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Pathologizing Ideology, Epistemic Modesty and Instrumental Rationality

I: Preamble

Epistemic conservatism in its most generic form is the idea that a belief has some presumption of rationality merely because it is held (Quine). Cognitive closure, otherwise known pejoratively as “new mysterianism”, is the view that the mind is structurally or constitutionally constrained in its computational power (Hayek, McGinn, Simon). Situated cognition, or ecological rationality, is a stance emphasizing rationality as being constitutive of activity, context, and culture (Hayek, Polanyi, Oakeshott, Vernon Smith). Social externalism is the view that much of our thinking is individuated in part by the linguistic and social practices of a thinker’s community (Wittgenstein, Davidson). The social complexity thesis is the view that there cannot be a predictive science of politics to drive a radical reconstitution of society (Popper, Oakeshott, Hayek). Social complexity is coordinated by a voluntary manifold of self-organizing emergent spontaneous orders (Adam Smith, Grassé, Hayek). Though all these theses would have resonance to so-called political “conservatism” they are not political positions per se. If there is one collecting feature that gathers this group of ideas it is their anti-rationalism. Therein lies the rub. For reasons I will explain, not only is political conservatism not an ideological worldview, it is a cluster of epistemic virtues that should temper the rationalistic impulse regardless of ideological commitments, at least within the domain of sociality.

Practical politics is plagued by an unabashed and unrelenting mutual demonization of a given ideology, with each side classing each other’s cluster of ideas as pathological.[1] By “pathologizing”, the intent is unmistakably derogatory, connoting both meanings of the word – “indicative of disease” and “extreme or excessive”. As such, the other is deemed illegitimate and irrational. The upshot is that the broad centre, that is, the space for reasonable[2] disagreement, the most vital constituent of the civil-liberal condition, has been severely corroded. Most of the vitriol has been targeted at conservatism, an “academic”[3] vitriol often indistinguishable from tabloid-style outrage, hurling tired, virtue-signaling[4] epithets such as reactionary, monarchist, papalist, ecclesiastical, agrarian, aristocratic, feudal, fascist, and so on.[5] This chapter argues that the demonization, or the pathologization of conservatism as an ideology, runs on a straw man fallacy – that is, detractors blithely assume that conservatism is coextensive with an ideology that in turn supposedly appeals to a personality type on the authoritarian spectrum.[6] The Left-Right spectrum has long since lost its conceptual value (Abel and Marsh 2014): a richer dimension is authoritarian-liberal, which has the twofold consequence that:

(a) Left and Right extremism are species of one cast of mind – a rationalistic one; and that

(b) conservatism, properly speaking, is very much a liberal position.

Things are, of course, muddied on the grounds that self-avowed conservatives are complicitous in promoting this fallacy by suggesting that there really is a distinctive matching ideology. That conservatism as an epistemic stance has no traction in practical politics is not surprising: supposed conservative thinking has been bastardized for easy consumption. “Conservatism” as Kristóf Nyíri observes, “is not necessarily right-wing” (Nyíri 2016, p. 445). As an epistemic stance, all that political conservatism claims is that we do not have a predictive science of politics on grounds of complexity; and that it is epistemically prudential, for a whole tissue of reasons, to preserve the existing, albeit flawed, advantages, rather than to instigate a wholesale trading in of inherited practices for the completely unknown. Whatever the limitations, contradictions, paradoxes, incoherencies, anomalies, and other flaws in a given tradition, one always has to work from within that tradition. To do otherwise would not only be irrational but would also be reckless.[7] Both self-avowed political conservatives and their critics are blind to the contention presented here that conservatism is a prudential epistemic stance. While not domain-specific, it does provide particularly vital insight into maintaining a dynamic liberal order. In other words, conservatism plays a vital epistemic foil in assessing the claims and limitations of what is variously called means-end rationality, instrumental rationality or rationalism.

Politics at the best of times is a defective experience. No country has the resources to satisfy everything claimed as a human right by its cives. To fully effect one or more aspects would be tantamount to what Thomas Sowell calls cosmic justice; that is, the relief of all misfortune. The extension of- and/or the reduction of all to- the political, renders not only practical reasoning epistemologically suspect, but it also tarnishes other domains of experience that have been subsumed, or coopted, by politics.[8] As Susan Haack (1998) puts it, “activism masquerading as inquiry” is the bread and butter of the priestly class of “professional” thinker.

The perfectability of human nature lies at the core of the rationalists’ mistaken view of human reality (Nyíri 2016). Tone-deaf to the myth of Original Sin and, for that matter, the myth of the Tower of Babel, “[t]he rationalist imagines an imbecile-free society; the empiricist an imbecile-proof one, or, even better, a rationalist-proof one (Taleb 2016, p. 100). In other words, the rationalistic cast of mind is the identifiably pathological condition, regardless of the ideological constellation. I seek to dispel the view that ideological constellations are inevitably pathological (despite legitimate ascriptions of scientism, collectivism, fundamentalism, atomism, and so on), but only insofar as there is an overemphasis on the rationalistic component. “Perfect” knowledge is unnecessary and impracticable and its relentless pursuit inevitably generates illiberal outcomes.

The discussion proceeds as follows. In the next section, by way of some ground clearing I present a conceptual analysis of liberalism and conservatism, examining their continuities and discontinuities. In Section III, I present the salient outlines of Hume’s moral psychology. In Section IV I discuss the recent work of two prominent cognitive scientists who have both analyzed the “conservative mindset” though to very different purpose. In Section V I critically discuss Michael Oakeshott’s famous “dispositional conservatism”, tying him directly to the Humean tradition. Finally, I return to the opening Quinean gambit regarding epistemic conservatism.

II: Ideological Morphology

The hardest-won and greatest achievement of the liberal tradition (as will be explained, this includes conservatism) has been the epistemic independence wrestled from concentrations of power, monopolies and capricious zealotries (Hardwick and Marsh 2012a, 2012b). Whatever else might be attributed to liberalism, it has primarily embodied the idea that conceptions of the good and goals of action are irreducibly plural. Indeed, the very precondition of knowledge is a generalized exploitation of the epistemic virtues accorded by liberal society’s distributed manifold of spontaneous orders and forms of life, giving context and definition to intimate, regulate, and inform action (Haack 2012).

Though liberalism has always had a strong rationalistic component (i.e. the proto-liberalism of Hobbes), the 20th Century saw a vast expansion of (top -down) rationalism at the expense of the ever-dynamic and fine-grained complexity that is sociality. The primary instrument of salvation effecting this social engineering has been the state, a monopolistic, blunt and coercive mechanism. The arguably necessary and inherent tension between a conception of the state as non-instrumental versus one as instrumental in the promotion of some substantive theory of the good is so out of equilibrium that we are now witnessing a profound fracture within the political class, their constituents, and, consequently a deep corrosion of the broad centre vital to the maintenance of a genuinely liberal culture.

