Small c conservatism: Epistemological modesty and the value of institutions

I re-checked out Jerry Z. Muller’s comprehensive little library of conservative theory “Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought from David Hume to the Present” this past week, because I kept wanting to quote it, but I hadn’t written down any quotes when I first read it! Checking it out from the UW library, I felt a little like I was smuggling contraband across campus, and I tried not to flash the cover lest I incite an angry liberal mob.

This book is great. The word conservative has all sorts of evil motives assigned to it these days, but the conservative tradition isn’t all gun-slinging rednecks and capitalist overlords. It has its own set of rigorously developed arguments and assumptions that do lead to different conclusions that liberal thought, and they aren’t inherently harsh, mean, or disinterested to the plight of man. In fact, in many cases, the conservative sounds more understanding of man and his situation, not expecting perfection, and striving to maintain conditions where man can thrive. The introduction by Muller is masterful, and I wanted to include his breakdown of conservative thought to a few essential points. The following are quotes from his introduction.

I think this is a must-read for conservatives and liberals alike to discover the intellectual roots of conservatism. Perhaps our political discourse would be more fruitful if we could give rigorous arguments rather than relying on ad hominem attacks and purposefully misunderstanding those on the other side.

Human imperfection

Conservative thought has typically emphasized the imperfection of the individual, an imperfection at once biological, emotional, and cognitive… Conservatives typically contend that human moral imperfection leads men to act badly when they act upon their uncontrolled impulses, and that they require the restraints and constraints imposed by institutions as a limit upon subjective impulse. Conservatives thus are skeptical of attempts at “liberation”: they maintain that liberals over-value freedom and autonomy, and that liberals fail to consider the social conditions that make autonomous individuals possible and freedom desirable.

Epistemological modesty

Conservatives have also stressed the cognitive element of human imperfection, insisting upon the limits of human knowledge, especially of the social and political world. They warn that society is too complex to lend itself to theoretical simplification, and that this fact must temper all plans for institutional innovation.


Conservatives emphasize the role of institutions, that is, patterned social formations with their own rules, norms, rewards, and sanctions. While liberals typically view with suspicion the restraints and penalties imposed upon the individual by institutions, conservatives are disposed to protect the authority and legitimacy of existing institutions because they believe human society cannot flourish without them. The restraints imposed by institutions are necessary to constrain and guide human passions. Hence, Burke’s dictum, that “the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.” The positive value ascribed to institutions by conservatism contributes to their natural affinity for the status quo, in contrast to liberalism’s innate hostility toward authority and establishments.


Custom, habit, and prejudice

Burke uses the term “prejudice” to refer to rules of action which are the product of historical experience and are inculcated by habit. Like Hume and Moeser before him, he argued in favor of relying upon customary moral rules even when they had not been subject to rational justification. Subsequent conservatives too assume that most men and women lack the time, energy, ability, and inclination to reevaluate or reinvent social rules. Therefore, “duty”, the subjective acceptance of existing social rules conveyed through socialization and habit, is regarded as the best guide for most people, most of the time.

Historicism and particularism

Many valuable institutions arise not from natural rights, or from universal human propensities, or from explicit contract, but rather are the product of historical development. To the extent that human groups differ, conservatives argue, the institutions which they develop will differ as well. Hence the institutions which conservatives seek to conserve vary over time, and from group to group. Since, for the conservative, the desirability of specific institutions is dependent upon time and place, conservatism tends to be procedural and methodological, rather than substantive. Stated differently, conservatism is defined in part by its affirmation of institutions as such, rather than by its commitment to specific institutions. In facing foreign institutions and practices which differ from those of his native culture, the conservative, unlike the adherent to orthodoxy or the liberal, does not begin with the assumption that because foreign institutions differ from his own at least one set of institutions must necessarily be flawed. Rather he is inclined to suspect that the foreign institutions reflects a different historical experience, and may be as useful in the foreign context as his native institutions are in their context. For the conservative, then, the fact that an institution or practice has withstood the test of time leads to a presumption of its suitability to its context.


Unlike liberals who favor voluntary, contractual social relations, conservatives emphasize the importance of nonvoluntary duties, obligations, and allegiances. Hume, for example, argued that social contract theories of political obligation which derived the duty to obey government from the explicit will of the governed were historically untenable and had the undesirable effect of delegitimating all established governments. “What would become of the World if the Practice of all moral Duties, and the Foundations of Society, rested upon having their Reasons made clear and demonstrative to every Individual?” Burke asked rhetorically in his Vindication of Natural Society. Burke redefined the social contract as “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Because the dissolution of the social order would mean the end of social institutions by which passions are guided, restrained, and perfected, Burke argued, the individual has no right to opt out of the “social contract” with the state. “Men without their choice derive benefits from that association; without their choice they are subjected to duties in consequence of these benefits; and without their choice they enter into a virtual obligation as binding as any that is actual.”

The utility of religion

Despite disagreements as to the veracity of religion, conservatives have tended to affirm its social utility. Conservatives make several arguments for the utility of religion: that it legitimates the state; that the hope of future reward offers men solace for the trials of their earthly existence and thus helps to diffuse current discontent which might disrupt the social order; and that belief in ultimate reward and punishment leads men to act morally by giving them incentive to do so. Recognition of the social utility of religion is no reflection upon the truth or falsity of religious doctrine. It is quite possible to believe that religion is false but useful. But it is also possible to believe that religion is both useful and true.

The critique of theory

Conservative theorists repeatedly decry the application to society and politics of a mode of thought which they characterize as overly abstract, rationalistic, and removed from experience. Whether termed “the abuse of reason”, “rationalism in politics”, or “constructivism”, the conservative accusation against liberal and radical thought is fundamentally the same: liberals and radicals are said to depend upon a systematic, deductivist, universalistic form of reasoning which fails to account for the complexity and peculiarity of the actual institutions they seek to reform.

Unanticipated consequences, latent functions, and the functional interdependence of social elements

Quoting Burke, “The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every experimental science, not to be taught a priori. Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us in that practical science; because the real effects of moral causes are not always immediate; but that which in the first instance is prejudicial may be excellent in its remoter operation; and its excellence may arise even from the ill effects it produces at the beginning. The reverse also happens; and very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions. In states there are often some obscure and almost latent causes, things which appear at first of very little moment, on which a very great part of its prosperity or adversity may most essentially depend.

The subject of the unanticipated consequences of purposive social action is one of the most important themes in modern social science– and by no means a particularly conservative one. Liberals tend to focus upon the unintended positive consequences of actions, but conservatives focus on negative ones. Such consequences, conservatives typically argue, occur because reformers are unaware of the latent functions of existing practices and institutions. Reformers are insufficiently cognizant, it is said, of the contribution of the practice to the preservation or adaptation of the larger social system in which it is implicated. For the larger function of a practice may be different from its explicit or avowed purpose. That contribution may be unintended by those engaged in the practice. And most important, its function may be unrecognized, or recognized only retrospectively, once the reform of the practice has brought about negative unintended consequences.


Time and again conservative analysts argue that humanitarian motivation, combined with abstraction from reality, leads reformers to promote policies that promote behavior which is destructive of the institutions upon which human flourishing depends. If it is institutions rather than individuals which have always been the prime object of conservative concern, it is because conservatives assume that it is the functioning of institutions upon which the well-being of individuals ultimately depends.

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