A Truth in conservatism: Rescuing conservatism from the Conservatives

In the wake of the RNC, here's G.A. Cohen's paper from a few years ago, before his death obviously:

“Professor Cohen, how many Fellows of All Souls does it take to change a light bulb?”


The present paper defends the attitude that I just expressed in my answer to the chair’s question. I have for decades harboured strongly conservative, that is, strongly small-c conservative, opinions, on many matters that are not matters of justice, and I here mount an exposition and defence of what I believe to be my widely, although perhaps not universally, shared, conservative attitude. (I do not have conservative views about matters of justice because what conservatives like me want to conserve is that which has intrinsic value, and injustice lacks intrinsic value2 (and has, indeed, intrinsic disvalue). I shall say something in section 7 about the relationship between small-c conservatism and large-C Conservatives, many of whom are indeed devoted to conserving injustice.)

I am a kind of conservative not only in that I have the strong small-c conservative attitude that I shall describe, but also in that I endorse certain conservative factual assessments according to which a lot of valuable things have been disappearing lately. I join the ranks of the complainers down the ages who say: “Things ain’t what they used to be.”

Do not suppose that, because that lamentation is perennial, it’s misplaced. Anti- conservatives say, “Oh, well, people have always said that things are getting worse”, and anti-conservatives mean thereby to convey that the conservative lamentation expresses an illusion.3 But it is entirely possible that at any rate certain kinds of things have always been worse than they were before.4 Remember the wise Hungarian, who, upon being asked how things were going for him, said: “Oh, you know, things are about average. Not as good as yesterday, better than tomorrow.” In fact, I think lots of good old things are being lost and lots of good new things are arriving. It is the conservative disposition, in the present sense of ‘conservative’, to lament the first fact more than non conservatives do. (As I’ll explain in section 3, it doesn’t follow that a person who is conservative in the present sense welcomes the second fact – that lots of good new things are arriving – less than non-conservatives do.) But there will be no defence of my conservative factual assessments in what follows.