Conservatism for Seculars

Razib Khan

Politics is a dirty affair. Of course the men and women aspiring to become politicians don’t dress like ditchdiggers. On the contrary, aspiring politicos invariably wrap themselves in the finest formal business attire of our culture. This is plainly to impart to us the seriousness of their intentions but also perhaps to cloak the squalid and debasing aspects of their enterprise. Even those ancient exemplars of the political class, Pericles and Caesar, ended their lives in ignominious squalor, one dead by plague (a likely consequence of the militaristic hubris of Golden-Age Athens) and the other murdered at the hands of men of his own caste.

This juxtaposition of sartorial seriousness and grotesque moral degradation is manifest in our own age. One can see it in the way money buys influence in a democratic republic or in the way candidates lie brazenly, even to their constituents, forever using figurative Etch A Sketches to satisfy special interests. Organized politics is an inevitable human affair, but as such it is not the way of heaven, to say the least. Ultimately power is at stake, and when power is at issue one can’t expect decorous behavior.

But there’s another view, one that expresses politics as a way of ordering human affairs on a smaller scale. These are the “little platoons” of Edmund Burke, the virtuous philosopher-officials of Confucius, and the utopian anarchism of 1960s counterculture revolutionaries—in other words, politics as normal, everyday people organizing themselves so as to grow, flourish, and eventually die. We acknowledge this dimension of politics when we use idioms such as “office politics” and “family politics.”

So when speaking of politics, one must distinguish between organized institutional politics and politics as organized citizenry on a more human scale of interpersonal relations. Terms like Republican, Democrat, conservative, and liberal have valence as monikers that represent the tribes of organized politics, but too often when engaging in partisan discourse the principals forget that these high-level policy disputes have little meaning when stripped away from their mundane, even banal, interpersonal implications. One can have the politics of personal life without the politics of high-level policy, but one cannot have the politics of high-level policy without the politics of personal life.

Therefore, to begin any exploration of political ideology as it is lived in the world, one must start at the individual level and work up. In particular, one must keep in mind that individuals are embedded within social units: family, circles of friends, civic associations, and the like. When evaluating what set of policies results in the greatest good for the greatest number, one cannot simply imagine individuals as islands unto themselves. Rather, they are part of a broader social fabric whose integrity is necessary for individual flourishing. Additionally, one must remember that individuals differ in their dispositions and orientations. A policy that allows one person to flourish may be detrimental to others. This holistic view can be difficult; it does not allow for simple and elegant answers. It is empirical rather than rational. While rational systems are designed from a priori principles, broad goals, and a few plausible propositions, empirically informed systems are more ad hoc. Rather than one answer, they may come up with many answers. This is unsatisfying, but that does not necessarily mean that it is wrong.

The Rational Tradition in Politics

A rational ordering of politics has old roots. One sees it in the Greeks, from the Republic of Plato to the varieties of political governance evident in the ancient city-states. In ancient China, both the followers of Mozi and the Legalists presented a rationalist vision of human politics and life. The followers of Mozi outlined a stark utilitarianism that brooked no “waste” such as music or dance. The Legalists reduced the utility of the whole to the interests of the state. They brutally tried to erase China’s past by destroying ancient works—except those of practical relevance, such as agronomy texts. In our own age, the French Revolution ushered in an era of ambitious political rational utopianism, both at the high and low levels. The former reached its apotheosis in Maoist China and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. The latter manifests up to the present in the utopian communities that seem to rise and fall constantly in the cultural background of the modern world, from the Oneida Community of the nineteenth century to the Diggers of the 1960s.

