What distinguishes liberals and conservatives

Conference report: Thinking conservatism politically (Zurich, Nov. 2014)

Conservative positions occupy a peculiar special position in the current landscape of political thought. Conservatism is often regarded as conceptually fuzzy and therefore eludes a hasty classification in the common lines of conflict in the political-theoretical debate. The question of what characterizes a genuinely conservative attitude is answered very differently by conservatives and non-conservatives. Against this background, a high-caliber workshop at the Ethics Center of the University of Zurich took up the topic in November 2014 and discussed how the “conservative disposition”, which is mostly on the fringes of specialist interest, should be understood philosophically and politically.

Francis Cheneval (Zurich), who chaired the conference together with Martin Beckstein, first pointed out in his opening lecture that every policy - understood as a sphere of public deliberation and collective decision-making - is structurally conservative and shows an inevitable bias in favor of the status quo. Cheneval did not want his thesis to be understood as an assumption about the empirical dissemination of certain ideologems, but merely as a plea for looking at the institutional design of political systems when considering conservatism. However, this wish was not pursued further in the course of the conference, which may have to do with the fact that - despite all the insight into the porosity of the respective subject boundaries - political science was somewhat underrepresented in contrast to (political) philosophy.

How Emily Robinson (Sussex) emphasized, conservatism is usually perceived less as a clearly delimited ideology or political theory, but rather as a habitualized way of thinking or being, for which a positive reference to everyday experience based on 'common sense' is characteristic. Based on this observation, in the course of her lecture she dealt with an often overlooked ambivalence within the (proto-) conservative text canon, namely the tense appreciation for the prose and the poetic. For “true” conservatives, according to Robinson, a fundamental condition of aesthetic experience lies in this contrast, which must not be eliminated, but rather endured in its contradictions.

In the further discussion, however, it became clear that conservatism is not only characterized by internal tensions, but above all by its relationship to competing theoretical offers such as liberalism. Outlined a possible convergence between conservative and liberal thinking Vanessa Rampton (Zurich) in their case study on non-Marxist theorists in pre-revolutionary Russia. As she explained using her example, liberal and conservative positions can find each other primarily by learning to understand historical changes as an incremental vehicle for dealing with social problem constellations.

It also made clear that liberal and conservative positions do not have to be diametrically opposed to one another, but can instead congruent, for example, in their advocacy of limiting state government action Christoph M. Michael (Halle-Wittenberg) using the political theory of Michael Oakeshott as an example. It is surprising that the reception of the British thinker, at least in German-speaking countries, has so far been rather restrained and has hardly found its way into the theoretical self-understanding of conservative living worlds outside of political philosophy. On the basis of the diagnosis that German conservatism was largely in a political and intellectual slumber, Michael therefore subjected some of Oakeshott's most important writings to a comprehensive re-reading and demonstrated their ongoing relevance for conservative theory formation.

With the intention of making the seldom read early work by Michael Oakeshott fruitful for conservative theory formation, sketched Eno Trimcev (Lüneburg) then an experience-centered figuration of conservatism, which he did not want to see characterized by a simple affirmation of the existing, but by an attitude of “benevolent dissent” towards the liberal order. The dissent, which is of interest to political theory and expressed by conservative philosophy, is primarily directed against the historical immanence ’of liberalism and, in particular, against its tendency to infer the concrete institutional structure of a social order from an abstract starting point.

The keynote speech by Michael Freeden (Nottingham / Oxford) was devoted to the question of how conservatism asserts itself against competing theoretical offers - could it possibly emerge from such a comparison as the “winning” ideology? Starting from the thesis that "thinking politically" is a ubiquitous practice that pervades the entire lifeworld and for which universally shared structural features can be specified beyond the ideological thrust, Freeden developed a multi-part anatomy of political "acts of thought", on the basis of which a locational advantage for the Conservative thinking might have to be proven. Without wanting to make a statement about the truth or rationality of conservatism, he pointed out that its often lamented conceptual vagueness and its eclectic character represent a relative strength compared to other ideologies: Conservatives are particularly well-versed in implementing their political goals to cover the reference to higher, transcendent authorities in the veil of the apodictic and to present it to other ideals as 'without alternative', whereby the basic “presumption” of the political, to be determined via the semantic framework of collective decision-making, often in the way they want Execute senses. So even though there are no objective standards for answering the question of which ideology should be considered the “victorious” one, conservatism can at least be described as the most adaptable.

The second day of the workshop opened Martin Beckstein (Zurich) with the attempt to continue Karl Popper's development of a “rational” concept of tradition and to make it fruitful for conservative theory formation. After looking at the Popper-Oakeshott debate, he developed a procedurally backed concept of tradition, according to which a tradition is constituted by a sequence of 'acts of tradition' in which a heterogeneously structured traditional material is passed on from a large number of senders to just as many recipients, in other words: ' will be passed on. Such an understanding of tradition takes into account the possibility of change occurring from within and allows one to expect that the material to be handed down will constantly renew and modernize itself over time.