Liberalism or more accurately liberalisms, conservatism included (Alexander 2015, p. 10; 2016, p. 14), do not constitute a homogenous and internally consistent body of ideas. There are, broadly, three variants of liberalism believing respectively that: (a) there is known to be an objective human good, at least its nature is a matter of reasonable belief (Locke’s “reasonableness of Christianity”); (b) there is an objective human good but our knowledge of it is incomplete (Mill’s “experiments of living”); and (c) there is no such thing as an objective good: a person’s interests are defined in terms of their preferences, desires and inclinations (the hallmark of market capitalism).

The typical[9] features of liberalism are:

  • individualism (individuals are the ultimate units of moral value/society has as its proper end the good of individuals/individual well-being requires people to make their own choices as far as possible)
  • universalism (affirmation of the moral unity of the human species, according secondary importance to historical circumstance)
  • egalitarianism (all mankind has the same moral status)
  • meliorism (the affirmation of the corrigibility and improvability of social institutions and political arrangements).

It should be noted that conservative constellation does embody the above features though each component is differently weighted and articulated with an emphasis on:

  • scepticism (anti-rationalism and the complexity thesis)
  • the rejection of the politics of ideals (limited, role-based government)
  • reliance on practical reasoning by which a tradition can be interrogated and applied (one is always dealing with a reflective tradition, not an inert pattern of habitual behavior)
  • organicism and communitarianism (stressing the situatedness of the self and the rejection of focal/abstract individualism)

Six qualifications are called for. First, conservatism can be historically specific – e.g. Burke, de Maistre, and, to a degree, Aristotle and Hume. Second, it can be indexical and it is this a notion that tends to confuse its detractors. The idea is that one can be conservative relative to a context, while in no way holding any recognizable conservative values; for example, anyone who wished to preserve the essentials of Communist Party rule was deemed a conservative. Third, liberalism and conservatism (and socialism for that matter) should not be conceived as being coextensive with self-identifying political parties or movements; this is not a reliable indicator of their ideological commitments and this further is muddied by trans-Atlantic terminology (Marquez 2015, p. 410). Fourth, the blithe conjoining of terms such as “liberal” to “democracy” is a commonplace misnomer: liberalism does not entail democracy. Fifth, it’s worth noting that being a conservative in politics does not necessitate being a social conservative: there is only a contingent relation. Lastly, while value incommensurability emphasizes choices between freedoms they are neither mutually entailing conceptually or practically consistent.[10]

The point of contention revolves around the melioristic aspect of liberalism and the sceptical aspect of conservatism. The prevailing “liberalism” has over-emphasized its commitment to meliorism, ditching the notion of individualism for the anti-individualistic bloated social ontologies characteristic of identity politics.[11] Though meliorism is an important strand in the liberal ideological constellation, one should be very cautious in aligning liberalism exclusively with progressivism. Liberalism (at least in its classical variety) is not coextensive with progressivism. Traditional liberalism is concerned with equality of opportunity (equality) and not equality of outcome (equity) as is the vain impulse of the progressive rationalist. The former understands that human behavior is stochastic and therefore to insist on equity of outcome requires relentless overreach that must thereby embody a distinctly authoritarian flavor, if that were even minimally practicable.

Epistemic humility is not seen as a cultural virtue: it is the zeitgeist of the current age that we exist in a (misperceived) linear trajectory of progress, progress here taken to be coextensive with improvement – morally, socially, technologically, economically and scientifically. Progressivism, a “grand narrative” notion, on closer scrutiny is subject to all the weaknesses of such constructions: it is impossible to determine whether a change for the better in one part or aspect of the system is progressive for the system overall, since there is no Archimedean point from which progress can be assessed. Every change alters some state of affairs, destroying or modifying it. Granted we live, in some real sense, the best of times (reductions in child mortality, preventable diseases, access to safe water and sanitation, malaria prevention and control, prevention and control of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis control, declining poverty &c.). We also live in the worst of times – Auschwitz-Birkenau, Holodomor, Cambodia, Venezuela, China (the Uyghurs) and much more besides – the dark side to political technocracy.

Conservatism has taken up liberalism’s original emphasis on scepticism, as per the independence wrought from epistemic monopolies mentioned at the beginning of this section. So, in this sense, conservatism is very much part and parcel of the liberal tradition and it is this that seems to be overlooked by not only its detractors but quite often by self-ascribed conservatives themselves (Podoksik 2008).

The vital point is that ideologies are porous and as such are morphological: that is, there is a great deal of fluidity within and between ideologies and thinkers can and do pass through one ideology to another (Freeden 1994; Alexander 2015). On this account notions of ideological purity must be laid to rest. So, for example, the communitarian element in conservatism and socialism (Alexander 2015, pp. 14-15, 17, 20) does not make communitarianism a conservative perspective per se. Neither can communitarians, conservatives or liberals accept the market as the dominant model for social relationships, as radical libertarians are wont to do – which is not to say that they are in any way anti-market (Hardwick and Marsh 2012a). This ideological porousness is manifest in a Darwinian Leftism proposed by Peter Singer (2000, pp. 60-63). Singer’s checklist requires that any Leftism worthy of its name cannot: (a) deny the existence of human nature, or insist that human nature is inherently good, or that it is infinitely malleable; (b) expect to end all conflict and strife whether by political revolution, social change, or better education; (c) assume that all inequalities are due to discrimination, prejudice, oppression, or social conditioning. Some will be, but this cannot be assumed in every case; (d) expect that, under different social and economic systems, many people will act competitively in order to enhance their own status, gain a position of power, and/or advance their interests and those of their kin; (e) stand by the traditional values of the left by being on the side of the weak, poor and oppressed, but think very carefully about what social and economic changes will really work to benefit them.

Items (a) through to (e) are items that the conservative can and should sign up to. In other words, these are the central values of our shared inherited liberal culture. The problem is that, regarding the “regressive Left’s”[12] ostensibly most cherished value, (item e)[13] only gives lip service via meaningless social ontologies, generating a divisive newfangled racial essentialism that is identity politics – with “rights talk” as its handmaiden.

III: A Hume Primer

As indicated at the outset, the thesis presented here is that Hume’s philosophical psychology provides the most compelling understanding of sociality and its associated situated rationalities. Alert to the socio-political situation of Hume’s day, one must be careful to not simplistically refract Hume’s outlook through the post-Revolutionary bifocal liberal-conservative lens as represented by the triumvirate of Hume, Burke and Smith. As David Miller puts it, “Hume believed that those things which liberals characteristically value are indeed valuable, provided that those things which conservatives characteristically value can be securely enjoyed at the same time” (Miller 1981, p. 195).

Whether one takes the view that Hume is a grandee of the representational theory of the mind tradition (Garrett 2006; Landy 2012), or whether one thinks that Hume plays the pivotal role to the non-Cartesian situated tradition (as I and Froese 2009 do) the Treatise is “the foundational document of cognitive science” (Fodor 2003, p. 135). Though Hume did not have a modern scientific toolbox at his disposal, I take “sociobiology” (called “evolutionary psychology” these days) to be a scientific vindication of Hume’s speculative anthropology.[14] Hume’s moral psychology has, of late, found new voice within the recent trend that has come to be known as experimental philosophy, most notably in the work of Jonathan Haidt.

