Sunday, October 26, 2008

Burke's Two Kinds of Conservatism

In some previous posts, I have indicated how the debate over Darwinian conservatism reveals the conflict between metaphysical conservatism and evolutionary conservatism. Metaphysical conservatism is transcendentalist in viewing social order as grounded in a transcendent realm of cosmic design. Evolutionary conservatism is empiricist in viewing human social order as grounded in common human experience as shaped by human nature, human custom, and human judgment.

In the history of modern conservatism, this split was manifested in the metaphysical conservatism of Russell Kirk and the evolutionary conservatism of Friedrich Hayek. For Kirk, the first canon of conservative thought was belief in "a transcendent moral order" set by divine design, and thus Darwinian science was scorned insofar as it seemed to subvert belief in this transcendent order. Since Hayek was a religious and metaphysical skeptic, he disagreed with Kirk about this. In fact, this was one of the reasons why Hayek did not even want to be called a "conservative" rather than a "liberal" in the classical sense.

Hayek elaborated his view of Burkean liberalism as belonging to a British empiricist evolutionary tradition contrasted with a French rationalistic design tradition. In the evolutionary tradition of Hume, Smith, and Burke, Hayek explained, "it was shown that an evident order which was not the product of a designing human intelligence need not therefore be ascribed to the design of a higher, supernatural intelligence, but that there was a third possibility--the emergence of order as the result of adaptive evolution." He then suggested that Darwin's theory of biological evolution was derived from the theories of social evolution developed by the Scottish philosophers.

That both Kirk and Hayek saw themselves in the intellectual tradition of Burke suggests that the tension between them might be found in Burke. In fact, Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution--the founding text of modern conservatism--shows this tension between the metaphysical conservatism of religious belief and the evolutionary conservatism of skeptical naturalism. Burke does seem to have a metaphysical conception of transcendent moral order in which human society is bound up with the order of the universe. Burke writes of "the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place." Here we see the metaphysics of Burke--a religious metaphysics in which the moral and political order of human society is situated within a cosmic order designed by God to conform to His eternal purposes.

But much of the argument of Burke's Reflections works against such a metaphysical view of morality as dependent on the cosmic structure of the universe. Burke wrote his Reflections as a reply to the Reverend Richard Price, who was a Christian Platonist. Arguing against the moral naturalism of Hume and the Scottish moral sense philosophers, Price rejected the idea that morality was rooted in moral sentiments, and he contended instead that moral knowledge was a rational activity of the mind grasping the eternal and immutable metaphysical truths of God's nature.

Burke rejected Price's appeal to the metaphysical abstractions of the "rights of man." "In proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false." Earlier in his life, Burke had expressed his skepticism about metaphysical causes in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. He had explained that in looking for the "efficient cause" of sublimity and beauty, he did not pretend to explain the "ultimate cause," because he was pursuing a purely empirical inquiry into sense experience. "That great chain of causes, which linking one to another even to the throne of God himself, can never be unraveled by any industry of ours. When we go but one step beyond the immediately sensible qualities of things, we go out of our depths. All we do after, is but a faint struggle, that shows we are in an element which does not belong to us."

This reliance on sense experience rather than metaphysical causes is also evident in Burke's understanding of morality. Against Price's metaphysical morality, Burke in the Reflections evoked those "natural feelings" and "moral sentiments" that show "the natural sense of right and wrong" and "the moral constitution of the heart" as the foundation of moral experience. In doing so, Burke indicated his agreement with Hume and Smith in their account of morality as grounded in the moral sentiments of human nature. In fact, Burke had praised Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments as "one of the most beautiful fabrics of moral theory that has perhaps ever appeared."

When Darwin developed his evolutionary theory of morality, he was guided by the moral philosophy of Smith and the other Scottish moral sense philosophers. Darwin showed how this moral sense could have evolved from social instincts and human reason.

Much of the reasoning for Darwinian conservatism turns on the intellectual links between Smith, Burke, and Darwin. While libertarian conservatives look to Smith as their intellectual founder, traditionalist conservatives look to Burke. The intellectual friendship between Smith and Burke shows the fundamental compatibility of libertarian and traditionalist thought. (Some folks--Timothy Sandefur, for example--disagree with this because they see libertarianism as fundamentally opposed to traditionalist conservative thought.) Darwin explained how the moral thought of Smith and Burke could be confirmed by an evolutionary science of morality. This continuity between Smith, Burke, and Darwin manifests the moral philosophy of conservatism as rooted in the evolved nature of human beings as moral animals.


Kent Guida said...

Excellent summary. However, it is still not clear to me whether Burke himself ever resolved the tensions between these two strands. You seem to be suggesting he was a proto-Hayekian in his own mind, but I'm not entirely convinced.
For these and other reasons, perhaps Burke would be a good candidate for your new edition of Political Questions.

Anonymous said...

Libertarians and Traditionalists may look to Smith and Burke respectively. But are either camps correct? What I mean to suggest is that the compatibility--even friendship--between Burke and Smith does not prove that these strands of "conservatism" (as they understand themselves) can be brought together.

xlbrl said...

There is no evolutionary science of morality, because there is no evolutionary morality.

The laws of conscience, which we pretend to be derived from nature, proceed from custom--Montaigne
By nature, we have no defect that cannot become a stength, and no strength that cannot become a defect--Goethe
I short, man has no nature, but instead he has...history--Ortega
For Burke, human nature was the text, and history the comment--J R Lowell

Darwin may well have thought he continued in the traditions of Burke and Smith, but they would not have returned his good will. Burke in particular feared and detested atheists, not for their opinions on God, but of man. His experience was not theoretical.
"It is in the nature of greatness not to be exact".

So great was his reputation and his legacy, they felt it necessary to wait fifty years to tear him down.

Larry Arnhart said...


If you read DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM, you will see that I emphasize the importance of moral custom or tradition, just as Darwin did.

Smith, Burke, and Darwin saw that morality arose from a complex interaction of moral sentiments, moral traditions, and moral judgments.

xlbrl said...

I am only beginning to read DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM, it is true. Nevertheless, your response has avoided my small point: Burke would reject completely Darwin's understanding of what makes us human, and what is the guiding hand in that. And when you got rejected by Burke, you got a rejection that would last a lifetime and beyond.
That Hayek and Kirk both saw themselves in Burke is not due to a tension in Burke, but a misunderstanding of Hayek. What Hayek saw as adaptive evolution is only another human choice made within what is Goethe saw already stamped within us.
I am informed by your distinction between British empirist evolutionary tradition and French rationalistic design. There are reasons, however misguided, the dreadful movements which consider Darwin their inspiration plague man continually, while none who consider Burke for inspiration do. It is the difference in attitude, of humility.
Hayek, Friedman, Darwin himself, and others who retain their humility and humanity are exceptions to atheism, not the rule. Especially in the world of great intellect.
Tocqueville--If their system could be of some use to man, it would be in giving him a modest opinion of himself. But they do not demonstrate such a truth and when they think they have done enough to prove that they are bruthish, they seem as proud as if they had demonstrated that they were gods.