POLISCI 1G06 LECTURE NOTES 5b

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Political Science 1G06 2014 Lecture 5b Conservatism
- In some senses it is difficult to define Conservatism as a theory
- It implies the desire to conserve something
- But what exactly is to be conserved?
- A commonality: Conservatives value tradition
-But why is tradition valuable?
Edmund Burke - Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790
- What will the French Revolution look like in practice:
o“Liberty, Fraternity, Equality” or Tyranny?
- Will the attempt to reconstruct society on more enlightened lines
result in a more enlightened and just society?
- Burke suggests that the Revolution will end in despotism
- In fact revolutionary plans of any type are likely to end in violence
and turmoil
- Why?
- We must consider society and what holds it together
What is society?:
- Society is better seen as a living organism than as a mere collection
of individuals
- An organic conception of society
- Individuals form part of a greater interdependent whole
- Society cannot be simply disassembled and reassembled at will, in
whatever form that a particular individual might desire
There are at least 3 Reasons why a revolutionary plan to overthrow
tradition and reconstruct society will likely not work as planned:
1. Individual reason is fallible and limited - it is impossible to know
in advance how a project that looks good in theory will look in
practice
2. Society itself possess an organic wisdom, the collective reason of
millions, which is greater than the wisdom of the few
Something only becomes a traditional practice if it works in
practice to manage the tensions that have arisen in society
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3. Reason only partially guides our actual behaviour – we are equally
governed by our passions and desires as by pure reason
- In sum, there is only one problem with plans that are good in theory
- They also have to be good in practice
- It is not enough for them to work on paper
- They also have to work in society
- A real society made up of real human beings with all of their
imperfections, prejudices, and occasionally even selflessness
How do we construct a workable polity?:
- We need to balance freedom with duty – so that we don’t use our
freedom to destroy the social order
- In other words, what we need are institutions that will create and
teach us self-restraint
- The most important restraint can be provided through a respect for
the past – for tradition
- There is value in “Prejudice”
- Habitual beliefs, customs, clichés, usually have an element of
wisdom embedded within them, even if we are not rationally aware
of that wisdom
- Attempting to undermine or transform habit and custom will
eliminate the social wisdom that they represent
Social Change?
- Society evolves and so must government in turn
o“A society that cannot change cannot conserve itself”
- However, the type of change Burke advocates is measured change
oReform, not revolution – modification, not replacement
oChange that will not leave the accumulated wisdom of
society behind
Are Revolutions ever socially beneficial?
- For Conservatives, only in very limited circumstances are
revolutions likely to produce more benefits than costs
oWhere rights are constantly violated and there is no course
for restoring rights from within the present political
environment
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