Conservatism: An Intellectual Defense

A political vision that takes nature seriously

Bo Winegard
Arc Digital
13 min readSep 26, 2018


“What really matters is not what I think about the Church today, or about capitalism, or military processions, or about communism; what matters is whether I believe in original sin.” T. S. Eliot

Conservatism needs a vigorous defense. Among the educated, it is often disparaged as a fearful and rigid sensibility, an inclination toward tribalism, custom, and the status quo that hardly deserves the name “political philosophy.” And among the populace more broadly, it is becoming synonymous with Trumpism, a quasi-populist movement that is animated less by ideas than by indignation.

This is unfortunate because conservatism, properly understood, is not only a coherent political philosophy, but also an intellectually rigorous, necessary, and persuasive one. The following three ideas, which are the basic premises of conservatism, will bear this out. They are: (1) humans are flawed, fallible creatures; (2) reason is powerful, but prone to error; and (3) tradition and prejudice are often good guides to social policy.

1. Humans are flawed, fallible creatures

According to Saint Augustine, humans are born with “original sin,” a deep-seated moral impairment, an otherwise inexplicable depravity, that leads them to disobey God. Modern conservatism starts here but updates his language: Humans are limited creatures who are constrained by natures they cannot transcend. They do not “disobey God” literally; rather, they often deviate from the ideals of their moral imagination. They can easily picture paradise, but are condemned to dwell in the purgatory of reality.

This is the first crucial posit that distinguishes conservatism from other political ideologies. It accepts that humans have a nature, a genetically endowed suite of aptitudes and proclivities they cannot alter or altogether erase through parenting or education. And it views this nature somewhat dimly. Where other ideologies see a cooperative, rational animal, the conservative sees a competitive, impulsive one. This is not to say that the conservative believes that humans are irremediably wicked; rather, that the conservative distrusts political schemes that require too rosy a view of human nature. Ideologies that conceive of humans as rational, cooperative, and perfectly educable are not only wrong, but they are also dangerous, for they give rise to excessively optimistic visions of society. And such idealistic visions often persuade people to defend immediate and painful sacrifices: the better the imagined omelet the more eggs it justifies breaking.

For many thousands of years, humans evolved in the context of relatively small social groups which centered on close kin. Therefore, they evolved cognitive and emotional propensities that allowed them to flourish in such social systems. The rise of cosmopolitan, law-based nations is so recent that even skeptics of evolutionary mismatch theories would probably accept that they, like modern processed foods, confront human nature with significant challenges. The same proclivities that allowed humans to create and navigate coalitions 4,000 years ago often cause immense stress on modern institutions and the people who occupy them. Although there are many such tendencies, three are worth special attention: tribalism, nepotism, and competitiveness.

Humans are tribal

Humans easily and ineluctably divide the world into ingroups and outgroups. They favor members of the ingroup, and they often evince moral indifference (or worse) toward members of the outgroup. Indeed, many evolutionary theorists believe that crucial components of human nature were forged by the crucible of coalitional conflict and that therefore humans are, in some sense, “designed” for tribal competition. Even trivial differences such as preferences for a painting or answers to questions about lights flashing on a computer screen can cause group identity, with all its attendant psychological processes (ingroup favoritism, outgroup indifference/hostility).

Unlimited wealth would not eliminate this groupishness, for just as a family dog still gobbles its food as if it could be taken by competing wolves, so humans would still divide into tribes and protect status and resources as if they might be stolen by other humans. And, anyway, status is inevitably relative. Its supply does not expand, and how much one group has depends upon how much other groups have. If one group rises in status, then another must fall; and if one group falls, then another must rise. So long as humans do not alter their own genetic code, they will partition the world into friends and foes, familiars and foreigners, family and strangers, and favor the former over the latter.

Humans favor kin/local

The most primitive and powerful tribe to which humans belong is the family. Families create ingroup/outgroup sentiments that are even more forceful than nonkin coalitions because they are based on shared genetic interests. A chief struggle of law-based civilizations is to deter destructive nepotism and to encourage trust in fairness and basic principles, principles that extend to all people and that obviate the need to retreat into kin-based tribalism.

