Philosophy 217 - 11.4.2 Conservatism

Conservativism is a political theory that favors institutions and practices that have demonstrated their value over time and provided sufficient evidence that they are worth preserving and promoting. Conservatism sees the role of government as serving society rather than controlling it and advocates gradual change in the social order, if and when necessary.

Edmund Burke and the French Revolution

Modern conservatism begins with the 18th-century Irish political theorist Edmund Burke (1729–1797), who opposed the French Revolution and whose Reflections on the French Revolution (1790) served as an inspiration for the development of a conservative political philosophy (Viereck et al. 2021). Shocked by the violence of the French Revolution, Burke advocated against radical revolution that destroyed functioning institutions that, though flawed, served a purpose. However, Burke supported the American Revolution because the colonists had already established political institutions, such as courts and administrations, and were taking the next gradual step: asking Britain to let them run these institutions on their own.

A drawing of Edmund Burke shows him seated beside a desk.
Figure 11.7 The Irish political thinker Edmund Burke is credited with developing the theories that form the basis of modern conservatism. (credit: “Edmund Burke” by Duyckinick, Evert A. Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women in Europe and America. New York: Johnson, Wilson & Company, 1873. p. 159/Wikimedia, Public Domain)

Fundamental Principles

Conservatives such as Burke are not opposed to reform, but they are wary of challenges to existing systems that have generally held up well. They believe that any sudden change is likely to lead to instability and greater insecurity. Moreover, conservatives are not against redistribution of resources, especially when it serves to alleviate severe poverty. However, they believe that such actions are best carried out at a local level (as opposed to a state or national level) by those who understand the needs of the individual community. Finally, conservatives are staunch supporters of property rights and oppose any system of reform that challenges them. Property rights serve as a check on governmental power and are seen as an essential part of a stable society (Moseley n.d.). As such, conservatism aligns with some principles of liberalism.

Conservatism maintains that human nature is fundamentally flawed and that we are driven more by selfish desires than by empathy and concern for others. Therefore, it is the job of social institutions such as church and school to teach self-discipline, and it is the job of the government to protect the established, fundamental values of society. Along with this rather Hobbesian view of humankind and belief in the preservation of historical traditions, conservatives believe that weaknesses in institutions and morals will become apparent over time and that they will either be forced to evolve, be discarded, or be gradually reformed (Moseley n.d.).

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The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax