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Conservatism, Ideology, Rationale, and a Red Light

Conservatism, Ideology,
Rationale, and a Red Light
Ted Honderich

Among reviews of my Conservatism, Kevin Magill’s in Radical
Philosophy 59 several times struck me as the most challenging.

It is not Tory bumble, of course, and it has all his characterful
intelligence. But in my re-readings of it, it fails to fulfil its
promise. It ends up as conventional, obscure, and wrong. Perhaps he is onto something when he says the book went about its
business in a way bound to fail. But, to remark on a main
obscurity, he has not succeeded in indicating positively the way
in which he thinks it should have proceeded. I have the suspicion
that he thinks I could have got some help from Hegel, Marx et
al., which indeed I did not, but my suspicion is not in itself

It seems likely that our differences have much to do with the
differences between analytic philosophers, as they are still
called, and those with more distinctive ways of doing things,
sometimes freer, sometimes more theory-laden, and sometimes,
as Hume would say, fit for fairy land. I do not share the general
disdain of some analytical philosophers for their competitors.

Such a disdain must be wrecked on the rock of the proposition
that the competitors can’t all be idiots. Still, Magill’s review has
not in the end increased my tolerance.

My book first indicates or gestures at a subject-matter – a
political tradition taken as beginning with Edmund Burke and
including the Conservative Party in Britain and part of the
Republican Party in the United States. It then proceeds to define
or characterise this tradition by finding a large bundle of distinctions or features of it, including a certain commitment to private
property, an opposition to kinds of equality, and so on. The
upshot is a full definition or characterisation of the subjectmatter, the political tradition in question. Conservatism is the
tradition which has had these twenty or so features. The inquiry
also involves trying to find the rationale of the tradition – its best
summation or underlying principle or governing end. What is it
that unites and explains the various distinctions and features?

They are not a haphazard collection. They didn’t come from a
randomizing mechanism, or from one element nominating another. The book concludes that the rationale of Conservatism is
not a principle of desert, as some have thought, but no more than
selfishness. The Right does not differ from the Left in being
selfish, but in being nothing else.

To my mind Magill has somehow misunderstood this enterprise. He notices what he takes to be the embarrassing fact that
some of the distinctions or features might be had by other
political traditions. If so, so what? Conservatism, according to
me, is the unique tradition that has all of them and no others.

Also, he asks what he takes to be an embarrassing question. On
the assumption that there was opposition to equality in the
Ancient world, was there an Ancient World conservatism? Well,

that can sensibly only be the question of whether there was in the
Ancient World a counterpart-tradition to the defined tradition
beginning with Burke – a counterpart-tradition having more or
less the same distinctions or features. There wasn’t.

There may also be misunderstanding in his coming too close
to reminding us, as if there were point in it, that some Conservatives as persons are other than selfish. Who could doubt it? But
that is not at issue. My concern was a political tradition, or, if
you like, persons in so far as they are Conservatives. Is there
some mistake in setting out to judge or appraise a tradition in this
sense? Is this being seduced by abstraction? That would be bad
news for the entire human race, which has been engaged in just
this sort of inquiry since it began. We do and must do this sort of
thing all the time, and nothing has the slightest chance of showing our habit to be a bad one.

One of Magill’ s main objections is that my book fails because it doesn’t zero in on Conservatism as an ideology. For that
reason it lacks direction, doesn’t hit its target, is not a definitive
Socialist philosophical examination of Conservatism, and so on.

What is an ideology? There are not a lot of questions better at
making me want to reach for a water pistol. But it has to be asked
in order to consider the objection. Or rather, we need to attend to
Magill’s answer.

Conservatism as an ideology, he says, should be seen as a
collection of positions and attitudes not governed by a rationale
but deriving some cohesiveness from key elements in the collection. Conservatism as an ideology, at any rate for a practising
Conservative politician, is what infonns her practice, and what
changes in response to historical developments. It is something
that has emerged with the modem nation state. It is or has to do
with the shape or definition put on particular contained elements
by the inclusion of other elements. It is such that what you must
do is not seek a rationale of it, but see how it works, articulates
interests, guides and expresses policies, and does these things
differently from other ideologies. There is a bit more along these
lines, but I forbear.

At one point Magill seems to include the ‘philosophy’ of
Conservatism, which appears to be my bundle of distinctions or
features, as one of the elements in the ideology of Conservatism.