Relatedly, humans generally favor the local and familiar over the distant and exotic. The moral imagination is impressive but limited. It is often fueled by empathy, and therefore is most vivid when focused on one’s immediate community. Although many academics may subscribe to systems such as utilitarianism, which explicitly reject localism, most humans are inevitably localists. They care more about what happens to their neighbor, their street, their town, than what happens to people in a distant state or country.

Humans are competitive

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the great Victorian poet, lamented that nature was “red in tooth and claw” — a ceaseless struggle of organism against organism. Humans are not excluded from this mortal competition. It is certainly true that they are remarkably cooperative. Put 250 chimpanzee strangers in a conference room and all hell would break loose; put 250 humans in such a room and it would be peaceable even if full of subtle snipes and posturing for prestige. Nevertheless, this should not obscure from us the constant competition of everyday human existence. Humans want to be better than other humans. They want more money, more status, more influence, more mates, than their neighbors. And they are often willing to sacrifice morals and violate laws to get them.

Even human cooperation evolved and still functions to facilitate group competition. Coalitional conflict selected for cooperative humans, humans that, as noted above, break the world into friend and foe and compete intensively with foes for land, resources, and mates. But even within a coalition, humans incessantly vie for leadership positions. And as external threats dwindle, internal fractiousness increases. Just as an organism is held together by the pressure of the atmosphere, so human groups are held together by the pressure of the enemy and without him, they burst asunder.

None of these proclivities mean that humans are doomed to inhabit dystopian societies. Good social systems discover, through many centuries of trial and error, how best to channel potentially destructive propensities into socially beneficial outlets. However, that human nature is fundamentally flawed does mean there will always be a chasm between human ideals and reality. Conservatism accepts this chasm and admonishes us to be skeptical of schemes to erase it, for such schemes often ignore the constraints of human nature and end in tragedy.

2. Reason is powerful, but prone to error

Few capacities have been praised as fulsomely as reason. It is the characteristic that defines human uniqueness. Whereas other animals are slaves to instinct, to predetermined paths of behavior, humans are free and have used their hitherto unknown ability to rise from a swamp of ignorance and poverty into a world of remarkable affluence.

The conservative, however, does not see reason as an unalloyed blessing, and despite lauding its power, is quite alarmed by its fallibility. It might be true — and in fact the conservative insists it’s true — that humans have made astonishing progress since even 500 years ago and that much of that progress was powered by technologies and institutions made possible by reason. However, the conservative points to the undeniably grim record of utopian ideologies such as communism that were also made possible by reason. In fact, many of the most appalling atrocities of the past few hundred years were motivated by erroneous but uncritically self-righteous political philosophies. This should compel humility and instill a thorough skepticism of ideologies that insist on the near infallibility of reason.

The conservative argument against reason doesn’t, however, rest on a few anecdotes (e.g., “consider the French and Russian revolutions”), but on the fundamental nature of reason itself. Its most dangerous flaw, from the perspective of the conservative, is that it relies upon abstractions. It decomposes the universe and arranges and rearranges the parts. It can contemplate yellow skies, melting clocks, and talking dogs. This, of course, is incredibly useful. It allows humans to conduct experiments in their minds rather than in the world. Instead of having to drop a basketball from 2,000 feet, one can just imagine it. But it also means that reason can ignore important constraints. One can ask oneself, “What would the world be like if cats could fly,” and the fact that they can’t does not interfere with the resulting thought.

When applied to humans, this ability to ignore constraints can end in calamity. It is not difficult to imagine, for example, a society in which humans are perfectly cooperative and peaceful. And no alarm bell rings declaring that such thoughts are pure fantasy (the thought experiment doesn’t violate any principle of logic, after all). Only intense criticism does that. But emotional satisfaction is often a stronger driver of reasoning than is a concern for truth. Humans are excellent at finding the flaws in other people’s speculations, not their own. So, if one is uplifted by a world with “no possessions…” and “no need for greed or hunger…” then one might be tempted not only to imagine it, but to believe that it is possible. And thus one might begin to believe that only the evil of the status quo is preventing the dawn of a better society.

