Monday, March 22, 2004

Liberals, Conservatives and Tradition

Keith Burgess-Jackson has an insightful piece at Tech Central Station about Liberals, Conservatives and Tradition. His explanation of differences in presumptive reasoning is straight forward and concise.

Conservatism is not committed to the proposition that every tradition is respectable and valuable, and therefore worth conserving. It is committed to a presumption in favor of tradition. Presumptions by their nature are rebuttable. Law is filled with presumptions. There is a legal presumption that the husband of a woman is the father of her children. There is a legal presumption that a person who has been missing for seven years is dead. There is a legal presumption that people accused of crimes are innocent.

To a conservative, traditions are innocent until proved guilty. Liberals should be able to understand this concept. Why do we presume innocence? Imagine how things would be without such a presumption. The burden of proof (production, persuasion) would not be on the prosecutor, as it is now. It would be borne equally by the prosecution and the defense. Think of a presumption as putting something on one side of a scale. Unless something as weighty (or weightier) is put on the other side, the presumption prevails.

Joel Feinberg, a philosopher at The University of Arizona, has defended what he calls a presumption in favor of liberty. Liberty (understood as the absence of constraint) is the default position. Unless there are good reasons to limit individual liberty, such as prevention of harm to others or prevention of serious, unavoidable offense to others, individuals should be free of coercion by the state. Not all reasons are good reasons. Feinberg argues that it is never a good reason to limit liberty that the act being constrained is intrinsically immoral or that it threatens harm to the agent. In other words, Feinberg rejects legal moralism and legal paternalism.

Feinberg is a liberal, not an anarchist. He believes that the presumption in favor of liberty can be -- and sometimes is -- rebutted. (Lawyers prefer "rebutted"; philosophers often say "overridden.") But if liberals can endorse a presumption in favor of liberty, why can't a conservative endorse a presumption in favor of tradition? The logic is the same. And just as it's no criticism of Feinberg's liberalism to say that sometimes the presumption in favor of liberty is rebutted, it's no criticism of conservatism to say that sometimes the presumption in favor of tradition is rebutted. In the case of human chattel slavery, the presumption is clearly overridden.

I do disagree with his analysis that:

Ultimately, I think, the difference between liberalism and conservatism is one of attitude. Liberals have a dismissive attitude toward what came before. They are confident that they can do better. That something has always been done a certain way is, in their view, no reason whatsoever to continue doing it that way. Conservatives, by contrast, have a respectful attitude toward what came before. They view the present as a link between past and future and society itself as a contract between the dead and the unborn. (I get this latter idea from Roger Scruton, from whom I have learned much.) That something has always been done a certain way is, in their view, a reason to continue to do it that way.

Liberals look forward, believing that peace, justice, and happiness are just around the corner, if only we let reason be our guide. Conservatives look backward, believing that if we tinker with tradition, even with the best of intentions, we are as likely to get war, injustice, and misery as their opposites.

Here, I think he relies to heavily on a conflation of those who are traditionally, even stereotypically called Christian Conservatives with those conservatives who don't primarily define their idealogy based upon religious belief. Nonetheless, it is a good article.

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