Hume’s Treatise’s full subtitle is Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects. By “experimental” Hume means “based on knowledge and observation”, taking due account of the relevant differences between the human and physical sciences (Treatise xix). For Hume moral judgment occurs when one (a) checks all the relevant facts (Enquiry 173) and (b) takes a general view. By the former, Hume means that, within practical cognitive limits salient facts inform the utility or agreeableness of a character trait. This is what we’d call being “well -informed”. By the latter, Hume means, that in moral assessing someone’s action, one must be disinterested, a detachment understood as sympathy (Treatise 472, 579). Morality, says Hume, “is more properly felt than judged of” (Treatise 470).

For Hume, moral judgments are causal through emotion and not through logical implication. Hume takes the view that agents have a direct inclination to do certain actions because there are corresponding character traits that comprise human nature. For Hume, a natural virtue is a morally good tendency that can be exercised independently of a social context (though within limits, they do appear even as though they are). Moreover, in the exercise of these traits, we regard the interests of others as essentially and intrinsically (not accidentally or instrumentally) to one’s own advantage. The limits alluded to are motivated by self-regarding and limited generosity actions. Generosity is limited by the degree of sympathy, which, in turn, is limited by a degree of propinquity. This propinquity, mediated by social institutions, radiates through loyalties and allegiances and that while actions may attract moral approbation or disapproval, are not built into one’s character traits. While the natural virtues delimit the bounds of generosity, the artificial virtues are grounded in self-interest. For example, justice (an artificial virtue) serves one’s self-interest in maintaining the institution of property, from which we all benefit. Hume does not mean that these artificial virtues are somehow spurious, merely that they are contingent upon the contrivances of sociality. Moreover, they are a part of morality where certain general conditions of trust obtain.

A standard criticism leveled at Hume is that his argument relies too heavily on the independent spectator’s viewpoint rather than on the agent’s viewpoint (more on this in the next section). If there is a vulnerability, it lies within Hume’s emotivist approach: the idea that moral judgment does not embody any genuine knowledge of an independent reality.[15] For Hume, approbation and disapprobation are non-reducible experiences, much like a specific qualic experience. So, what of the objects of moral judgment? For Hume this means that one’s feelings of approbation and disapprobation are expressive of character. Character, in Hume’s associationist psychology, is that which is “durable enough to affect our sentiments” (Treatise 575). The upshot of Hume’s position is to cordon off the affective (perhaps impervious) from reason. Human behavior thus conceived is governed primarily by unanalyzed experience or habits. Hume’s slogan “custom is the great guide of human life” is quite compatible with his near contemporary Bishop Butler’s quote “probability is the very guide of life”.

All this points to a deeper aspect of Hume’s argument. Hume’s intention was to undermine the very idea of an underlying rational harmony in nature, the sine qua non of 18th Century rationalism. Hume assaulted this assumption by contending that the external order is not merely a product a priori reasoning but that its discovery was rooted in the principles of human nature. The phenomenal world rests on conviction and not on a process of logical inference. This marks the dispute between the necessatarians and the regulatarians; Hume’s position famously the latter. Hume’s idea is this. No particular analysis of the concept of cause commits one to the principle of causality – i.e. that every event has a cause. All we actually experience is that one kind of event is constantly conjoined with another. A science of politics, therefore, must be grounded in experience supplied by historical inquiry and observation of existing societies. Essentially, it was to be an investigation into the interaction between institutions and human nature. In this way Hume indicated to later conservatives (and Leftists such as Singer) that the strongest arguments for the existing order were to be found within the facts of that order; that under an empirical approach, utility could be located as an immanent value embodied in actual social arrangements, rather than in the tendency to exaggerate principles into unyielding absolutes. The latter, of course, is a mark of the rationalist across the ideological spectrum and in no uncertain terms should be deemed a pathological condition. This said, one cannot really ascribe a specifically liberal or conservative label to Hume. In the Essays, Hume rejected the social contract liberalism of Locke, but was somewhat too sceptical a thinker for Burke – both of whom could be said to plausibly straddle both these labels. “Hume was something more than the Enlightenment incarnate, for his significance is that he turned against the Enlightenment its own weapons”, Wolin (1954, p. 1001) wrote. McArthur argues that if Hume is a conservative, he is not of the traditionalist variety, but more of the precautionary variety; both views can be simultaneously coherently held (McArthur 2007, p. 123).

IV: Pathologizing Ideology

One of the most prominent figures in promoting the pathologization of conservatism is George Lakoff.[16] Lakoff’s slogan that “all politics is moral” echoes the commonly made claim that political philosophy is simply the application of moral philosophy to public affairs. Lakoff is well-known within non-Cartesian situated cognition circles and as such he rejects the Enlightenment’s conception of abstract unvarnished universal rationality, at least concerning the paradigmatic complexity of social matters (Lakoff 2008, pp. 1-3, 6-10). Lakoff is in accord with Hume in that he takes the view that most reason is subconscious. So why would he feel the need to pathologize conservatism, especially since conservatism would be in full accord with Lakoff’s critique of the rationalistic aspects of Enlightenment thinking? The reason lies in Lakoff’s role as an activist and polemicist, his disingenuousness shown by the disjunction between his philosophical presuppositions and his a priori social teleology. He claims that in the so-called “culture war” progressives “have ceded the political mind to conservatives” (Lakoff 2008, p. 2).[17]

First, Lakoff’s use of the term “radical conservative” is literally an oxymoron (Lakoff 2008, pp. 42, 43, 68). If he’s referring to so-called “religious fundamentalism”, then that is already disqualified on conservative terms because of the deeply rationalistic impulse that drives this fundamentalism. Second, Lakoff’s linkage of conservatism to laissez-fairism (Lakoff 2008, p. 62) is equally misleading since a spontaneous order (as a market is) supposedly corrodes traditional patterns of behavior. While there is something to this argument, it’s a view I don’t happen to share. For if traditional patterns of behavior are not classic instantiations of spontaneous order, then what are they? Third, the idea that the political divide is coextensive with a fundamentally democratic normalized (liberal) and a fundamentally antidemocratic pathologized (conservative) ideology simply does not hold (Lakoff 2008, p. 5) – recall my earlier admonition that liberalism (and derivatively conservatism) do not entail democracy.

On Lakoff’s view, progressivism is akin to the “nurturing” parent, which accords with what Haidt has identified as the progressive’s primary moral value: care. Correspondingly, the other parent is the “authoritarian father” figure, which Lakoff ascribes to the conservative mindset. Are these two casts of mind mutually exclusive? Not according to Lakoff whose “biconceptualism” accepts that many retain both conservative and progressive views, which are made manifest in different contexts and on different issues. As I’ve already indicated, this points to the fluidity of ideological clusters. It might be argued that if socio-political rationality is infused by some supposed, even minimal, knowledge of the conditions for human flourishing, then care of all cives should be any ideology’s central concern. When Lakoff says that since political positions are neither logical nor self-made, that they can and should be altered, and that facts or propositional thinking is not required for persuasion, his stance is unmistakably  constructivist and veriphobic, contravening one of Hayek’s most durable anti-rationalist distinctions – the error of conflating unplanned order (cosmos) with planned order (taxis).