Furthermore, reason might be good for solving certain puzzles or for imagining different social systems, but it appears less impressive at altering human behavior. One can believe that acquisitiveness is irrational as much as one pleases, but it probably won’t eliminate acquisitive behavior — likewise with romantic jealousy, competitiveness, envy, tribalism, and a whole panoply of proclivities. The solutions to vexing social problems often seem simple because one can ignore the human passions that caused them in the first place. Inequality? Just redistribute income. Competitiveness? Just create a better social system that encourages cooperation. Homelessness? Just build more shelters and construct a more humane society. Ignorance? Just spend more money on schools and talented teachers.

Unfortunately, human nature is not as flexible as the human imagination.

Still, the conservative does not wish to exaggerate the impotence or errancy of reason. Humans have solved many once-intractable puzzles and purged the world of harmful, but stubborn superstitions. There is nothing conservative about denying progress or pining for a “pre-rational” world in which humans supposedly lived in harmony with the rhythms of nature. What is needed is a balance — a judicious appreciation of human ingenuity coupled with a thorough skepticism of speculative solutions to entrenched social problems.

3: Tradition and prejudice are often good guides to social policy


Progressives mock few arguments so intensely as they do appeals to tradition. “We’ve always done things this way” is worse than meaningless to the progressive because it suggests that the practice in question can only be defended by invoking the authority of custom.

Undeniably, such mockery is sometimes deserved. Conservatives have often defended antiquated and oppressive policies and proscriptions with the rhetoric of custom. Just 50 years ago, some states defended bans on interracial marriage; and until the 2000s, every state banned homosexual marriage. These prohibitions were often justified by pointing to their long, venerable history. And, of course, one can adduce many similar examples.

The conservative, however, does not and should not defend every tradition. Conservatism’s goal is not to stop society in time. It is to preserve what works while slowly and judiciously discarding what doesn’t. What the conservative argues, therefore, is not that tradition should be venerated as an infallible source of wisdom, but rather that practices and policies that have lasted for many decades or even centuries are likely to serve a crucial function — otherwise they would have disappeared. Tradition, in other words, is a signal that something is working.

Furthermore, the conservative contends that we are often unaware of the purpose of our social practices. Behaviors that become customary often arise spontaneously and then are shaped through a process of cultural evolution. Therefore, when these are scrutinized, they sometimes appear absurd. Judges in the United States, for example, wear grandiose robes and sit on elevated oak benches. Such formalism is easy to mock and satirize. It seems pompous because its most obvious function is to aggrandize individuals. The conservative would suggest, though, that there might be a deeper, more noble purpose. Authority figures have long worn status-related accoutrements; and they have been encouraged to do so probably because such symbolic attire confers legitimacy and inspires awe and reverence.

This means that a traditional practice that at first appears ridiculous may in fact satisfy an important cultural need. Of course, this is not always true. It seems unlikely, for example, that proscriptions against homosexual marriage did so. But it is often true. Therefore, what the conservative suggests is that one should set one’s prior beliefs in favor of tradition and then assess the evidence and update accordingly. A conservative can even be a utilitarian about this. If the harm caused by a tradition is large, then the evidence required to support it should be more impressive than if the harm is small. A judge’s attire requires less supporting evidence than a ban on homosexual marriage.

It is also worth bearing in mind that many of the norms that hold society together are unwritten, informally enforced, and possess power chiefly insofar as they impel psychological obedience. Good manners, charity, honesty, fidelity are just some important virtues that are largely (not completely) ignored by the criminal justice system. Harshly criticizing or mocking such norms can sap them of their psychological power and loosen the ties that bind people together. The conservative, of course, doesn’t recommend silent conformity, but does encourage reverence for established order and the norms that maintain it.


Many people view prejudice as a dangerous and regrettable but ubiquitous human failing. It is the glowing ember that can, if stoked, burst into outright bigotry; and therefore, despite its pervasiveness, society should strive to eliminate it. The conservative, however, contends that, properly understood, prejudice is a generally useful propensity, one that is disregarded or denigrated at society’s peril.

