Like many people who take an interest in political arguments, I have a lamentable (and probably incurable) tendency to assume that almost anyone who doesn’t agree with me is at best ignorant and at worst arguing bad faith. The fact that I’ve so noticeably failed to cultivate the virtue of open-mindedness in myself, makes me respect it more in others, and this is why, I’m a devoted fan of Ben Six’s Back Towards the Locus. Whilst I violently disagree with about half of the stuff he posts, the man could never be accused of arguing in bad faith; he’s always at such obvious pains to give a full hearing to views other than his own that’s it’s a wonder he ever gets anything done.[1]

 

Now, as you can probably tell from my deployment of the standard blogosphere “I have nothing but the greatest respect for this person” trope, I’m about to take issue with something Ben said on the internet. Indeed I am. Specifically, this seems to be an object lesson in the dangers of offering people the benefit of the doubt.

 

Ben’s convinced himself that the problem with conservatism that it has trouble talking about values. Possibly because they’re not allowed to bring religion into it any more. This seems to me to be on the face of it fairly ridiculous, and Ben pretty much gives the game away with his first example – Norman Tebbit’s latest attempt to render the Daily Mash obsolete by giving us the benefit of his wisdom on gay marriage:

“When we have a queen who is a lesbian and she marries another lady and then decides she would like to have a child and someone donates sperm and she gives birth to a child, is that child heir to the throne?”

I actually had to ask what the worry about this is meant to be. Ben cleared it up in comments: “I think he’s saying that you would have a child who was as much the offspring of someone who was not in the royal family as of someone who was.” Now, obviously, this is ridiculous. Ben understands this – Tebbit’s outburst is, in his words, both ludicrous and irrelevant. He goes on to say, however:

What is interesting to me is that Norman Tebbit, that war horse of old Toryism, is phrasing his opinions in the terms of practicalities rather than of values. He, and others like him, are unable or unwilling to defend the virtues of the present but merely admonish us regarding hazards of the future. They caution against change, but give little sense of the value of conserving. This, it seems to me, has long been a problem for conservatives.

There seem to me to be two problems with this. The first is a sort of philosophical one. Conservatism is meant to be the stance of respecting existing institutions because they’ve stood the test of time, and so probably embody greater wisdom than is accessible to the puny brains of those who would reform or abolish them. It’s an admonition not to tinker with any of the political machinery because you probably don’t understand what it does. As Michael Oakeshott put it:

The spring… a conservative disposition – is to be found in the acceptance of the current condition of human circumstances as I have described it: the propensity to make our own choices and find happiness in doing so, the variety of enterprises each pursued with passion, the diversity of beliefs each held with the conviction of its exclusive truth; the inventiveness, the changefulness and the absence of any large design; the excess, the over-activity and the informal compromise.

So when Ben says that he has “no clear sense of the kind of society that it is right to inhabit” and that he’d like conservatives to offer their thoughts on this, he’s asking them to do something explicitly unconservative.

The second point rather cuts against the first. Because real life conservatives don’t look remotely like the political philosophy ones. They’re very happy to have society impose all sorts of values on people. Which as, far as I can make any sense of what Tebbit’s statement, is what it’s meant to be doing. It’s an appeal to the values that have been motivating the Tory base in all this, namely that lesbians are icky and that letting them have kids is weird. You certainly can’t talk about some batshit worry concerning the offspring of our hypothetical lesbian queen as a “practicality” of the gay marriage in any normal sense of that word.

I submit that, insofar as conservatives have a problem,[2] it isn’t so much that there aren’t any values on display, as that the values on display are unappealing to many people.

[1] Probably more importantly, he’s a fan of both MMA and Jason Molina, and having thus appeased my more fundamental prejudices, gets a free pass with everything else.

[2] I say “insofar as” because it’s not actually clear to me that this country has a shortage of bigots with the right to vote.

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4 responses to “

  1. Thank you for the kind words. Sometimes I think blogging would have been a lot more fun if I had just written about MMA and indie rock. Musing on Barnett’s return or Belfort’s drugs would far more congenial than anything one finds in today’s papers. (On the other hand, both could inspire just as much outrage.)

    …he’s asking them to do something explicitly unconservative.

    I hope I’m not. Sure, ideas of establishing grand visions of the “right” societies are antithetical to it but the very idea of conserving implies that there are objective standards by which to judge them. To oppose change one has to value the present inasmuch as one affirms that it is worthy of maintaining. Otherwise, one might as well accept revolutions for the hell of it.

    Because real life conservatives don’t look remotely like the political philosophy ones.