Despite being aware of the elitist connotations of (by definition) top-down rationalism, Lakoff is clear in his view that “the role of the progressive government is to maximize our freedom” (Lakoff 2008, p. 48). We’ve already marked the problem with the notion of “progress” and that the instrument to effect this can only be the state. This makes positive freedom the primary political value, the idea that an agent’s own character or personality can work against the agent’s own interests. Positive freedom points away from the divided self, but this unity comes at the cost of privileging a favored political value. The risk a dominant positive freedom theorist runs is that this idea needs to be conjoined with negative freedom if some notion of autonomy is to be preserved. Lakoff pretty much denigrates the “conservative mind” set as essentially defective, despite the fact that his progressive constituency could, on Lakoff’s own account, learn much from conservatives.

Many along the liberal-conservative axis are in full accord with Lakoff’s dissatisfaction with the Enlightenment;[18] that is, the privileging of propositional rationality be it of the collective planning variant or the abstract fiction of homo economicus. Where they part company with him is that the Continental Enlightenment was not the sole Enlightenment – the other tradition being of course the Scottish Enlightenment of Hume, Smith (Hardwick and Marsh 2014) and several others. Though both traditions trumpeted the sovereignty of human reason, they differed on the legitimate scope of its application. The French variant put store in centralized top-down governmental coercion. By contrast, the Scottish variant took the methodological view that since reason is a property of an actual individually situated mind, it is neither practicable nor indeed desirable to aggregate the multitudinous individual hopes, dreams and aspirations. The Scots placed their discussions about moral philosophy within the framework of an intellectual legacy inherited from seventeenth-century European discussions about morality and natural law: man was, by nature, a social animal and the social world was defined by a complex network of authority and mutual obligation to one’s fellow citizens.

Politics, for Lakoff, is not about changing minds by deploying primarily a rational argumentative strategy. Politics is more about propagating emotionally charged narratives and metaphors. Lakoff believes that conservatives have been eminently successful in this – as does Jonathan Haidt.[19] If this is the case, then it is odd that Lakoff while simultaneously berating conservatism for precisely this, seems to be inferring that progressives too should be far more attuned to the wider moral matrix.

V: The Haidt Report

While George Lakoff is an unapologetic progressive activist, his research appearing incidental to underpinning his political polemics, Jonathan Haidt by contrast, genuinely wants “to understand moral disagreement and help people disagree well” (Perry 2016, p. 70, emphasis added). In the service of this, he offers a closer-grained analysis of why conservatism has been so effective. According to Haidt, conservatism (or if as I prefer, embedded or situated liberalism) appeals in even measure across the six drivers of moral psychology (noting their corollary) – care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation. This is the core of Haidt’s moral foundations theory (2009; 2012). What Haidt noticed across his studies is that the so-called liberal drivers are very much narrower in privileging the three pillars of care/liberty/fairness while deemphasizing the pillars of loyalty/authority/sanctity.[20]/[21] The upshot of this is that conservatives’ broader moral matrix allows them to detect threats to moral capital that “liberals” cannot perceive (Haidt 2008, pp. 343, 357). To put it in more colloquial terms, conservatives it appears, really do have a wider moral bandwidth. Hence it should be no surprise that Hume is often held up as the first modern conservative thinker. Haidt is, through and through, a Humean. Moral psychology for Haidt (and of course Hume) is the key to understanding humanity (Haidt 2008, p. 231) and in turn politics. Put another way, those on the Right have understood that the elephant, not the rider, is in charge of political behavior (Haidt 2008, p. 181) – this, as we’ve seen, is acknowledged by Lakoff. The moral vision offered is constrained by the progressivists’ fetishizing “victimhood” (Haidt 2012, p. 182), an ever complicated and shifting permutation of hierarchical identities, “the True Taste restaurant, serving up a one-receptor morality” (Haidt 2012, p. 141) whereas conservatives’ morality appeals to all six moral “taste receptors”/moral matrixes. Since the “True Taste restaurant” offers a mono-metric scale, it is inevitable that internecine “ideological purity” tests are bound to plague the progressivists’ own worldview.

Haidt’s diagnosis is that the Left in its over sacralization of equality to include equality of outcome is bound to be frustrated by the spontaneous order that is the market, culture, language and sociality and, most importantly, each individual’s unreflective rationality (Haidt 2012, p. 204). This overreach, relentlessly grinding and flattening an ever-trivial social landscape, inevitably carries authoritarian tendencies to effect policy. Moreover, a purely rationalistic approach to politics is bound to perpetually frustrate as a “mass delusion” (Haidt 2013a, 2013b), or as an ideological bed of Procrustes:

“Since the Enlightenment, in the great tension between rationalism (how we would like things to be so they make sense to us) and empiricism (how things are), we have been blaming the world for not fitting the beds of “rational” models, have tried to change humans to fit technology, fudged our ethics to fit our needs for employment, asked economic life to fit the theories of economists, and asked human to squeeze into some narrative” (Taleb 2016, p. 151).

Conservatism (or situated liberalism) understands the agent’s need for external structures and constraints in order to behave well, cooperate and thrive. These external constraints include laws, institutions, customs, traditions, nations and religions (Marsh and Onof 2008; Doyle and Marsh 2013). This is the broad moral bandwidth characteristic of social externalism that we talked of earlier. People who hold this “constrained” view are therefore very “concerned about the health and integrity of these ‘outside-the-mind’ coordination devices”, as Haidt puts it (Haidt 2012, p. 340). So, for a conservative, there is always more to morality than harm, fairness (Haidt 2012, p. 149) and proportionality (Haidt 2012, p. 161), whereas for the Left fairness is often coextensive with equity.

So, what has this to do with reason and rationality? As situated agents “we must be wary of any individual’s ability to reason . . . we should see each individual as being limited, like a neuron. A neuron by itself is not very smart but with a group one gets an emergent system smarter and more adaptive” (Haidt 2012, p. 105).[22] Moreover, “good reasoning is an emergent property of a social system” (ibid). The worship of abstract reason (“the rationalist delusion”) is one of the longest-lived delusions of Western social philosophy as Hayek, Oakeshott, Taleb, Haidt, and several others have pointed out.[23] Those who traffic in the delusion are typically what Haidt scathingly calls the “rational caste”, a priesthood or a clerisy of philosophers, scientists, politicians, and economists, usually harbouring some utopian programme (Haidt 2012, pp. 33, 94, 95, 103). Or more disturbingly put: “A fully specified theory of substantive rationality opens the door to despotic requirements, externally imposed” (Nozick 1993, p. 176).