Subsequently outlined Geoffrey Brennan (Canberra / Duke) the outlines of a “responsive” conservatism, which he combined with the view that a certain status quo represents a genuine source of the normative simply because of its factuality. In the course of his lecture, he therefore investigated the question of where the widespread tendency to act in accordance with conventions gets its normative power even under non-Pareto-efficient conditions. As he demonstrated using two anecdotes from the history of the sport of cricket, the normativity of social conventions cannot be reduced to a historically informed benefit expectation and thus to a variety of consequentialism, but is often the result of a socially constituted practice that is created by its mere inside -World-being an independent persistence gains.

Took an opposing position to this Kieron O'Hara (Southhampton), who defended conservatism as the epitome of a skeptical epistemology and considered a status quo bias to determine it to be neither necessary nor sufficient. To this end, he developed a two-pronged understanding of conservatism, according to which any knowledge about society and its institutions is characterized by complexity-related uncertainty and the status quo is usually undervalued, which is why social change is fundamentally risky and should therefore only be incremental and reversible.

The last lecture of the morning was devoted to John Skorupski (St Andrews) the conservative criticism of philosophical liberalism, which he explicitly differentiated from its 'political' variant of Rawlsian provenance. Without making any claim to categorical selectivity, he stated that the conservative objection is largely ignited by the liberal triad of individualism, the demand for equal respect and the ideal of autonomous reason. The dissent mainly relates to the moral-epistemological question of whether the binding nature of values ​​can only be determined “relative to (their) value in favor of, by or in a person” (TH Green), or rather based on belonging to a social one Group emerge.

The fact that political ideologies are often characterized by a certain arrangement of value preferences took away Kevin Mulligan (Geneva) as an opportunity to investigate the relationship between conservative thinking and acting and a material ethics of values ​​in the sense of Max Scheler. His considerations resulted in the thesis that the conservative disposition ultimately represents nothing more than an application of 'value philosophy'. In addition, as Mulligan explained by referring to Gerald Cohen's essay on conservatism, it is carried by the notion of "value actualism", according to which the concrete existence of positively assessed value instantiations is an additional intrinsic value (freely after and against Kant: as a "real predicate") ) to come.

Cohen's defense of value-centered conservatism was also the focus of the subsequent lecture by (and with Geoffrey Brennan) Alan Hamlin (Manchester), in which he attempted to explore the possibility of a “nominal” - that is, aiming at the axiological justification of a status quo bias - conservatism that gets by without the accompanying assumption of epistemic uncertainty. Contrary to what Cohen claims, the conservative basic impulse to preserve something that has been found valuable precisely because of its particularity does not contradict the attitude of value-maximizing consequentialism.

Reported against the idea expressed here that a conservative disposition is essentially characterized by its reference to particular values ​​and an impulse to preserve their status quo Erich Hatala Matthes (Wellesley) raised fundamental concerns: As a look at practices that go beyond the political shows, a genuinely conservative value framework could also emphatically question the status quo. Because it is therefore implausible to reduce a conservative attitude to the affirmation of the status quo, Matthes suggested that conservatism should be understood as an expression of a certain 'virtue' which, in relation to the object of their appreciation, is a middle ground between appropriating utilization (“engagement ") And strive for respectful preservation.

Finally went Emma Tieffenbach (Geneva) asked what role the concept of “irreplaceable goods” could play in justifying a conservative disposition. She, too, largely followed Cohen's view that the 'irreplaceability' of a valuable object is a property that is primarily due to its actual existence. Tieffenbach pleaded for a metaethical realism, according to which the conservative appreciation of an 'irreplaceable good' should always be interpreted as a reaction to a property that exists independently of this attitude.

It is in the nature of things that the lively discussions during the session did not allow all the problems raised to be dealt with exhaustively. A productive dissent remained above all with regard to three questions: Is the conservative disposition necessarily inscribed with a status quo bias? Can it be interpreted more as an expression of a certain moral epistemology or a social ontology? And finally: is it possible to reconcile conservatism with liberal and utilitarian ideas? What can be considered undisputed, however, is that conservatism, regardless of its often anti-rationalist tone, has a considerable theoretical, and not least (socially) critical, potential that is far from being exhausted.


This text is a greatly abbreviated version of a longer conference report that is to appear in the upcoming issue 1/2015 of the “Zeitschrift für Politische Theorie”.

Markus Rutsche is a research assistant at the University of St. Gallen (HSG).