The role of conservatism in shaping society has been a topic of debate for several decades. One of the leading voices in describing what this role should be has been English writer and philosopher, Roger Scruton. Like fellow conservative, Edmund Burke, before him, who was outraged by the behavior of the French mobs during the French Revolution, Scruton was influenced in his thinking by the Marxist inspired student riots in France during the late 1960’s. This influence caused Scruton to adopt an attitude and belief that society was better preserved by conserving the status quo and adhering to a pre-existing social order. In his book, The Meaning of Conservatism, Scruton clearly sets forth is philosophy by stating, “Conservatism arises directly from the sense that one belongs to some continuing and pre-existing social order, and that this fact is all important in determining what we do (Scruton 21).”
For Scruton conservatism incorporated every aspect of the human experience. He believes that there is a clear line of demarcation between liberal and conservative thought in that liberalism is about defending abstract human rights while conservatism defends the society. In essence, Scruton views liberalism as being about the individual and conservatism as being about society in general. Scruton abandons the popular view of modern day philosophers that espouses the position that all men are endowed with certain natural rights. Instead, Scruton argues that there is no such thing as natural or abstract human rights. All rights, according to Scruton, are provided by the individual society to which one belongs and that conservatives are those who recognize this and, as a result, they work tirelessly to preserve the status quo. Conservativism is, “(t)he political outlook which springs from a desire to conserve existing things, held to be either good in themselves, or better than the likely alternatives, or at least safe, familiar, and the objects of trust and affection (Scruton, A Dictionary of Political Thought).”
Society, according to Scruton, is an association of free individuals but whose freedom is not naturally given as liberals tend to believe and argue, but rather, where freedom is acquired through the associations that society provides. These freedoms are not acquired through some form of social contract because a contract requires assent from both sides and members of society are not positioned to either agree or disagree as to how society is organized. These freedoms are not formally granted, but rather, developed over time and become substantively part of culture. Freedom is acquired only through membership in society and it is society that protects these freedoms. With these freedoms, however, come requisite duties and responsibilities that are formed through the process of history and tradition and that shape the way that one should live in society. These duties and responsibilities are the authority that governs everyday life.
Contrast this position with the liberal position that argues that society is an association of free and equal individuals who are bound by a social contract. Liberals see this contract as a guarantee of individual rights and that the role of society is to defend these individual rights against external and internal predators and, in the process, establish equality between the various members of society. This pursuit of equality is what liberals partially use to justify the existence and need for welfare.
For conservatives like Scruton, culture is what provides continuity to life and what should be used to impose authority. The state should be limited in its involvement in people’s lives and that the social order should be imposed by the family, religious institutions, and schools. It is these cultural institutions that should teach obedience and through which the value of freedom should be realized.
The family is the individual’s first exposure to authority, according to Scruton. The family is an institution that provides an established power or authority that is there from the very beginning and no one is provided the opportunity to choose his or her family. It is an established power that is entrusted with the responsibility of teaching its members the duties and responsibilities of the society in which the family lives. It is the family that lays the foundation for order in society by forcing its members to understand the importance of authority. The family also serves as the conduit through which tradition is created and preserved. It is the family that provides protection from the power and encroachment of the state and is partnership between generations that ultimately conserves and stabilizes society.
The question arises: Does conservatism eschew the possibility of change? The basis of conservatism has always been the present and the past. Conservatives have always viewed the past has providing the concrete elements that form the lives of society’s members. They do not attempt to build a vision of the future but, instead, seek to establish the significance of the past in order to help build an appreciation for the present. Yet, Edmund Burke, one of history’s most recognized proponent of conservative thought, wrote that “ A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation (Burke:26).” By espousing the possibility of change, however, Burke believed that any change should be a gradual, natural process that is built upon the wisdom of prior generations so that social stability is maintained and that there is no rapid upheaval of the social order. Burke personally witnessed the effects of the French Revolution and was greatly affected by what he saw. What he witnessed served to cement his conservative views. Similarly, Roger Scruton, in more modern times, stated that conservatism should, “accept the arrangements, however imperfect, that have evolved through custom and inheritance, to improve them by small adjustments, but not to jeopardise them by large-scale alterations the consequences of which nobody can really envisage (Scruton, England and the Need for Nations: 3).”
The emergence of welfare as a social solution for society’s poor has caused the conservative movement with considerable concern. Welfare as a social solution was offered following the Second World War. Primarily in Europe, there were large numbers of individuals who were left dependent on the state for support. Conservatives were suspicious of this movement. One such Conservative, F.A. Hayek, took issue with the generalized welfare movement and expressed his opposition in his book, The Road to Serfdom (Hayek). Hayek warned against the growth of the state and the ease with which the population was entrusting their future to the state and, in the process, becoming dependent on it. Hayek believed that the results of the welfare movement were the loss of individual freedom, state assuming the right to dictate the conditions under which support was available, and the decline in initiative by the recipients. Unfortunately, Hayek argued, the spirit of liberalism had captivated most of the western world following the end of the War and there was a generalized concern with providing a just distribution of wealth. Conservatives wrested with the problem of finding an alternative to the welfare but have adopted the position that acceptance of the welfare state in some form or another is necessary. Nevertheless, true conservatives still view welfare as an anti-social activity that corrodes human relations and affectively destroys the old economic virtues of thrift and honesty among its recipients. As the eradication of welfare at this point is virtually impossible, most Conservatives have adopted the position that the best that they can do is to hold the state accountable for what it does with the tax money that it puts aside for the relief of the poor.