What unites utopian rationalists is the idea that society should be organized around one (or a few) principles and that once these founding principles have been determined, rational inferences from them should be allowed free reign. No conclusion is absurd on its face if it proceeds from a founding principle. In the modern age, the principle that most often plays this role, at least in rhetoric, is equality. In other cases, freedom is given priority of place. Arguably, the nineteenth-century Gilded Age in the United States was an instance of a situation where the rational ideals of a free market and individual deserts being contingent on individual effort resulted in the diminishment of human flourishing. Even ideologies that ostensibly eschew rationality can be plagued by the attraction of principle over outcome: the Nazi preoccupation with race trumped all other human values. As with communism, the organized ideology arguably produced an outcome that ultimately subverted the very value it had raised to the pedestal.

But the rationalist impulse does not apply only to abstract ideologies. As noted above, humans have long attempted to recreate and refashion their lives by various principles, giving rise to new social arrangements. Sometimes those arrangements further human flourishing and are culturally robust: the monogamous pair-bond predicated on love, for example. On other occasions, innovations based on rational principles do not succeed in becoming mainstream. The concepts of “free love” and “open marriage” have been bandied about for two centuries but remain marginalized. Though fidelity within marriage is often violated, the cultural norm remains for it to be a violation rather than equanimously accepted as part of human nature. One might propose a rational argument for the license to have multiple sexual partners while a pair bond is formally maintained. But in empirical reality, most people seem to unable to maintain both simultaneously. This is a case in which hypocrisy is often more resilient than honesty.

For a rationalist, no practice is beyond examination and de­com­position. All are subject to critique. On this view, history, custom, and tradition hold no great weight; the past is mere prologue, not an informative precursor. This is why rationalists assume that they can model and create social arrangements, even whole societies, anew. In the rational vision, the basis of human flourishing is thin, insofar as a few principles serve as the foundations for human happiness. Because of this paucity of principles, the human mind is flexible and powerful enough to comprehend them all and refashion the basic elements so as to optimize them. In other words, a mathematics of politics is feasible.

The Empirical Tradition

The empiricist sees things differently. Human affairs are complex, contingent, and difficult to tease apart in their interrelationships. The empiricist is fundamentally an incrementalist, not averse to change on principle but cautious of overturning practices and customs that have served society and individuals in good stead. In many ways the empiricist may seem irrational. The utilitarians of ancient China mocked the Confucians for their devotion to the arts. After all, what use were those in the face of human misery? But today modern anthropologists and psychologists have made functional arguments for the importance of artistic expression in maintaining social cohesion and serving as focal points for collective unity. Music and dance in particular can bring people together. Confucius and his fellow travelers did not defend these practices on scientific grounds; they did not have modern science. Rather, they argued that the old ways were to be revered because they had worked since time immemorial.

This may be unthinking, but social empiricism is unthinking in the same way that natural selection is unthinking. It is an iterative process that sifts optimal solutions by trial and error and maintains previous patches along the way. It is never “perfect,” but it lives to see another day. More prosaically, it manifests in the banal behaviors we take for granted. When we wake up in the morning we brush our teeth, not because we reiterate to ourselves the reason that brushing our teeth is important but because it is part of our routine. This routine is not without ultimate reason, but that rationale has become absorbed into the fabric of communal wisdom, which now maintains it as a matter of habit.

Empiricism Is Conservative

All of the above points to the reality that the empiricist that I’m describing is operationally a conservative. One’s goal is to conserve the past, to maintain human flourishing, all the while allowing for change on the margins through small experiments. For the empirical conservative, there doesn’t have to be a reason for a practice; its very persistence across generations is a mark in its favor, because the prejudice is that persistent practices are not harmful at worst and may be positively essential at best. A rationalist may view a practice that seems silly with a jaundiced eye, but rational faculties may not be able to penetrate the tangle of interlocking and contingent social phenomena that may hold a civilization together.

It is easy to speak in high-toned philosophical terms. What does all this mean practically? First, let us examine a particular issue, that of gay marriage. A standard talking point in favor of gay marriage is that it confers upon homosexuals rights that heterosexuals take for granted. There is the simple principle of equal treatment before the law. Without marriage rights, homosexual partners may not be deemed each others’ “next of kin,” leading to injustice. But is this sufficient reason to recognize the marriage between two individuals? To give a ludicrous example, zoophiles believe that a relationship between an individual and an animal has the same emotional valence as between two humans. Should these individuals receive equal treatment before the law, so that a horse may visit her human husband on his deathbed in preference over his family?

