Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 94 (June/July 1999): 41-42.
A Case for Conservatism. By John Kekes. Cornell University Press. 239 pp. $29.95.
Reviewed by Brian C. Anderson
In his important 1997 book Against Liberalism, the moral philosopher John Kekes exposed the staggering incoherence of contemporary Anglo–American liberal theory—the dominant form of political and moral thought taught in most American universities today. For Kekes, the radical egalitarianism and moral vacuity of leading liberal thinkers John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin made their work irrelevant at best, and deeply pernicious to the extent that it influenced law and policy, so removed was it from human nature or any recognizable social world. But Against Liberalism was a ruthless demolition job, and Kekes only sketched his suggested alternative to liberalism: a pluralist and historically minded conservatism. A Case for Conservatism offers a systematic presentation of that alternative, and it’s everything we’ve come to expect from Kekes: morally serious, argumentative, and filled with good sense. It’s also troubling, as we shall see.
The central concern of conservatism, Kekes explains, is with political arrangements that create the conditions for people to live good lives. Those conditions include, but are not limited to, civility, equality, freedom, a healthy environment, justice, order, peace, prosperity, rights, security, toleration, and welfare. Conservatives, unlike liberals or socialists, are sensitive to the fragility of political arrangements conducive to good lives, and look to history for lessons on how to nourish and protect them. As Kekes tells it, conservative political morality, growing out of this historical reflection, is based on four components: skepticism, pluralism, traditionalism, and pessimism. Each component is an Aristotelian mean between two rejected alternatives.
Take skepticism first. Kekes stresses that conservative skepticism encourages a healthy distrust of the two forms "the nightmare of reason" may take: the rationalist dream of reconstructing the human world on the basis of "the latest metaphysical or utopian certainties," and the "fideist" spurning of reason in favor of irrational enthusiasms, whether religious or nationalist in inspiration. Kekes’ skepticism is close to that of Raymond Aron in Opium of the Intellectuals, and leads conservatives "to be cautious in accepting reasons, to want reasons to be concrete, tried, and true, attested to by experience, without pretending to a quixotic pose of the wholesale rejection of the effort to be as reasonable as possible." In a century torn by rationalist and irrationalist political experiments that exacted an incalculable toll in human suffering, a skeptical attitude—toward political arrangements, anyway—is surely a reasonable one if we care at all about human well–being.
Pluralism is the second component of conservative political morality. Kekes is indebted to Isaiah Berlin, the political philosopher who returned repeatedly to the problem posed by the incommensurability of human goods. Berlin argued that a society cannot maximize all good things all at once: there are always trade–offs between, say, liberty and equality or privacy and public spirit. Kekes agrees, and sees pluralism as a via media between absolutism and relativism. Absolutists declare that there is but one good form that all lives must struggle to approximate; relativists proclaim that good lives are just what each society, or perhaps each individual, say they are. Pluralists, Kekes suggests, are more sensibly awake to the variety of political arrangements, conditions, traditions, and conceptions of the good life that human nature legitimately allows. But they are aware, too, that that variety isn’t infinite, and that a society that abets prostitution or venality isn’t a decent one.
Conservatives are traditionalists, Kekes avers. Like Alasdair MacIntyre and Michael Oakeshott, Kekes defends traditions because they carry tacit knowledge, various and sundry excellences, and resources for building meaningful lives. Where the well of tradition runs dry, human impoverishment inexorably follows; a strong society will harbor many traditions. A social world thick with traditions, Kekes believes, is better than a liberal one devoted to individual autonomy, since autonomy by itself leaves us sad and empty. As the French philosopher Pierre Manent puts it, what’s the worth of choice if choice is all there is? But a social world thick with traditions is also better than one where social authority crushes traditions into authorized shapes, as the Soviet Union once crushed civil society with all the weight its merciless centralized power could muster.
The final component of conservative political morality, on Kekes’ view, is pessimism. Pessimism leads conservatives to reject the "Enlightenment Faith" in human perfectibility shared by liberals and socialists. Evil and contingency stain all human affairs, as should be clear to anyone who looks out the window or in the mirror. Yet conservatives don’t go to the opposite extreme of viewing human nature as irredeemably corrupt. Even thoroughly evil societies witness acts of decency, generosity, and sacrifice, as the Maximilian Kolbes and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyns of the twentieth century attest. Pessimism acknowledges both angel and brute in man’s permanent constitution.