Scruton’s viewpoint is a strict conservative one in the spirit of Edmund Burke. The traditional conservative viewpoint, however, has been overshadowed in recent years but what is indentified as neo-conservatism. Neo-conservatism developed in response to the liberal and socialist policies that became popular following the Second World War. The neo-conservatives recognized the influence that liberals and socialists were having on European and American society and they took it upon themselves to make sure that the reforms that were taking place were based on freedom and order and that they were realistically possible. The neo-conservatism movement believed that the reforms taking place were largely based on idealism and visions of utopia at the expense of traditional customs and that it was incumbent on conservatives to ensure that these customs were not ignored. Differing from the traditional conservative position that advocated gradual change, the neo-conservatives were content to participate in the progress and change that was occurring but considered it their responsibility to make sure that such progress and change was based on tradition and custom.
Rapid change brought about by technological improvements present Conservatives with a unique problem. Theoretically, Conservatives believe that moral and political innovation can be destructive to the framework of society. Ordinarily, Conservatives would prefer slow, deliberate change but in the case of technological change Conservatives are much more receptive. Although Conservatives are suspect of change they also place a high value on the ownership of property and the principles of capitalism and they stoutly defend private property and a free economy. The financial opportunities provided by technological improvement serve the conservative position well as such improvements reinforce the conservative support for free enterprise capitalism.
Roger Scruton has been the spokesman for modern day conservatism for several decades, however, it is difficult to pinpoint his precise viewpoint on all issues despite his tendency to write prolifically. In essence, however, Scruton continues support free enterprise capitalism, continuation of traditions, minimal government intervention in economy, strict law and order enforcement, and gradual change as opposed to radical reform. He argues against the principles of neo-conservatism but commends its proponents by recognizing that they attempt to think things through and that they offer an active alternative to liberalism. For Scruton, however, classical conservatism contains the answer for how society ought to operate and he is highly critical of liberalism and socialism. Scruton views liberalism and socialism as being hostile to authority. As Scruton views authority as the backbone of society any threat to authority is unacceptable. Conservatism and authority, for Scruton, are symbiotic.
Understanding conservatism is a difficult task but accepting the premise that at its heart is the concept of preserving the pre-existing social order makes it easier to understand. Scruton central concern is with what he perceives as the moral decay of society. Scruton sees this moral decay has being manifested in the form of an insidious cultural relativism which is propagated by liberals and neo-conservatives. Although not a deeply religious individual, Scruton views the decline of faith and morals as the result of modern society which is heavily influenced by liberals and neo-conservatives. This process began with the Enlightenment where scientific knowledge and discovery was suddenly preferred over religious and moral truth. What resulted from this process were the ideologies of liberalism, socialism and Communism. Ideologies that Scruton disparages severely and which he asserts are destroying society (Scruton, Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism).
Classic conservatism as first suggested by Edmund Burke and presently advocated by Roger Scruton is the source of much controversy. In a society that changes rapidly and is highly influenced by technological improvements the tenets of conservatism do not seem to apply. Nevertheless, Scruton and many other classical conservatives continue to advocate for its adoption as a cultural and political philosophy.
Scruton’s articulation of conservative philosophy contrasts greatly with the mainstream liberal philosophy that has been in vogue for the past fifty plus years. Conservatives are not goal oriented. Instead, they prefer to look at what has worked in the past in an attempt to maintain some form of equilibrium. Scruton does not dismiss the possibility that society may benefit from change but feels that tradition and custom should prevail unless there is a compelling and rational basis for change. For the conservative there is a good reason why customs and mores have developed over time: because they work. Tossing such customs and mores aside merely for the sake of change is irresponsible, according to Scruton, and leads to moral decay. Scruton holds tightly to the belief that change should be gradual and that the strength of a society can be found in its dedication to following tradition. Whether or not such philosophy works in today’s society is questionable but Scruton stands strong in his advocacy of classical conservatism.
Burke, E. Burke: Select Works. London: The Lawbook Exchange Ltd., 2005.
Hayek, F. A. The Road to Serfdom (50th Anniversary Edition). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Scruton, Roger. A Dictionary of Political Thought. London: Macmillan, 1996.
—. England and the Need for Nations. London: Civitas, 2004.
—. Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism. London: Continuum, 2007.
—. the Meaning of Conservatism. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1984.