The methodological “moral” one should take from Kahneman (and Amos Tversky’s) work of the early 70s is not that one should be alert to the supposedly infallible deliverances of intuition, but that neither the lay individual nor indeed the expert in any knowledge community, are immune from systematic error. Such an epistemic insight should be the sine qua non to any viable freedom sensitive social philosophy.

VI: Dispositional Conservatism

Michael Oakeshott once remarked that one can learn more about conservatism from Hume than from Burke (Oakeshott 1991a, p. 435). This somewhat cryptic remark offers a vital clue to fulfilling the promissory note made in earlier writings in which I presented Oakeshott as a situated liberal (Marsh 2010; 2012).

In his essay “On Being Conservative” (OBC) Oakeshott (1991b) famously articulated his self-ascribed conservatism, not as a creed, nor as a doctrine, but as a disposition. Despite the term “dispositional conservatism” being one of Oakeshott’s most heavily referenced ideas, it has rarely been critically examined.[24] While Oakeshott never quite conceptually unpacks what he means by a disposition,[25] we know that he was profoundly influenced by a Rylean non-Cartesian stance (Marsh 2010a).

A disposition is typically a tendency, mood, inclination or potentiality. Within the philosophy of mind, several mental ascriptions have dispositional implications. Ryle claimed that to have a disposition was not to be in a current state but rather to be liable to be in a state when some other condition was realized. Ryle’s strategy was to show that because mental ascriptions were dispositional they did not involve inner states. This controversial claim meant that ascribing a disposition asserts no more than the truth of a conditional, the upshot being that whatever relation holds between dispositions and conditionals holds equally between the non-dispositional and conditional. Surely, the argument goes, if dispositions are actual properties, then they exist independently of their manifestations and may still be present even though not made manifest.

The whole of OBC is animated by the effort to defend conservatism (and crucially the conservative disposition with respect to politics) without recourse to large-scale religious or metaphysical beliefs and without endorsing a more general traditionalism or communitarianism (Alexander 2015, p.19). As Capaldi puts it in regard to Hume, a “secular conservatism” that is not in the business of uncritical veneration, but of deploying a sceptical outlook, helps bring to the fore the presuppositions of some ideational domain (Capaldi 1989, p. 311). To get a handle on what might have motivated Oakeshott’s remark, we turn again to Hume. Oakeshott’s position seems to turn on Hume’s distinction between “false philosophy” and “true philosophy”, the idea being that the former is a corrupt philosophical consciousness that has ironed out the fabric of inherited culture and custom perpetrated by vulgar rationalistic philosophical enthusiasms. The latter is “nothing but an attempt to render the inherited and conflicting customs and prejudices of common life as coherent as possible” (Livingston 1995, pp. 154-155; 157; 161). Livingston is not casting “false philosophy” aspersions Burke’s way: he’s merely saying that Hume had a sharper philosophical eye than Burke, in that he better “distinguished between the legitimate demand for reform and the world inversions of the corrupt philosophical consciousness that informed the French Revolution” (Livingston 1995, p. 159). The true vs. false style of philosophizing can be restated, on Livingston’s interpretation, as being deeply imbued with a Pyrrhonian doubt and consequent modesty (or as Nyíri 2016 puts it, humbleness), as opposed to the arrogance, vanity, cynicism and contemptuousness of day-to-day affairs of common life. Livingston’s use of the term “delirium” suggests to me that false philosophy is very much a pathological condition, a dogmatic condition that infects zealots of all stripes (Livingstone 1998).

Apriorism in socio-political thinking, or, as Oakeshott’s famously put it, “rationalism in politics”, is, in its abstraction, too crude and therefore an inappropriate epistemological tool with which to predictably effect positive benefits on society. In politics, one is always dealing with a reflective tradition, not an inert pattern of habitual behavior: to reflect a tradition is to “pursue its intimations”,[26] as Oakeshott has notably and controversially stated. John Coats’ view is that, whatever else divides Hume and Oakeshott, they share a similar critique of rationalism, at least within politics and ethics. As Aryeh Botwinick (2011, p. 148) puts it, ‘Oakeshott’s concept of “tradition” . . . straddles the divide between “is” and “ought,” . . . is thus a post-Humean category.’

Oakeshott fully assimilates Hume’s general proposition of the primacy and relative autonomy of “unreflective custom”, with “conscious ratiocination” being the subservient partner while still playing a critical secondary role (Coats 2000, p. 97). In effect, Hume’s philosophical psychology offered, politically speaking, “a conservatism without benefit of mystery” (Wolin 1954, p. 1001) which is fully compatible with Oakeshott’s non-metaphysical stance.

In the first half of OBC (sections 1 and 2) one can recognize the conservative disposition rather well as pertaining to immediate personal circumstances. Oakeshott is making some general observations that would be familiar to theoretical psychology: observations concerning personality traits, habits and attitudes (or, as Oakeshott prefers, “beliefs”). But in respect of politics (sections 3 and 4 of OBC), the bridge from an individualized dispositional conservatism (sections 1 and 2 of OBC) is not readily apparent. Herein lies the problem.

In the first half of OBC, Oakeshott sets out what one might term generic conservatism. That is, an individual or a group can be dispositionally conservative independent of any particular substantive political or moral values.[27] Whether one has a conservative disposition in terms of character, or personality traits in one’s private life has nothing, logically or even psychologically, to do with whether one is a conservative in politics. One can espouse a conservative politics while leading a storm of a private life. An individualized psychological conservatism can combine with political conservatism, but this is utterly contingent. The corollary is that one may be a total creature of habit in one’s personal life, but still feel the need for extensive political and social change.

Though Oakeshott regards personally held conservatism as a disposition, and a disposition with a significant degree of stability and fixity, he does not think of it as an immutable or irreversible state of character. It has the same fixity and the same reversibility as Aristotelian hexis.

Even if one were to regard any given present state of politics as seriously defective one might be unwilling to engage in large-scale reform not because one values the current state of affairs, but because one cannot reliably replace it with something better. This is the Oakeshott-Hayek-Popper line of thought, whereby on the grounds of impenetrable social complexity there cannot be a predictive science of politics to drive a radical reconstitution of society. Again, this belief could be held by those with no substantive conservative agenda: it is merely an exercise in descriptive sociology.