These four components of conservative political morality—skepticism, pluralism, traditionalism, and pessimism—apply flexibly to three different levels of the human world, Kekes contends. The universal level refers to certain minimal constants of human physiology, psychology, and sociality that all good societies must honor. If political arrangements make famine more likely, or cause people to despair of the future, or generate mistrust and worse among neighbors, then conservatives must condemn them. But on the social level, pluralism holds: as between an authoritarian but prosperous and orderly society and a quarrelsome and liberty–loving society, who is to say which is better? Finally, on the individual level, there are many different ways of living good lives, and conservatives should tolerate, though not necessarily respect, as much variety as is compatible with social stability.
Much of this is indisputably wise, and conservatives of any stripe will have no hesitancy in endorsing it. But I have several criticisms. First, Kekes’ case is for a post–religious conservatism. He betrays a secularist bias that makes him unreasonably suspicious of religious conservatives, whom he dismisses as absolutists, though tellingly never any by name. That bias is strikingly displayed in a passage relatively late in the book when Kekes, to make a case for the distinction between toleration and respect, asks an "unsympathetic" reader what the appropriate response should be to "racists, anti–Semites, creationists, pedophiles, pornographers, and so forth, who live according to their beliefs without violating any required convention." Now, one might have reservations about strict creationism, but are creationists really as morally offensive as racists and pedophiles? Elsewhere, Kekes proclaims without argument that we now know that chastity isn’t a virtue. But how does Kekes know this? Whatever he thinks of Christian teaching, how can he be sure, as the Western world confronts escalating rates of adolescent venereal disease, millions of abortions, and sexually jaded fifteen–year–olds, that chastity is atavistic?
As a result of his post–religious theoretical position, Kekes develops a minimalist view of universal human nature that is too limited. Is an argument for the moral superiority of the traditional family, or for the morally problematic nature of certain sexual practices, illegitimately absolutist? In Kekes’ conservative pluralism, it seems so. Moral claims of this kind have no claim to be universal. At best, Kekes grants them a second–order status as part of a particular tradition, implying that a Christian who lived his life in the light of the Second Coming and who honored the theological virtues of the New Testament, or a Jew who embraced the Judaic ethics of divine law, couldn’t be a conservative—they would be (presumably dangerous) absolutists.
But one can be a Christian or a Jew, argue for the universal truth of one’s faith and its moral precepts, and still tolerate human practices that fall short of the ideal or admit the often ambiguous, conflictual, and uncertain nature of moral life. The idea of prudential judgment has its place in the armory of political thought to serve exactly this purpose. The absence of a discussion of prudence in A Case for Conservatism makes Kekes’ category of absolutism an odd caricature—if I’ve understood him correctly, the ranks of absolutists would include, among others, Thomas Aquinas, Solzhenitsyn, and Pope John Paul II.
Kekes is right to emphasize the complexity of the moral world and the inescapability of tragic conflict, just as he is correct to stress the importance of history. But A Case for Conservatism is curiously lacking in the kind of thick description of moral life for which a satisfying defense of a conservative political morality cries out. It is, moreover, nearly bereft of historical examples. Kekes’ coldly logical approach worked well in Against Liberalism, where the object was to unpack the absurdity and contradictions of liberal theory; here, where the purpose is to show the superiority of conservatism, it’s a liability. Kekes argues that conservatives have a greater feel for the texture of real life than do liberals, but he does not exemplify that in this book.
Kekes is an admirable iconoclast in the stultifying universe of post–analytic moral and political philosophy, where conservatives, even of Kekes’ secular stripe, are a rarity. If A Case for Conservatism is less successful than its companion volume Against Liberalism, it is still a valuable contribution to political theory: conservatives should indeed be skeptical of every attempt to solve the political problem once and for all; they should indeed be pluralists, open to the varieties of human flourishing, at least up to a point; they should indeed respect and nourish traditions; they should indeed be reasonably pessimistic about human nature, without surrendering to hopelessness. Kekes’ limits—his deafness to faith, his too limited understanding of human universality, his abstractness—shouldn’t deter us from wrestling with these and other insights in this challenging work.
Brian C. Anderson is Senior Editor of City Journal, author of Raymond Aron: The Recovery of the Political, and editor of a new collection of Michael Novak’s social and political writings, On Cultivating Liberty, just out from Rowman & Littlefield.