Before making this case, it is crucial to clarify the meaning of prejudice. It is a rapid, intuitive judgment that precedes and probably guides rational deliberation. Although the term is most often applied to racial, sexual, and religious assessments, especially negative ones, it is a much broader category. For example, humans are repulsed by open wounds; but very few understand why. Natural selection “programmed” them to find pustulating wounds disgusting, not to understand how diseases are transmitted. Humans, in other words, have a prejudice (pre-judgment) against open sores.

Humans appear to acquire prejudices in at least two ways. First, they are born prepared to develop them. These prejudices aren’t necessarily “inborn” in the sense that they would arise without relevant sensual experience. But they are natural in the sense that they develop very quickly with only brief exposure to pertinent stimuli. Fear of snakes and spiders, for example, seems natural (perhaps innate) in this sense. And, second, they learn them by observing patterns in the world. For example, they might learn that dog food tastes bad and that pizza tastes good, thereby developing a prejudice for pizza and against dog food.

The first kind of prejudice may reflect the “wisdom of history” (in this case, of natural selection); and the second, the “wisdom of experience.” Like tradition, both deserve serious consideration rather than scornful mockery. They contain a kind of knowledge that is more vast and vital than a scholar’s. And they have guided societies for many millennia. Because of this, the conservative becomes alarmed when people try, without careful deliberation, to overturn long-lived norms that were motivated by persistent prejudices.

For just one example, consider the sexual revolution. Young adults revolted against the staid sexual norms and prejudices of society, praising the pleasure of the flesh, the virtue of uncommitted sex, and the liberating power of free love. The revolution was, in some ways, rationally defensible (at least superficially). Sexual possession treats people like ownable objects, and many of society’s sexual mores are motivated by disgust, not reason. But, here, it seems likely that (probably natural) human prejudices against indiscriminate sex and carefully inculcated prejudices in favor of monogamy were wiser than young people motivated by hormones, Lennon, and delusions about the power of reason to recreate society.

Of course, some prejudices are obnoxious, and others are absolutely deleterious. Not every “yuck” deserves deference. But it does deserve pause. As with tradition, people should probably set their priors in favor of popular prejudices, should assume that they contain wisdom, and then proceed to collect evidence and analyze accordingly.

Furthermore, even if a group of people recognize that some prejudice or another is likely more harmful than good, they must live with other people who still harbor the prejudice. Yelling “bigot” at everyone who thinks that homosexual marriage or consensual non-monogamy is wrong is unlikely to persuade or lead to a more just society. Instead, proponents of social change should advance arguments, disseminate data, and participate in a respectful and judicious debate. Some prejudices undoubtedly deserve to die, but how they are killed will significantly shape the society that survives them.

Conservatism, then, is not “against change” or steadfastly committed to defending whatever prejudice happens to prevail in one corner of the world or another. Rather, it is for slow, judicious change. It fears not progress, but reason disconnected from the wisdom of custom and human intuition.

Conservatism is a political philosophy without rigid prescriptions. Its basic principles, articulated and defended in this piece, can be adjusted to meet the needs of circumstance. This is as it should be. Political ideologies that recommend specific policies are necessarily limited and ephemeral. Conservatism, on the other hand, in some guise or another, is as old as society. It appeals to our desire for order, caution, and stability.

It accepts the doctrine of original sin, not as a metaphysical truth but as a poetic description of a fundamental human dilemma. We easily imagine utopia, but only by ignoring the flaws and frailties of real humans; and we often celebrate humanity only by denigrating the fallen creatures who actually inhabit our societies. Conservatism asks us to renounce this paradoxically pessimistic utopianism and instead to accept the limitations of humans and to celebrate the real progress we have achieved. It asks us to accept “decent,” and “pretty good,” and “provisional,” and to leave perfection for another world. And it asks us to accept gracefully the flaws of our neighbors, our leaders, and our institutions, content with the hard wisdom that we are all human — all too human.



Bo Winegard
Arc Digital

I’m interested in evolutionary psychology, history, baseball, and poetry. Wayward graduate student of Florida State University.