Turning to the second half of OBC – conservatism in respect of politics – no tradition of behavior can leave circumstances as they are. In politics one is committed to change, to the remedy of incoherencies. Even Burke said that a society without the means of change is without the means of self-preservation, a claim that is usually completely overlooked by those of a rationalistic stripe and even many self-identified conservatives. The argument is usually expressed as follows: spontaneous orders à la Hayek and others are sometimes incompatible with, indeed corrosive of, traditional patterns of living. If, as Roger Scruton – whose conservative credentials are beyond reproach – puts it, “in a true spontaneous order the constraints are already there, in the form of customs, laws, and morals” (Scruton 2007, pp. 219-220; Alexander 2015, p.16), his concern must surely be dissolved.[28] This is pure Hume. Scruton goes onto say that “Hume, Smith, Burke and Oakeshott – have tended to see no tension between a defence of the free market and a traditionalist vision of social order. For they have put their faith in the spontaneous limits placed on the market by the moral consensus of the community” (ibid). As mentioned before, the question that has to be asked is what is a traditional order if it is not a spontaneous order?[29]

While one might not necessarily be out of sympathy with the rationalists’ concerns, their bold activist a priori methodology is tone deaf to the appropriate timing or tipping point to best effect a specific social policy. Unless the current state of society exactly as it stands is itself a value, then why not remedy incoherencies? That is why the Married Women’s Property Act was justified, as well as female suffrage: women as a social group were equal in all other relevant respects, but in this regard the tradition was incoherent and legal changes had to be made on conservative grounds to remedy the incoherence.[30] What would typically be claimed in the name of human rights can be redescribed as an Oakeshottian “intimation” that was being ignored. The civil rights movement demanded equality for Blacks, another social group, but equality before the law had always been acknowledged under the constitution (15th Amendment, ratified 1870); it’s just that there was not due recognition of this equality in respect of voting and education for Blacks. Another notable and very recent example of the remedying of an incoherence for another social group is that of gay rights[31] (inheritance tax equality and equal next-of-kin status). These supposed human rights were historically specific grievances within a tradition of political behavior that needed to be remedied within that very tradition. A tradition that becomes broadly conscious of its being out kilter of with itself, is a tradition best placed to redress a specific anomaly. (This is not to deny that incommensurability of values can and do occur within and between traditions). This, then, is the countercharge to human rights claims, which under a wide rhetoric are always related to the socially and historically specific and can be dealt with in the appropriate local terms.

For Oakeshott, belief is a catch-all for dispositions or dispositional abilities. Given my know-how, I will of course have certain beliefs, but know-how (a capacity or a tendency to act in certain ways) is not identical (or equivalent to) beliefs. Oakeshott reiterates that a political tradition can never be completely coherent. A complex society composed of complex minds, each with their own permutation of beliefs, approvals and disapprovals, preferences and aversions, pro- and con- feelings, hopes, fears, anxieties, and skills – will always contain conflicts and tensions. The best we can do is manage and contain them on reasonable but defeasible grounds. Politics, on this account, is downstream from culture. Thus, complexity issues aside, even the most benevolent of political rationalists is bound to be frustrated.

One potential problem is that one cannot be sure that Oakeshott can draw a firm and tenable distinction between the essential and the incidental within a tradition, or web of belief (see Brennan and Hamlin 2016a). For Oakeshott, everything is connected with everything else. This point reiterated by Livingston is that “there is no suggestion as to what is to be conserved or what the threat is. It is perhaps for this reason that conservatism is often characterized as a disposition rather than a doctrine” (Livingston, 1995, pp. 153; 154).

VII: Epilogue

Since I began with Quine, I will wrap up with Quine. While Quine was considered a political conservative (Quine 1989, pp. 68, 69, 206-207; White 1999, pp. 125, 272) I’m in accord with David Miller when, with regard to Hume, he writes that Hume’s philosophical premises are a necessary though not a sufficient condition for his political stance (Miller 1981, p. 14). This, too, is applicable to Quine. The Quinean web of belief as I understand it, is comprised mainly of beliefs we find ourselves with, and cannot doubt or discard at will.[32] Any or all of these beliefs could be false, but although there is a degree of voluntariness about a belief, it isn’t psychologically possible to discard, modify or adopt a belief at will. (This was one of Spinoza’s objections to Cartesian doubt. Such doubt, consciously adopted, can only be bogus, or “as if”, doubt).

New experiences generate beliefs, some of which (X) are incompatible with some of the beliefs (Y) in the web. In face of this we have to decide, since contradictory or contrary beliefs cannot both be true, whether to hold on to the new beliefs and abandon some of the old, or vice versa.[33] There is no decision-procedure for retaining X and dropping Y, or rejecting X and retaining Y. (The Quine-Duhem thesis sets out why this is so). Broadly what we actually do, according to Quine, is retain or abandon beliefs in accordance with a judgment of what best restores coherence to the web. A psychological inclination to take the course that least disturbs the web is quite consistent with a radical upheaval or disarrangement of the kind that happened when relativity and quantum theory were adopted. Deep areas of the web were replaced and rewoven.

Quine, is at heart, a pragmatist. The web is such as to enable us by and large to get along in the world. Sometimes science deeply impinges on it; most of the time it doesn’t. The value and justification of the web is the humdrum fact that it is serviceable. Perhaps this aligns it with Oakeshottian tradition, which also is serviceable and also indispensable. There is and could be different webs and different traditions; but without some web or tradition we can’t engage with the world as knowers or agents.

Quine doesn’t say much about dispositionality in his account of the web of belief, but there is no reason why some beliefs in the web cannot be given a dispositional analysis. One might have supposed that Quine would have rejected dispositions from his austere ontology, but he doesn’t (see e.g. Moline 1972). If Quine can accommodate dispositions, there’s no reason why he can’t accommodate unconscious beliefs, to which Goldman adverts (1979). One can have a dispositional belief of which one isn’t aware. That does, however, complicate the process of web revision, since how does one revise – dispositional – beliefs of which one isn’t aware?

If we retain the idea of tradition, then I think we’re pretty well bound to endorse dispositionality. To adhere to a tradition is to be disposed to make certain “cognitive appraisals” and to behave in certain ways.

  1. I don’t think Quine or anyone else can get rid of the modal idea of possibility. The actual world is a possible world because it exists and because it can be described without self-contradiction. If it’s actual that p then it’s possible that p. But I go along with Quine, as with Hume, on necessity and impossibility. All we can say(at most) is that something has always happened or has never happened.
  2. “Is it true that what a man can do, he can do?” (Gert and Martin 1973). Yes and no – and both are important. Suppose one were to sketch you; one might do a pretty good job. But can one reliably produce good sketches? Not at all. It was beginner’s luck or a happy chance. If I can do something on one occasion, it does not follow that I can do it reliably or at all on other occasions.
  3. Dispositions: Can we apply dispositionals in the same sense in science as in the kind of everyday psychology with which Oakeshott operates?

(x) [Cx → (Ax↔Bx)]

For every x if x is exposed to conditions C then x has property A just in case x exhibits behaviour B. Take this simple illustration: for all butter (x) if butter is exposed to a heat of 200 degrees centigrade for three hours (C) then butter is solvent (A) if butter melts (B). Can we analyze psychological dispositions in the same way and with the same degree of determinateness?

For every x (a human agent) if x is exposed to conditions C then x is conservative just in case . . .

One problem is that the scientific disposition, solubility, is single-track as Ryle would say – x melts. I don’t think that a disposition such as being conservative is single-track. It’s multi-track and can be exhibited in an indefinite variety of – or at least, many – ways. So how to fill in the space after “just in case”? It’s also not clear how to specify “C” in the human agency case.