    True, and I have no doubt that Tebbit is covering for a prejudicial aversion to the idea of gay marriage. While for many people this might entail revulsion from the image of same-sex love, however, I suspect that others maintain a more cerebral allegiance to traditional moral values without being entirely sure of why, and, thus, have to come up with other reasons to uphold them. In other cases, I do this myself. I would oppose the legalisation of incest, for example, and not merely because it seems gross – there are a lot of things that consenting adults get up to that have the potential to lose me my lunch – but because it seems wrong. Ask me to come up with an objective argument, however, and I would be stumped. I suspect that to a lot of conservatives the idea of redefining marriage just seems wrong.

    Whether this would be true of old Norman is beyond me, but at least he’s not like the American bozos who preach the virtues of traditional marriage while racking up more divorces than I’ve had cooked breakfasts.

  2. While for many people this might entail revulsion from the image of same-sex love, however, I suspect that others maintain a more cerebral allegiance to traditional moral values without being entirely sure of why, and, thus, have to come up with other reasons to uphold them.

    Is there a principled distinction between the two? If my instinctive allegiance to traditional moral values involves you being subordinated, how is that not simply a case of me being bigotted? 19th Century conservatives could have produced the same arguments about interracial marriage, and we’d have no trouble identifying that as pure bigotry. How is this different?

    On the incest question, would the birth defects thing not suffice as an argument that this particular taboo had some useful function?

    Sure, ideas of establishing grand visions of the “right” societies are antithetical to it but the very idea of conserving implies that there are objective standards by which to judge them. To oppose change one has to value the present inasmuch as one affirms that it is worthy of maintaining.

    The great thing about the present is that people tend to have a pretty good idea of its worth, or at least of the worth of the bits of it they care about. I’m much more ammenable to persuasion about whether some future course of action is a good idea than about how much I value something I’ve already experienced. The trick is to tell me that things I value are under threat. So, whilst Ed West talks a lot of guff about Darwin and the Frankfurt school (who, incidentaly, strike me as some of the most conservative thinkers ot there), he’s essentially right that conservatism proper is one long injunction not to touch any of the political machinery unless you’re bloody sure what it does.

    I suspect this is why you don’t se many actual conservatives out in the wild. Taken literally, the whole programme would be one of telling people they should be bloody grateful for whatever they’ve got – it’s a bloody useless message to campaign on, especially if you’re David Cameron. Instead we get these progammes of radical reform that are meant to return us to some sort of pre-lapsarian utopia.

  3. 19th Century conservatives could have produced the same arguments about interracial marriage, and we’d have no trouble identifying that as pure bigotry. How is this different?

    Well, indeed! This is why I feel that instead of improvising new objections they should go back to their values and investigate their underpinnings. Academic philosophers of a conservative bent would, I suspect, have little trouble telling them that aversion to the idea of gay marriage is rooted in theories of natural law. At the least, that would make for a more substantive argument than discussing lesbian Queens.

    The birth defects point is a reasonable one, except it does open the door for somebody to submit to a vasectomy and say, “What now?”

    The great thing about the present is that people tend to have a pretty good idea of its worth…

    I’m not sure they do. We have experienced a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity, yet to listen to at least half the country you would think that it has been either a barren wasteland of hatred and spite or a nightmare of violence and despotism. The former are liable to want to rip it up and start again and the latter to be miserable to do anything about it.

    …it’s a bloody useless message to campaign on…

    Much as I’d vote for a party that had Marvin the Paranoid Android giving its party political broadcasts, this is true.

  4. This is why I feel that instead of improvising new objections they should go back to their values and investigate their underpinnings. Academic philosophers of a conservative bent would, I suspect, have little trouble telling them that aversion to the idea of gay marriage is rooted in theories of natural law.

    Well obviously I’d love it if political discussions looked more like something out of Plato’s Academy, but I don’t see why this is a specifically conservative problem. It’s not like the left is drowning in a glut of sophisticated philosophical arguments.

    I also don’t see what conservatives are going to get out of this exercise. So they investigate about the underpinnings of their values. What happens then? Seems to me that it has to be one of two things: they either discover that there’s some rational basis for their values – in which case they don’t need to be conservative to hold those values; or they decide that there is no rational basis, in which case they either decide to hold on to them anyway, or decide to give up on their conservatism in that instance.

    The position that rational argument is insufficient to settle questions of value isn’t obviously ridiculous, but it does leave you rather stuck when you have to persuade those who disagree with you about those questions. I’ve never really understood how conservatism (or religion for that matter) is meant to get itself out of this bind.

    We have experienced a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity, yet to listen to at least half the country you would think that it has been either a barren wasteland of hatred and spite or a nightmare of violence and despotism.

    I suppose I meant that people have a pretty fixed idea of how they value the present – it’s hard to change their minds. So from a political point of view, surely the sensible way for conservatives to respond to those people is exactly the sort of miserabilism West recommends: “you may not like this, but it could get a hell of a lot worse.” The alternative is to tell them that they’re basically just whingers who don’t appreciate how good they’ve got it.

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