Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What Liberals Can Learn from Kirk's Canons of Conservatism

They say that people who do not know the arguments of their opponents do not completely know their own. In this respect, I feel that my engagement with Russell Kirk and his six canons of conservatism has strengthened my appreciation for liberalism. In this respect, I offer the following six "counter-canons" as a defense of liberalism in response to Russell Kirk.

(1) Liberalism should acknowledge that disorder exists in the world, but that human beings have the capacity to bring order to that world. We should humble enough to realize that nobody can know everything there is to know in the universe, but we should also encourage the accumulation of more knowledge, rather than wallow in our relative ignorance. The acquisition of knowledge by a society is a collective endeavor in which all members of society should participate, instead of limiting our knowledge to what the people at the top of an arbitrary social hierarchy can see. Evil exists in the world, but we must use our reason to figure how to combat that evil, instead of letting dualistic black vs. white thinking to give us a pretext to become evil ourselves.

(2) The increase of equality in a society should co-exist with the expansion of diversity and pluralism. Human beings have the capacity to use logic to make a better society, but our use of logic should be tempered by warmth and empathy. We can enjoy the diverse traditions of older, less equal societies, but that does not mean we have to accept all aspects of the society that produced those traditions.

(3) Civilization requires self-control, but humans are more likely to learn self-control if they are treated with equality and dignity, instead of thrown to the mercies of a punitive hierarchical society.

(4) Private property can promote autonomy and help preserve freedom, but it is insufficient by itself to make a free society. Social stability and economic efficiency is more likely to develop when large numbers of people have the opportunity to have property of their own than when all property is concentrated in the hands of a few. Some economic inequality might be tolerable, but only if it improves the condition of the least well-off members of society.

(5) The best method for solving societal problems is to look at the examples that both scientific models and historical models provide, while still encouraging all members of society to participating in problem-solving and the generation of new knowledge. If scientific models are too abstract to apply to real life, we still have history to rely on, but unlike the "tradition" embraced by conservatives, history has the added benefit of being true.

(6) Whenever we contemplate social change, we must always contemplate how fast we are willing to have that change occur and how the speed of change influences our adjustment to that change. What matters most is how we adjust to change, whether we do so rationally, empathetically, and without violence. If the demands of rationality, empathy, and social tranquility it, in some cases, the preservation of society will require an acceleration in the rate of social change.

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