To conclude, I am not convinced that there is a cast of mind that has either a significant over-preponderance of either rationalist or conservative personality traits.[34] If such an overly dominant quality of mind did exist, one would have no qualms in designating that as a neurodevelopmental disorder.[35] Healthy politics, at best, is inevitably a defective experience. The “conservative” stance that the Scottish Enlightenment has been recommending in no way amounts to an unreflective defence or justification of the status quo but is an epistemic plea for a counterposed scepticism, or a Viereckian “animated moderation” (Weinstein 1997) or a “precautionary principle” (Marquez 2015) in matters of wholesale reform to mitigate unintended consequences.[36] This is echoed by Nicholas Rescher who writes that:

“the difference between liberalism and conservatism is not so much one of political—let alone economic—ideology. Rather, it reflects a difference in temperament, a difference in attitude regarding the possibilities of the future, which in turn carries in its wake an attitudinal difference of expectation regarding the ultimate results of contemplated change” (Rescher 2015, p. 442).

Conservatism’s fortunes have not been well-served because those of a fundamentalist and/or traditionalist stripe have provided the very resilient caricatural fodder to obscure its very impressive strengths. These strengths, as Kristóf Nyíri puts it, are epistemic in nature, are hardly political if understood in terms of common-sense realism, thereby promoting the probabilities for the evolutionary success of humanity – in a nutshell, knowledge-conservatism (Nyíri 2016, p. 444; O’Hara 2016, p. 437). Non-Cartesian cognitive science has come to appreciate this, as has behavioral economics and some corners of computational intelligence, though unsurprisingly, most would balk, a function of their own ignorance, at being labelled “conservative” (Doyle and Marsh, 2013; Frantz and Marsh 2016; Marsh and Onof 2008; Marsh 2010b).

Conservatism as an epistemic disposition, is a disposition of modesty, a situated liberalism that is vital to the healthy functioning of a culture mediating the perpetual tension between the yin and the yang of the ideal types that Oakeshott identified as the politics of faith and the politics of scepticism, a mutually valuable epistemic corrective that the broad centre should entertain.



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[1] Carl Schmitt (1927/1976) famously took the view that integral to politics is a friend-foe relationship, a relation holding between groups not individuals. David Corey (2014) coined the neologism “dogmatomachy” from the Greek dogma (an opinion that falls short of knowledge) and machē (battle). Others take a forum view of politics, one that is constrained by obviously political institutions – e.g. the British parliament.

[2] By “reasonable” one doesn’t mean to imply that freedom of speech should in any way be curtailed.

[3] Conservative theorizing is caught between a rock and a hard place. Analytical philosophy, in line with much of academia, resents the primary conceptual colour that necessarily should comprise the balanced ideological pallet; many a self-identified conservative theorist in turn has resisted an analytical approach (Beckstein and Cheneval 2016).

[4] A platitudinous gesture to “self-brand” oneself, a form of vanity dressed up as selfless conviction: “people are trying harder to look right than be right” (Haidt 2012, p. 89; emphasis added). Taleb’s scathing polemic articulates the generalized psychological driver behind this impulse: “The IYI [The Intellectual Yet Idiot] pathologizes others for doing things he doesn’t understand without ever realizing it is his understanding that may be limited”:

[5] This lack of conceptual precision is tied to what has been termed as “conceptual creep” (Haslam 2016; see also Haidt 2016). Some forty years ago this tendency was already observed (Allardyce 1979).

[6] Academic social theorizing, now operating primarily under the shadow of Marxist “false consciousness” (or miscognition) and wedded to radical social constructivism (often deeply at odds with prevailing best science; Marsh 2005; Nyíri 2016), has been the major driver behind the significant narrowing of the Overton window. Duarte et al. (2015) note that the lack of viewpoint diversity conspicuously missing from social psychology circles, must surely have epistemic consequences for psychology.

[7] A case in point being Angela Merkel’s display of hubris syndrome traits with regard to the migrant crisis: “a particular form of incompetence when impulsivity, recklessness and frequent inattention to detail predominate. This can result in disastrous leadership and cause damage on a large scale. The attendant loss of capacity to make rational decisions is perceived by the general public to be more than ‘just making a mistake’” (Owen and Davidson 2009). See also Douglas Murray (2017).

[8] The prevailing view in the academy is that power and politics are in lockstep (Michel Foucault), thereby making politics a ubiquitous activity.

[9] As with all ideological analyses, none can be tidily encased in a set of necessary and sufficient conditions (O’Sullivan 1976, p. 31). Different ideologies cluster concepts differently; some concepts are sidelined, downplayed, emphasized, or reinterpreted. So, for example, conservatives do not conceive “social” justice to be purely a matter of distributive justice as is also the case for libertarians, but for somewhat different reasons. Libertarianism, derivative of liberalism, has over-sacralized one value to the detriment of others – in this case, the market (see Abel and Marsh 2014). See Iyer et al. (2012) on the Libertarian disposition.

[10] See Eyal and Tieffenbach (2016) on incommensurability and (market) value.

[11] It is this outlook that has, not surprisingly, tilled the soil for, what in current jargon is known as “intersectionality”, an ever-expanding, voracious hierarchical basket of rights-claims running on irrelevant collecting features making for an inherently divisive political culture. In identity politics the explanans (a particular statement, law, theory or fact) and the thing to be explained (the explanandum) have been inverted (so, for example, it would be deemed irrational for non-conformists holding feature x not to subscribe to an expected ideology despite their superficially similar characteristics), e.g. self-identifying Black (Lewis 2013) or gay conservatives (see also note 31).

[12] This ironic neologism was coined by Maajid Nawaz (2016, pp. 210, 251). The policing of language, language being a star example of a stochastic spontaneous order, necessarily invites a perpetually authoritarian response in enforcement because of the quicksilver nature of complex systems.

[13] Looking after those less fortunate can also be found as a prime social value in the idea of “noblesse oblige” of High Toryism.

[14] E. O. Wilson’s “sociobiology” of the mid-70s was deemed too controversial, so much so that he was viewed pretty much as a pariah for two decades afterward. As Haidt (2013, p. 282) more elegantly puts it: “I got the feeling that sociobiology was radioactive. It was dismissed as reductionist and it was tainted as a gateway theory leading to racism and sexism.”

[15] A. J. Ayer and C. L. Stevenson offer the two classic twentieth century formulations.

[16] Others include Honderich (1990); Jost et al. (2003) make the feigned sounding claim to the contrary: “This does not mean that conservatism is pathological or that conservative beliefs are necessarily false, irrational, or unprincipled” (Jost 2003, p. 340).

[17] This claim is odd since in the 30 years I’ve been monitoring the so-called “culture wars”, the Right has been operating within the wake of the Left’s hegemony, especially in education. Though it was the Right of the ’80s and ‘90s that harboured anti-science (debates about evolution) and censorious tendencies (for instance, music labeling), this stance is now more characteristic of the “regressive” Left). Lakoff’s book comes over as having an ideological to axe to grind and as such is weakened with infelicities.

