Is There Still a Place for Social Conservatism?

Traditionalist British thinker Edmund Burke, who might today be described as socially conservative.

Traditionalist British thinker Edmund Burke, who might today be described as socially conservative.

Social conservatism has been out of favor with Western academics for a long time, but more recently the disapproval of the traditional has become truly popular. With a few exceptions, public opinion has moved to the left on social issues over the last two generations, and most profoundly on those issues that relate to sexuality. (Social conservatism often implies certain views on culture, race and class, but it is usually characterized by its approach to sexual issues, at least in the last few decades.) Large majorities in most developed countries now embrace political positions that were almost undiscussed twenty years ago. It is worth asking whether social conservatism will persist, and whether it would do us any good if it did.

The scarcity of social conservatism in the intellectual world forces its sponsors to consider carefully their conviction to the worldview. Recently I came to terms with my identity as a social conservative, after a period of rejecting the label.

As a teenager, I had always taken the conservative view on social issues I had considered. I remember polling my high school social studies class as a fifteen year-old as part of an assignment, proud to find I was one of three students who opposed the impending change to marriage laws. I loved to argue with peers, and while I was good at it, I began to wish there were better defenses for my beliefs. On euthanasia, abortion and even prostitution I often felt compelled to defend traditions for which there were not at first appealing justifications. I began to suspect that perhaps intelligent people couldn’t be socially conservative.

So the feeling I had on deciding I was socially liberal, as I did when I was around eighteen, was of relief. I felt at ease, now able to set aside the opaque biases and prejudices of my old beliefs, and to embrace a morality that was more simply justified and explained. By abstracting away from reality a little, a whole new world of ethical reasoning opened up, where the limits of morality were only those that I (or “society”) arbitrarily placed upon it.

The intellectual leap to relativism was made easier by the fact that I had been surrounded by those ideals my whole life, having grown up in a place and time where progressive social values seemed to dominate popular theory (if not practice, as they tend not to do in suburban Canada).

This consensus, which has grown perhaps with the help of a new wave of libertarianism, has moved quickly, and as an ideology it is unusually unforgiving to its startled opponents. Statements on social issues by leaders of government in Canada only fifteen years ago would scandalize our new sensibilities. Nowadays there are belittling labels used to describe those whose social vision lags behind the avant-garde.

To understand the reasons for this shift, as well as to explain my personal reasons for returning to social conservatism, it is necessary to examine the culture war as a conflict not only of values, but of visions, to borrow a concept from writer Thomas Sowell. While values, or moral preferences, can certainly change, I am skeptical that they ever reverse themselves on a societal scale in any short period of time, as they at first appear to have done since the 1990s.

It would be difficult to dispute that most major ideologies, including conservatism and progressivism, ultimately value social welfare above most everything else. This is almost definitional to political ideologies. So while values clash at points, there must be a difference in the respective visions—in other words, as Sowell wrote in A Conflict of Visions, in each feeling or “sense of how the world works”. In the progressive vision, humans are most moral when generally free to invent their own moral philosophies, using their abilities to reason. In the conservative vision, people are not independently intelligent or sensible enough to do so, and would do better, as a rule, to bend to tradition, authority, and emergent social norms, and as an exception, to reason.

While liberals tend to think of humans as essentially unconstrained in their ability to intentionally move society forward, except to the extent that they allow society to restrict them, conservatives are more skeptical, crediting people only with the ability to be effective parts of a decentralized system, whose success is not purposed or created by anyone in particular. For this reason liberals seek morality in reason, and conservatives in wisdom. Importantly, liberals look for the causes of problems, while conservatives tend to seek the particular explanations for success.

My reconciliation with my social conservatism was not really a shift in values, as reflected by the fact that decisions in my personal life never really changed throughout the period of my movements in worldview. It was something subtler: the realizations (which I made in practice before in theory) that most of us require social norms and authority in order to act ethically, that we are not very good at moral reasoning, and that reality is more subtle than anyone’s individual capacity to understand.

