This is not an analysis of the Conservative movement in the U.S. Nor is it an attempt to understand the philosophical assumptions of conservatives. Previously, I have written about the philosophical assumptions of both progressives and conservatives, and I started with examining the tenets of conservatism and then examined the tenets of progressivism.
As before, I want to be clear that I am not a conservative or a progressive. My own political philosophy comes from a completely different set of philosophical assumptions than either those of the conservative or progressive. I am sympathetic to some of the claims of both groups, and strongly disagree with other claims of both groups.
One of the things that is so distinctive about my own political philosophy is its analytical approach, which is why I am interested in cataloging the analytical approaches of other political philosophies. And because I started with conservatism last time, in the interest of fairness I have started with progressivism this time. In essence, I sought to understand how Progressives, specifically those who are my contemporaries, analyze political issues. Now that I have addressed the Progressives, it is time to understand how contemporary Conservatives analyze political issues.
Attempting to be exhaustive would be exhausting, so instead I would like to focus on 3 analytical approaches which are very common and lay them out in brief.
1. The Culture Analysis
This approach seeks to identify the correct political course by understanding the culture. This analysis is often motivated by a desire to identify what they see as immoral behaviors and correct them. For example, the conservative might see that there are increasingly difficult economic conditions and familial situations negatively impacting children and strive to examine how the culture provides social structures (i.e. norms, habits, and rituals) to support mating and child-rearing strategies that foster strong, healthy families.
Others utilizing the culture analysis might notice that our culture reinforces consumeristic/materialistic behaviors that are very unhealthy. Or that our cultural values promote behaviors which lead to greater economic success for women than previous cultural values. Or that the influx of immigrant populations has had both very healthy (i.e. increasing entrepreneurship and frugality) and sometimes unhealthy (i.e. increasing misogyny) effects on our cultural values as a nation. Progressives will sometimes use the culture analysis too, though it is usually rooted in their Power Analysis.
The strength of the culture analysis is that societies often benefit immensely from social structures which promote healthy families through sound norms, habits, and rituals. The weakness of the culture analysis is that, like all analytical approaches, it cannot capture everything of importance because it does not attempt to do so. Thus those who rely on it heavily or exclusively are prone to miss a great deal of other factors in their analysis. The unique contemporary problem with this analytical approach is that those using it are sometimes exclusively focused on the forms of culture which are easily identifiable with observable traits found in immigrant populations, which is less useful than it could be.
2. The Character Analysis
This approach seeks to identify the character of an individual in the sense of her virtues or lack thereof, which has implications for the cultural order discussed in the culture analysis because common character traits are an important aspect of what forms culture. As before, those who use this approach are generally seeking to identify and correct immoral behavior and reward moral behavior. For example, the conservative might look at a strong family with habits that foster frugality, entrepreneurship, generosity, and other healthy behaviors, and then try to find social and political incentives (such as tax breaks for small businesses) that confer benefits on those who show signs of having character traits that they want to encourage.
This is often done in a more negative way as well, such as in the case of persons on government assistance for extended periods of time. Many conservatives see their long-term unemployment as a sign of bad character, and do not want to reward those who show signs of having character traits they want to discourage. Indeed, policies like drug tests for welfare recipients are explicitly designed to discourage things like a perpetual reliance on drugs and dependency on government assistance, behaviors which conservatives often see as a sign of bad character.
The strength of the character analysis is that it can help us identify individual habitual behaviors which contribute to social success. One weakness of the character analysis is that those who use it often tend to cast aspersions on others for having bad character even when their struggles are more driven by bad situations than bad character. For example, the people who are unemployed long-term and on government assistance are often living in an area in truly desperate economic circumstances in which there aren’t many opportunities. Not always (I know from experience that there are indeed some who abuse the system), but often it really is the situation rather than their personal character that is the biggest factor.
3. The Choice Analysis
This approach sees human behavior and subsequent outcomes in terms of personal choice and also personal responsibility, which is a necessary corollary of personal choice. As a result, conservatives tend to see the actions of those who break the law or uphold it as matter of personal choice, and generally conclude that law-breakers should be held responsible for their actions. Also, they are very likely to praise those who uphold, defend, or enforce the law (i.e. law-abiding citizens, police officers, members of the military) for their choices and give them the benefit of the doubt.
One difficulty of associating good choices with law-abiding or law-enforcing behaviors is of course that police officers and normally law-abiding citizens are still human beings who will fail at times and make bad choices. And if we give them the benefit of the doubt while not giving others the benefit of the doubt, this suggests that in practice personal responsibility is not being upheld consistently, which leads to suspicions that conservatives are not actually supporting police officers because of their preference for upholding the law, but rather because of various forms of bigotry.
The strength of the choice analysis is that it effectively casts those who violate the law in an extremely negative light and makes it very easy to dismiss their concerns about police brutality or government tyranny. The weakness of the choice analysis is that it fails to consider the possibility that there might be situational factors which have a greater causal influence on a person’s behavior than personal choice and personal responsibility.
As with the progressive analytical approaches, the conservative approaches are interrelated; conservatives recognize that personal choices shape our individual character, which in turn shapes the larger culture. And the larger culture also tends to then shape our personal choices, creating a mutually reinforcing set of behavior patterns that profoundly impacts society as a whole.
On the whole, the conservative analytical approaches are useful in a limited way and subject to many difficulties. Like the progressive analytical approaches, and any analytical approach to which a person is attached, the fundamental problem is that many people do not understand the limits of those analytical approaches and thus use them even in cases in which they don’t work.