[18] A far deeper critique can be found in the work of Alasdair MacIntyre.

[19] Haidt anecdotally mentions that as a self-identifying liberal he had tried to offer the Democrats advice on how to beat Republicans at their own game – the offer was not taken up.

[20] Burton et al. (2015) tentatively point to the higher degree of neuroticism amongst “liberals” compared with “conservatives”.

[21] A critic of Haidt suggests that “fairness and relief of suffering are more fundamental values than authority and loyalty, which are virtues only if their objects are worthy” (Blum 2013). In other words, Blum is saying that blind loyalty to an authority is unacceptable. Blind loyalty is not a feature of writers

even as early as Burke. Blum would need to spell out with far more conceptual discrimination the varieties of- and the logic of- loyalty, de jure authority generalized as follows: A has authority over B if and only if the fact that A requires B to φ (i) gives B a content-independent reason to φ and (ii) excludes some of B’s reason for not φ-ing (Green 1988).

[22] Bernstein et al. (2012).

[23] Haidt along with Lakoff is the latest in a line of theorists offering a Dual Process Theory (DPT) of cognition, Daniel Khaneman (2011) along with Haidt being the two most prominent recent versions. This process comes in a variety of overlapping if not identical binary concerns, notably as propositional knowledge vs. tacit knowledge, rationalism vs. empiricism, deliberate vs. intuitive consciousness, declarative vs. procedural, abstract vs. hermeneutic, formalized vs. traditional (custom, prejudice, convention, habit), fast vs. slow thinking and I’d expect there are more DPTs besides. Four points should however be noted. Whosever dual process model one cares to take, the positing of these two systems should not lead one to any of the following inferences (Evans 2012):

(a) that there is indeed a sharp duality and that ne’er the twain shall meet; (b) that these two “systems” have definitive brain structure instantiations; (c) that “fast” thinking is intrinsically irrational;

(d) that “slow” thinking is intrinsically rational.

[24] A recent exception is Alexander (2016) who attempts a refutation of what he calls Oakeshott’s “minimal” and overly “abstract” definition of conservatism. The upshot, on Alexander’s account, is that proponents make “conservatism sound like the most natural thing in the world . . . [and] unexceptional” (Alexander 2016, p. 20); or as Rescher puts it, conservatism is a “matter of balance”, or fine-tuning with the burden of proof on the proponents of change (Marquez 2015), an Aristotelian sense of proportionality. Alexander’s point is precisely my point though I have distinguished historically specific, indexical and contextual conservatism (see Rampton 2016); Sutherland (2005) and Turner (2003) are two trailblazers in making the connection between Oakeshott and non-Cartesian cognitive science.

[25] A philosophical unpacking would be in order (see Mumford 1998).

[26] See Brannan and Hamlin (2016a) on the stability of practice/convention.

[27] Brannan and Hamlin (2016b) distinguish adjectival (a value widely-shared across most ideological profiles), practical (empirical Pareto-like distribution values) and nominal (a distinctively held value) –

types of conservatism (see also O’Sullivan 1976, p. 153).

[28] Horgan and Timmons’ (2007) “morphological rationalism” is the idea information contained in moral principles is already embodied in the structure of an individual’s cognitive system, and this morphologically embodied information plays a causal role in the generation of particular moral judgments.

[29] Oakeshott (as did Raymond Aron) famously took a swipe at Hayek for having rationalist tendencies in that having no plan was just as rationalistic as the central planners (Marsh 2012).

[30] “The conservative attitude that I seek to describe, and begin to defend, in this paper is a bias in favour of retaining what is of value, even in the face of replacing it by something of greater value. I consider two ways of valuing something other than solely on account of the amount or type of value that resides in it. In one way, a person values something as the particular valuable thing that it is, and not merely for the value that resides in it. In another way, a person values something because of the special relation of the thing to that person. There is a third idea in conservatism that I more briefly consider: namely, the idea that some things must be accepted as given, that not everything can, or should, be shaped to our aims and requirements” (Cohen 2011; see Brennan and Hamlin 2016b for a close-grained discussion of Cohen).

[31] Taken thus, I think it way too simplistic to use hot issue terms such as abortion, gay rights, multiculturalism and so on to establish a nuanced conception of the conservative (Tritt et al. 2016). This said, many gays not beholden to the “regressive” Left bemoan the “domestication” of their lifestyle because of legalized marriage. Their view is that gay marriage can be seen as yet another expression of the rationalist’s controlling impulse to shrink the transgressive “sandpit” that has long since provided a vital spark to keeping liberal culture dynamic.

[32] For all intents and purposes, I see no difference between Quine’s “web of belief” or holism (Quine and Ullian 1970; Christensen 1994) and Oakeshott’s idealist commitment to coherence.

[33] A curious schizophrenic-like phenomenon that has typically infected Western intelligentsia is satirized by evolutionary behavioural scientist Gad Saad as Ostrich Parasitic Syndrome; that is, the holding of contradictory beliefs manifest as willful ignorance or self-delusion despite overwhelming empirical evidence that x is or is not the case (see note 4). Philosophically, this can be recast as a form of Sartrean “bad faith”.

[34] Consider the Nietzschean duopoly of Western consciousness: the Apollonian (analytical, discursive, abstract) and the Dionysian (intuitive, playful, concrete).

[35] Some studies have suggested that there is a genetic aspect to an ideological preference (Hatemi et al. 2014) but as the researchers acknowledge, finding bridging laws from bio-chemistry to sociology, is not on the cards. If as Tritt et al. (2103) say, emotional arousal is tempered by a conservative stance, then this is clearly dispositional. The same caution should be adhered to in positing a link between media preferences and political orientation (Xu and Peterson 2017). See also, Verhulst et al. (2012; 2016).

[36] Hirsh et al. (2010) suggest that personality binary traits such as Conscientiousness vs. Openness, Agreeableness vs. Politeness, Orderliness vs. Openness have some correlation with “conservative” vs. “liberal” political outlooks. As I’ve said, there is only a highly contingent relation if one understands conservatism to be an epistemic virtue. This applies to another study by Xu et al. (2016). In an earlier study, Xu et al. (2013, p. 1510) admit to this contingency. Hirsh et al. (2013) make a more plausible connection between religiosity and conservatism in that it jibes with Haidt’s six drivers of moral psychology. Malka and Soto (2015) again miss this contingent relationship and do not seem to have a very nuanced conception of left-right ideological spectrum as per the discussion of ideological morphology in section II.


This was originally published with the same title in The Mystery of Rationality: Mind, Beliefs and Social Science, Gérald Bronner and Francesco Di Iorio, eds. (Springer, 2018).

Leslie MarshLeslie Marsh

Leslie Marsh

Leslie Marsh is a Senior Researcher in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at The University of British Columbia. He is author and editor of several books, including Walker Percy, Philosopher (Palgrave, 2018), Reclaiming Liberalism (Palgrave, 2019), and Theology and Geometry: Essays on John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (Lexington Books, 2020).

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