values conflict one must make trade-offs. I took him to be making a different point, namely that high content, rationalistic projects Liberalism and Socialism (or high content fideistic ideologies like Islamism) have built-in a priori commitments to a hierarchy of value, and that this heirarchy is constituive of them as political ideologies. Note Kekes' canny move to slip in "a priori" here, suggesting a greater pragamtism and felxibility in the conservative response to plurality. As you suggest, the "skeptical conservative" also will have decision rules for resolving conflicts in values, and those decision rules will likely involve minimizing change. What's interesting, I think, is that while liberal/socialist decision rules for value conflicts will refer to the content of the values, a conservative's, on this reading will not.

I am not sure why you think that the "skeptical conservatism" of Kekes will not be open to pluralism about conceptions of value (I am not even entirely sure what you mean by this). Different societies and groups have different histories, and may conceive value differently.

jholbo

baa, first I need to read more Kekes. No question. But here's a quick take. Your point: history is perfectly capable of teaching us that there is not just a plurality of values but a plurality of conceptions of value. History in general teaches you healthy respect for the degree to which things can be different, and people can think different ways. This seems to me reasonable. But it seems to me quite normatively crucial for conservatism, qua political philosophy, for history to deliver up AN ANSWER to the question: what conception of value shall we favor NOW? The conservative says 'we should do X' and points to history and tradition as evidence and justification. If, at that point, history supports X, but also -X, also Y and Z, then we've got a problem.

In short, although history certainly does teach about plural conceptions of value, the conservative can't really learn this lesson. (This is not adequate, but it's good enough for comments.)

jholbo

And the difference between plurality of values and plurality of conceptions of values is this:

Plurality of values: more justice means less mercy. (To take Berlin's example. Or maybe it was Bernard Willians.) Everyone might share a conception on which justice and mercy are both values, and yet acknowledge that sometimes they generate practical conflits. You can't realize both.

Plurality of conceptions of value: somebody thinks homosexual sexual relations are as potentially valuable as heterosexual ones. Somebody else thinks homosexual sexual relations can never have value. There is a different sort of conflict here than in the first case.

In Rawlsian terms, the former problem is analogous to the objective conditions of justice: namely, scarcity of goods. The latter is analogous to subjective codnitions of justice: competing conceptions of the good.

baa

I agree that conservatism has a content problem. The conservative position on the trade off between values X and Y cannot be given globally, and will depend upon the traditions of the specific society in which that specific conservatism is grounded. Even with access to historical knowledge, it seems like the conservative resolution ofconflicts will always be a tricky, unprincipled judgment call. Kekes appears to views this not as a bug, but as a feature.

Does conservatism have a worse time handling conflicts between values and between conceptions of value? I don’t know about that. It seems like the problem conservatism has is when a value begins to enter a society. If value X has never been appreciated in a society, and nothing analogous to it has ever been valued, then a conservative will have a very hard time dealing with it seriously. Fortunately, very few values or conceptions of value are like that.

baa

I agree that conservatism has a content problem. Even with access to historical knowledge, it seems like the conservative resolution of conflicts will always amount to a tricky, unprincipled judgment call. Kekes appears to view this not as a bug, but as a feature.

Does conservatism have a worse time handling conflicts between values and between conceptions of value? I don’t know about that. It seems like the problem conservatism has is when a value begins to enter a society. If value X has never been appreciated in a society, and nothing analogous to it has ever been valued, then a conservative will have a very hard time dealing with it seriously. Fortunately, very few values or conceptions of value are like that.

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