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Being Conservative vs. Being Thoughtful?

Big thinker Will Willkinson summarizes and analyzes a summary of a study by Scott Eidelman and others that’s hurt a lot of conservative feelings.  The big point seems to be that when people either have to think quickly or lack the energy or focus to do much thinking their default position is to be conservative.  The study is careful not to say that the conservative position can’t be the result of profound thought and deliberation too.  It’s just that it correlates strongly with relative thoughtlessness.

It’s easy not to take studies like this seriously.  One reason is the simple-minded definition of conservatism as being for personal responsibility, hierarchy, and the status quo generally.

But anyone who thinks a bit can see that the study, intentionally or not, speaks well of conservatism.

We are, of course, hardwired, so to speak, to exaggerate personal responsibility.  Still, our first instinct not only is but should be to hold people responsibie for what they do.  Otherwise, as Arisotle explained, praise and blame—indispensable incentives for moral action—actually make no sense.  And, of course, holding people responsible unless there are mitigating circumstances is the whole foundation of our and about any legal system.

The more you delve into particular cases, the more it’s possible to find mitigating circumstances—or the limits of any particular human being’s moral freedom.  So, as Aristotle also explains, moral inquiry moderates our anger with understanding, although he’s not as big as liberals often are with moderating our anger with pity.

Aristotle adds that there’s another relatively thoughtless excess, characteristic of some liberals, social scientists, and other expert theorists.  It is to assume that personal responsibility is an illusion, and that people are wholly determined by forces beyond their control—by History or their environment or technology or class or race or nature or whatever.

That kind of simple-minded “systematic” thinking is actually much worse that the conservative excess, because it paternalistically and unrealistically denies that people are capable of acting freely and responsibly at all.  It’s that liberal condescension that libertarians find particularly thoughtless and otherwise repulsive.

And there’s the self-fulfilling prophecy noted by Aristotle and many others:  When you hold people responsible, they actually tend to be more responsible.

The conservative instinct, properly modified but not obliterated by reflection, is the correct one.


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