A popular formulation of the principles of conservatism has been created by the late Russell Kirk, who posited ten main principles, that Russello later narrowed down into six. This essay examines some of these points.
- 1 The conservative believes in a transcendent moral order
- 2 The conservative believes in custom, convention, prescription, and continuity
- 3 The conservative is guided by prudence
- 4 The conservative sees freedom and property as closed linked
- 5 The conservative cares about variety
- 6 The conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in vigorous society
- 7 See also
The conservative believes in a transcendent moral order
From the beginning of human history man has posited the existence of a moral order that exists separately from the physical world. Plato claimed that the physical world is merely a shadow of the world of forms in which there is a clear order; where the form of the good is the highest of all. Aristotle posited the existence of this moral order within the family where the husband has authority of his wife, and the two of them have authority of their children. Yet only through Judaism and, subsequently, Christianity have these ideas come to complete fruition. In this way, many conservatives found their political views on their faith in the divine moral order that has been revealed to us by God through Scripture.
This is contrasted by those holding a materialist world view, often those on the political left, that see morality and order as forms of oppression. However their very materialism undermines their commitment to opposing oppression since, my denying the existence of an independent source of morality, it is impossible to claim that a democratic republic is any better than an exploitative tyranny.
The belief in a transcendent moral order lends itself to a further belief in natural law; a body of law that is universal, immutable, and from which all worldly laws should be based. This idea is a key element in the writings of many prominent thinkers, including Cicero, St. Augustine, St. Aquinas, Grotius, and Locke. It forms both the basis for the natural rights that are explicitly laid out in the written constitutions of most countries, and the for the principle of common law that many English-speaking countries adhere to. Evidence for this natural law can be seen in any number of ways; such as how the core of almost every belief system is the Golden Rule, or by the continuing historical consensus of what is considered right and wrong on issues like murder, theft, honesty, swearing, adultery, and jealousy. Given this, custom and convention and prescription and continuity all have great value in ensuring that natural law retains it importance.
The conservative believes in custom, convention, prescription, and continuity
The conservative is guided by prudence
Conservatives adopt a realistic understanding of human nature in that we can, and often do, evil. This is often seen as a result of The Fall through which we became sinful, such as in the Calvinistic doctrine of total depravity. Therefore, there is a need for prudence; where decisions are carefully mediated on, often before God, so that rashness does not prevail. A key implication of this is that, to make decisions prudently, all power must be delegated and restrained and, in the context of political association, this expresses itself as a commitment to a constitution and a republic.
Today, this is idea tends to be opposed by those who think that, if elected, a single man or body of men should have unfettered power. Some claim that this is ‘more democratic’ than the republican constitutional model, since a republic may be seen as restraining the powers of the people by restraining the powers of their representatives. Yet from the very beginning conservatives have consistently understood that these ‘democracies’ almost always lead to tyrannies, shown by the cyclical constitutional theories of Aristotle and Cicero. This idea was later popularized by phrases such as the “tyranny of the majority” by de Tocquville and “all power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” by his British friend Lord Acton. A further example of this is that of Edmund Burke who, in Reflections on the Revolution in France, strongly opposed the French revolution since it both removed the established constitution of the Ancien Régime and did not replace it with a republican constitution, such as in the American revolution. Just a few years later his claims that this would lead to tyranny and the suppression of individual rights would confirmed by the Reign of Terror and Napoleon’s dictatorship.
This conservative principle can be summarized by the thought of John Locke, whose thought was highly influential in the founding of the USA. Note that, while he is often described as a liberal, this is true only in the classical liberal sense; a school of thought that is more a part of the conservative tradition. For him, true freedom was the freedom to serve God with the property he has provided us with, and where property was defined as “life, liberty, and estates.” Therefore, men not only have the freedom to own, use, and accumulate material goods (estates), but also they have property rights of their own bodies (life) and the freedom to use their physical and mental faculties (liberty).
One criticism of this is that conservatives are limited in their commitment to being able to own/ use/ accumulate property; such as through their opposition to drug use (estates), the ability to sell our bodies for money (life), or the ability to burn the American flag (liberty). The conservative response to this is that there is no inconsistency in their views, since they have also maintained that these freedoms over our property have been given to us by God who has entrusted us not only with rights, but also responsibilities, over what he created and ultimately still owns. Therefore, the illegality of prostitution or drugs should be seen as promoting, not endangering, our freedom in the sense that the only true freedom is the freedom to serve God with the property he has entrusted us with.
A related criticism is that conservatives are said to ignore the right to life, specifically through their support of the death penalty and a strong defense policy. Locke would reply to this by making it clear that these rights are given to us by God. If they are abused by using them in ways that violate the another's enjoyment of his right then has forfeited his own rights, and is therefore liable to seizure of his estates (e.g. fines), a reduction in his liberties (e.g. imprisonment), or a termination of his right to life (e.g. execution or war).
The conservative cares about variety
As with the others, Christian beliefs are the foundation of support for this principle for many conservatives. Here God has given numerous and different blessings to different people and, as Paul discusses in 1 Corinthians, since each Christian is a different part of the Body of Christ, he therefore has a different role to play in serving God, and such variety amongst us must be respected. This later manifested itself through the guild-system in medieval Europe, where the professions of each guild were respected as being a part of the greater whole of Christendom. An economic justification of this principle is found in The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, that famously emphasized the importance of variety in that it allowed for the specialization and division of labor, an aspect of great importance to the functioning of a free-market economy.
This is contrasted by the more totalitarian thought of left-wing thinkers who, in their dogmatic desire to impose 'equality', often see variety only as a threat that must be purged. They often see they acknowledgment of difference as offensive, forgetting that to treat man as being the same as woman, intellectual the same as laborer, or black the same as white, is in itself offensive to the nature of those individuals. Attempts at destroying variety have taken many forms in human history; ranging from simple verbal abuse on the wealthy, to the Soviet Union's extermination of millions of middle-class, predominantly-Jewish, peasants (Kulaks).
The conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in vigorous society
This is perhaps the underlying principle of Conservapedia. The Internet is an outlet for the liberal bias of the media to spread across the world. Yet, since the very nature of the Internet has rendered established institutions unable to counterbalance this change, the World Wide Web is a virtual anarchy where governments are powerless to control the many threats it poses, such as the mass proliferation of gambling, pornography, and overall Godlessness. The conservative must arm himself with the sword of truth, enter into this cyber-jungle, and fight all he can to uphold the eternal moral order, that are at the very core of all he stands for.