Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Refuting the Canons of Conservatism, Part III

Russell Kirk's third canon of conservatism states:

Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a "classless society." With reason, conservatives have been called "the party of order." If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum. Ultimate equality in the judgment of God, and equality before courts of law, are recognized by conservatives; but equality of condition, they think, means equality in servitude and boredom.

Let's break down the quote again.

Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a "classless society."

As this quote indicates, conservatives believe that hiearchically ordered societies are more civilized than societies that are less hierarchical. The original source of this philosophy comes from an idea that dates back all the way to the ancient Greeks, the Great Chain of Being. The basic idea behind the Great Chain of Being is that God has created the universe in a hierarchical order (which is also consistent with Kirk's first canon of conservatism) and that God has ranked all the animals and creatures of the universe within that hierarchical order. Even among humans, the philosophy of the Great Chain of Being insists that all humanity has been placed by God within a linear upward hierarchy, with the lowliest people at the bottom and society's most powerful people at the top (where they allegedly sit closer to God).

The problem with the Great Chain of Being as a model for organizing society is that it doesn't accurately describe either the biological or the social world. Since the early 19th century and the discoveries of the biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, we now know that the better scientific model for describing the animal kingdom is not an unbroken hierarchical linear chain, but a tree with different animal species represented by offshoots on different limbs and branches. Neither God nor Mother Nature nor Darwinian evolution wastes time wondering whether a badger or a walrus places higher in some mythical Great Chain of Being. And if the Great Chain of Being doesn't work as a model for the natural world, its applicability to the social world is also doubtful.

In addition, we know from history that hierarchical societies are not necessarily more civilized. As the sociologist Norbert Elias has shown in his work, The Civilizing Process, civilization is a long, gradual process whereby people learn to gain control over their own natural impulses. Historically speaking, hierarchical societies have often been physically punitive societies (e.g., the American South under slavery, Spain under the Spanish Inquisition) that punish people with the whip, the rack, and the thumbscrew. These punishments are effective at inflicting pain, but they do nothing to teach improved self-control. Once the punishment is removed, the victim is free to lose control once again.

We also know historically that the leaders of aristocratic societies could often be characterized by decadence and a definite lack of self-control, because there were no checks and balances, nobody above them in the hierarchy, to place a check on their power. Think of the aristocrats of Restoration-era England. Think of the slaveowning aristocrats of the antebellum South who harassed white servants and female slaves alike. Even Thomas Jefferson couldn't keep his hands off Sally Hemings. Conservatives like to claim that hierarchical order leads to a more civilized society, but in reality, it simply allows our era's version of the aristocracy to run amok without consequence.

Another problem with the conservative insistence on hierarchally ordered societies is that hierarchical societies are inefficient for the production and circulation of new knowledge. Conservatives are correct to insist on humility. There is much that civilization has learned about the social and natural world, but there is also much that we do not know. The problem is that conservatism makes it more difficult to build upon what we do know. Everyone's perspective of the world has flaws in it. Everyone's perspective of the world is incomplete. The only way that humanity as a whole can learn more about its own world is if it respects the knowledge contributed by everyone, not simply the people at the top of an arbitrary social hierarchy.

With reason, conservatives have been called "the party of order."

Another major flaw in the reasoning behind conservative philosophy is that conservatives conflate two conceptually distinct meanings of the word "order." One meaning of "order" refers to the placement of people or things into different places or positions. Conservatives want to insist that "order" should be hierarchical, but objects can be arranged in an "order" without necessarily placing them in a hierarchy. (For example, if you "order" your living room, you don't necessarily worry about what hierarchical status your armchair has in relation to your sofa.) Another meaning of "order" refers to social tranquility and freedom from violence and disruption. What conservatives do is simply assert that these two definitions of "order" have a causal connection to one another, because the word that refers to both concepts is the same. As we have shown above, this reasoning is flawed, because historical examples have shown (e.g., the antebellum South, Spain under the Spanish Inquisition, Nazi Germany) that societies can be highly ordered in the hierarchical sense yet still subject people to death and destruction. Playing games with word definition is no substitute for historical argument, and it is no basis for a political philosophy either.

If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum.

Once again, this blanket statement is refuted by numerous historical examples. You need merely look at all the societies that have transitioned successfully from monarchy to democracy. Monarchy in Europe persisted for millennia, based on a divine right of kings rooted in the very same idea of "natural distinction" praised by Kirk. Yet when these monarchies collapsed (as in Italy after World War II) or gradually lost their power (as in modern-day Great Britain), these societies did not become more oligarchical, but rather they became more democratic. Kirk claims to be concerned that oligarchy will develop, but the real conservative fear is that democracy will flourish.

Ultimate equality in the judgment of God, and equality before courts of law, are recognized by conservatives; but equality of condition, they think, means equality in servitude and boredom.

The reference to "equality of servitude" comes from 18th century historian Edward Gibbon's The Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon stated, "The Romans had aspired to be equal; they were levelled by the equality of servitude." Conservatives love to cite Edward Gibbon, because he has so many juicy quotes heralding the collapse of society, even though almost no respectable academic historian would quote Gibbon without mentioning the centuries of historical research that has since superseded him. For example, Gibbon argued that Roman laws encouraging social equality had forced aristocrats into a position of servitude in an increasingly autocratic Roman Empire. In reality, according to an essay by James Howard-Johnston in the book Edward Gibbon and Empire, aristocrats still had considerable political power during the decline of the Roman Empire. According Howard-Johnston, Gibbon went "far astray" from the historical record on this point, and he had little knowledge (that later historians would have) about how Roman law shaped the social relationships between powerful aristocratic families and the rest of the Roman population.

A related argument is that laws to reduce social inequality lead to an "equality of boredom." This is related to Kirk's argument for a "conservatism of enjoyment," based in the aesthetic contemplation of old social traditions. Or, to put it more simply, Kirk views equality as more boring than inequality and disfavors it on aesthetic grounds. The problem with this argument is that Kirk underestimates the ability of human beings to compartmentalize. We can aesthetically enjoy some of the products of old social traditions (e.g., Chartres cathedral, the Egyptian pyramids), but that still does not oblige us to revive the hierarchical and punitive societies that made those products.

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