This skepticism, however, made me more optimistic than less. Individuals do not have to be angels in order to be a part of collective triumph and social progress. Social norms can take the place of analytically expensive institutional or governmental policies. The constrained vision, the conservative worldview, means that our best hope for a virtuous society is in collectively doing the ordinary things we are already designed (but sometimes less inclined) to do: accepting personal responsibility, raising good families and offering meaningful service to people who are near us.

Accepting this newly old-fashioned vision of the world, where the health of a society depends on such particular things as familial stability, led me once more to appreciate the virtues of temperance, chastity and sacrifice that characterize social conservatism. Learning how to raise good families, for example, probably does not require anything special in the way of deductive reasoning. It is not a new concern. It is an old question to which we have answers in the way of an enormous body of tradition. We would probably do better to add to that body of wisdom incrementally, than to attempt to create new and universal moral theories by abstraction.

This cautiousness will be the role of social conservatism in the decades and centuries to come, in the Western intellectual universe. Social conservatism has existed, at least with respect to most of its particular prescriptions, for thousands of years. Because of this characteristic endurance, I will not be among those surprised when it does not evaporate in the face of progressivism, no matter what the character of progress currently happens to appear.

4 thoughts on “Is There Still a Place for Social Conservatism?

  1. Hi, my name is Mike. You don’t know me, but I saw someone share you post on facebook and I wanted to ask you a few questions. I hope you don’t mind. I share your concern with the decline of conservative thought in academia and the public sphere. I bemoan the fact that society does not carefully listen to or consider astute, powerful conservative voices like William F. Buckley or Edmund Burke (even though I could not consider myself a conservative). We may or may not disagree about what caused this shift (or about some of the defining characteristics of conservatism), but I don’t know if that’s material to your article here. Rather, I was curious how you felt your Mormonism squared with your social conservatism. If conservatives believe in relying on tradition and collected wisdom, then Mormonism may be at odds with this value. While it’s easy to forget now, Mormonism is a new faith that in many ways aims to shake the foundations of older religious systems (such as Protestantism and Catholicism). While Mormons may claim that it is a restoration and not a revolution, the fact remains that Joseph Smith in many ways cut squarely against the prevailing religious and theological sensibilities that had been handed down for generations. I think many conservative thinkers would place an emphasis on the role of religion within a society. They believe that it is supposed to provide a number of valuable functions that the state and private sector cannot and/or should not subsume, and furthermore that we should rely on the collective, inherited tradition in matters of morality and politics (which religion would seem to fall under). Do you feel that there is a conflict between Mormonism and conservatism (at least on the surface) that you need to sort out, or am I off base here? I look forward to hearing from you.

    • I don’t think you’re off base at all, and you make some great points.

      Mormonism is not perfectly connected to social conservatism. For one thing, some Mormon beliefs that are now conservative used to be progressive. Conservatism is certainly a contextual attitude, and not a consistent set of policy proposals. For another, the church has actually taken radically progressive positions at some points. Joseph Smith’s idealistic abolitionism came before the Civil War or even the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

      I phrased my title the way I did for a reason. I don’t think that social conservatism itself contains all of the political and social answers we need. On some issues I take fairly progressive stances. My point is really that social conservatism deserves a place in the political conversation, and I think that’s a point that needs making given the current intellectual climate.

      I do lean in my own thinking toward traditional values, perhaps because of my “constrained vision” of the world, to quote Thomas Sowell. But I certainly admit that often the forces of reason are the only things idiosyncratic or novel enough to make profound changes (for good or bad)–an entirely conservative society would never have given women the vote or freed the slaves.

      To answer your question briefly, I agree that there is a conflict (although I think that word has the wrong connotation) between Mormonism and conservatism, and that is why I am not a doctrinaire conservative.

  2. Pingback: Minimizing Casualties in the Culture War | Virtuous Society

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