By Jon Cogburn
The discussion under a recent post by John Fletcher hit home for me in a possibly idiosyncratic way. One of the things that really, really irritated some of my friends at my old group blog was the fact that sometimes I linked to paleo-conservative websites such as The American Conservative. Why am I reading, much less linking to, a website where the authors often expresses such objectionable views and sometimes in an insultingly inhumane way?
- The Tragic Sense of Life- Human life is essentially tragic; nearly every good brings with it a set of compensatory trade-offs, e.g. the death of loved ones is unbearable, but so would be immortality as anything like we are now.
- Hobbesianism- You cannot understand humanity unless you explore what human beings do to one another when social norms break down, such as during and after wars, revolutions, and famines.
- The Centrality of Culture- Cultural institutions are the result of thousands of years of evolution in various ways that humans have negotiated tragic trade-offs. There is always some unarticulated wisdom at work.
- Epistemic Humility- Even social reality is so enormously complicated that our attempts to explain and control it will always be to some extent frustrated.
I would happily call myself conservative if it weren't for (1) the fact that the word so strongly connotes being for capitalism, war, and various forms of apartheid (self-styled paleo-conservatives are against capitalism and war, but tend to be marks for gender and sexual apartheid), (2) self-styled conservatives typically radically understate the tragic nature of the tradeoffs that characterize the past.
Consider human sexuality. Conservatives typically make two claims I find very plausible about bad effects of the 1960s sexual revolution: (1) all else being equal, it is much better for children to be raised by two parents, and sexual revolution helped radically undermine this norm (much more to the detriment of poor people than middle class people), (2) a lot of what got called "free love," or its contemp0rary version "hookup culture," is to a very limited extent the Hobbesian reign of the inappropriately acculturated adolescent male over everyone else (again, we see this at its most extreme during and after warfare).
But of course these beliefs only support ideas we associate with conservatism in the United States if the conservative in question is dishonest about the tragic tradeoffs around human sexuality prior to the sexual revolution (and arguably also ignoring economic factors playing a causal role with respect to the rise of single parent households among the poor). One can appreciate with the conservatives that sexual apartheid is preferable to the Hobbesian state of nature without for a second thinking it should be reinstated (or, to the extent that it is still with us, continued, for that matter). But, on the other hand, this doesn't entail celebrating hookup culture either.
I'm not claiming any novelty here with respect to anything I'm saying about issues of gender and sexuality. This is well-covered ground in feminist scholarship (I'm ashamed that I only know about it because my colleague James Rocha is writing a book on hookup culture). It such well covered ground that the fact that so many self-styled conservatives take feminist scholarship as a punching bag tells you that the conservatives in question are not primarily motivated by (1)-(4) above.
If conservatives understate the tragic nature of the past, lefties constitutively understate the tragic nature of the space of current political possibilities. I hate to repeat myself (the quote below from an earlier post on some thoughts of Eric Schliesser, Femi Taiwo, and Graham Harman), but I think Graham Harman gives a really good example of this:
I think that [whether it’s true (as I tacitly claim) that academic groupthink is a bigger danger than bad politics of the Rightist variety] depends on the sphere in which one is operating. On specific political issues (the environment, workers’ rights, women’s rights, gay rights, the Egyptian Revolution in its early stages) I often feel drawn to the Left position. The big exception for me is that I’ve never been impressed by the often knee-jerk reactions against the use of violence: e.g., depicting police as primarily and essentially a force of oppression, or reflexive anti-Americanism. It’s easy to take the moral high ground against racist cops or the U.S. military, but I’m more interested in hearing people talk about how they would like to see violence employed. Violence in the political sphere is not going to disappear, and even if the hard Left gets its way, that violence will not consist exclusively in expropriating ill-gotten wealth from Wall Street. You’ll still need to deal with violent criminals, and you’ll still need to deal with genuinely unresolvable violent international conflicts. These sorts of factors are too often missing from Left programs in politics. You have to keep yourself honest in discussing the proper use of force in human affairs, and not just denounce the strongest forces each time they act. That’s just another way of passing on the hard issues of politics by installing oneself on the throne of superior morality.
The formal constraints of contemporary social media certainly make this kind of thing much worse. The simplest narrative that engages with the desire to be outraged is always going to be what gets selected for. And I don't doubt that such simplifications sometimes do honorable service as noble lies as we hopefully continue to reform our institutions and culture towards something less Hobbesian. But I also think that part of the duty of the philosopher is to not be a mark for lies, noble or otherwise.