Conservatism and Relativism

The assumption, frequently confirmed by experience, is that the more conservative you are, the more loudly and indignantly you will rail against the dangers of relativism.

And yet, conservatives were the original relativists. The way that the political and social fabric is established in England from time immemorial is a hard-won system that functions relatively well, worked out over the generations through a process of trial and error, which cannot easily be understood and rationalized, which we break or abolish at our own peril. Does that mean a political community in China or sub-Saharan Africa should adopt all the political institutions and social customs of England? For the consistent conservative, the answer will be a forceful no; those communities have their own arrangements, worked out over long stretches of time, which are appropriate to the peoples and places where they grew up. That’s not to say that these arrangements can’t be improved, either from within or through interaction with other external communities, but the improvements should respect and build on the existing traditions, and we should be open to learning and benefiting from them as much as we expect to offer them wise insights.

This is very very close, shockingly close, to the cultural relativism of modern anthropology.

So then why the seeming opposition of conservatism and relativism? I have some guesses.

1. Most superficially there’s the fact that conservatism often gets tangled up with imperialism or what a couple decades ago we called neoconservatism, which claims that we do have the ultimate, transcendent answers and that, to one degree or another, other communities really should just be more like us.

2. As well, relativism can feel like an attack on conservatism itself when the message seems to be “everyone’s way of doing things is appropriate and beautiful except ours,” and this impression definitely exists, sometimes only imagined and sometimes brazenly real.

3. Perhaps most centrally, there is a tension at the heart of conservatism which is the same as that in the doctrine of cultural relativism: given the “ubiquity of ethnocentrism,” an essential part of our tradition (and part of everyone else’s too) is the conviction that the way we do things is normal and the way our neighbours do things is aberrant and even perverse. How does a relativist affirm that conviction without ceasing to be a relativist? How does a conservative, for that matter? Conservatism and relativism, thus, saying almost the same thing, speak past one another and seem to be polar opposites.

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