That example is ridiculous, and some may wonder at its implication of bestiality because homosexual relations have been analogized in exactly this way by some religious conservatives. But I am employing it to make a different point: the key is to move beyond the simple principle of equal treatment and approach the problem empirically. Let us observe homosexual relationships and see if they flourish. On an empirical conservative worldview, the aim of marriage is not to fulfill a simple principle such as equality but to develop human life in full. Monogamy, whether heterosexual or homosexual, seems to fit that bill. In contrast, polygamy and polyamory seem suboptimal for a variety of reasons, although individuals make the arrangements “work” in some cases. Instead of reducing the argument for gay marriage to one of legal equality, one should enumerate the social benefits to a wide swath of individuals that legally sanctioned monogamy allows. Additionally, the reality is that gay marriage as a practice has been introduced in various locales without any negative consequences. The experiment has been attempted and seems to be a success.

In contrast with this empirical conservative approach, some religious conservatives oppose gay marriage on principle. This is a form of rationalism, in that the principle of fidelity to a particular social arrangement outlined in a religious text overrules the results of a real-world test. True conservatism is fundamentally not about preventing all change, leaving humanity frozen in stasis. Rather, it is a method that allows for change that keeps all that is good with the past, while integrating only the useful innovations in the present.

The Consequences for Contemporary Politics

When it comes to the current American political landscape, one is faced with two unpalatable choices. Trite and clichéd as this assertion may be, it is also fundamentally true: both the Repub­lican and Democratic parties have been captured by self-interested elites intent on propagating only moderately different visions in keeping with the preferences of their elite sponsors. For example, both the Republican and Demo­cratic elites support mass immigration, the former because big business hungers for plentiful, cheap labor and the latter because the lower-class and working-class masses will presumably vote Democratic. This is not principle but the logic of institutional maturity taking over. The parties now run themselves for the benefit of the stakeholders who bought them, not the people who elect them and whom they ostensibly represent. The majority of the American population wishes to reduce immigration levels, not maintain or increase them.

Why is immigration so important? An empirical conservative vision acknowledges the utility of the nation-state. It is not just a legal fiction, appropriate for its convenience. The modern Left has turned against the nation-state because it perceives that it prioritizes particularism over universalism. The modern Right is skeptical of the nation-state’s temerity in assuming that it deserves some command over the will of corporate entities. Humans are not abstractions, they’re concrete entities. Neither maximization of economic output nor consumption of hedonic joys results in human flourishing. Voting Republican or Democratic will have concrete outcomes. But these are not permanent things. History moves from the bottom up, not the top down.

There are rational reasons to vote, but fifty years down the line none of your descendants will care who you voted for. They will care about the type of person you were, the values you propounded, and the example you set. True flourishing begins at home with the understanding that the politics that truly matters is that of the family, of the neighborhood. This is politics that allows you to grow and develop as a human. It involves people one sees day to day, who will be there for you across the cycles of elections and even the rise and fall of nations. Instead of wondering how to reorder the lives of others, it would behoove us to look to see how we can order our lives properly and realize who we are in our proper context. There is no final answer, only a way in which we can have a conversation.

Razib Khan

Razib Khan is the founder of SecularRight.org. He has an academic background in the biological sciences, and he is currently pursuing a PhD. He blogs at Gene Expression (discovermagazine.com), SecularRight.org, and brownpundits.com.


Politics is a dirty affair. Of course the men and women aspiring to become politicians don’t dress like ditchdiggers. On the contrary, aspiring politicos invariably wrap themselves in the finest formal business attire of our culture. This is plainly to impart to us the seriousness of their intentions but also perhaps to cloak the squalid …

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