I take that to be a slip. It is very clear, and indeed allowed by
Magill elsewhere, and indicated by my report above on his own
reflections, that the ideology of Conservatism in his view is in a
way the bundle of distinctions or features to which my book
attends, at any rate that bundle with a few additions which he
suggests. Or, to the extent that there is any point in the concession, the ideology of Conservatism is in a way that bundle
without the assumption that the bundle has a rationale. My first
main reply to Magill, then, is that by his own admission I have in
Radical Philosophy 61, Summer 1992

a way identified and attended to what he says or implies I omit,
whether or not I have a false belief about it, pertaining to a

Putting aside for a moment the matter of the bundle’s having
a rationale, I do see that he thinks I have attended to this ideology
only in away. That is, he thinks I have missed something about
its character, distinct from its not having a rationale. But what is
that? I have no great disagreement with his view of an ideology,
and indeed make some or indeed most of the points he makes.

Private property is a key element; the ideology has changed;
there is an inexplicitness in the way it guides policies; its elements give shape and size to a thing different from the shape and
size given to it by elements in other ideologies; and so on.

My second reply is therefore that I have not only identified
what he says I omit but, still putting aside the rationale business,
also attended to its character. No doubt I do not do all the things
that can be done with respect to this ideology. It may be, to recall
another of his usages, that I do not try to explain how it works.

Well, it may be that he and I share a certain amount of social
theory or even conspiracy theory at this point, but this was
inessential to my enterprise. Again, I felt and had no need to
explain certain things that might be meant by speaking of how
Conservatism functions as a credo by which to live and work. It
is also true that I take myself to be fortunate in having none of the
common and deeply boring academic inclination to mystify the
subject of ideology. Those concessions do not bring me near to
conceding I have not identified and characterised the ideology of

Have I made a mistake in thinking that it has a rationale? To
come on to that fundamental matter, why does Magill think that

Radical Philosophy 61, Summer 1992

Conservatism does not have a best summation, an underlying
principle of a moral or some other character? He offers two sorts
of reason. The first is bound up with considerations about ideology, the second with the fact that Conservatism as I conceive it
contains distinguishable parts, notably the New Right.

One reason of the first kind, if I have it straight, and as I can
best express it, is that Conservatism hasn’t got a rationale because ideologies don’t work that way. Or, as he says, ‘a unified
rationale is … the wrong means to understanding an ideology. To
understand that one needs to ask how it works.’ This conventional intoning about ‘understanding’, with its implications of
deep thinking, penetration, realism, history, Hegel and what-not,
does not reassure me. Still, what argument does Magill intend?

In one possible form it proceeds from the premise that the
ideology has a way of working to the conclusion that it hasn’t got
a rationale. On the contrary, it seems to me difficult to conceive
reasonably of a way of working that would exclude a rationale.

Nor, by the way, does a rationale entail particular ways of
working. Certainly the supposition of a rationale is nowhere near
the mad idea that Conservatism develops or functions in some
syllogistic way, starting with an explicit major premise, adding
minor premises and so on.

In another possible form, the argument in question proceeds
from the idea that there are ways of understanding an ideology
that do not involve finding its rationale. I couldn’t care less. In a
third form, the argument is to the effect that the best way of
understanding an ideology is not by way of its rationale. I am
inclined to deny that, in so far as I can follow it, and note that no
discernible reason is given for the proposition.

What is more important than any stuff about understanding is
a certain clear and practical question which was the question
answered by my book. What is the fundamental proposal that
Conservatism makes to us and acts on? To answer it, to my mind,
and hence to judge or appraise Conservatism, we need to show
what fundamental principle informs Conservatism,_ and more
particularly its main end. Life is short, we need to┬Ěsum things up.

People are in bad shape, we have to know what the Conservative
and other proposals come to.

There is another way in which Magill would lead us from the
matter of ideology to the denial of a rationale. What we get here,
I think, is a tightening-up of the first possible form of argument
mentioned above. ‘To function as an ideology,’ we are told,
‘Conservatism must articulate the aspirations, values and beliefs
of very disparate forces, and the single unified rationale which
Honderich seeks would prevent it from doing so.’ That seems to
me just mistaken. No doubt some Conservatives are more attracted by some elements in the ideological bundle, some by
others. No doubt some would leave Conservative parties if some
elements were abandoned. That is not to say their politics has no
fundamental unity, or that this ruling thing does not also attract
them as Conservatives, or is not the main attraction.

My third main reply to Magill, then, is that he does not have
an argument from a premise about. ideology to the conclusion
that there is no rationale of Conservatism. Consider now the
other line of thought issuing in the conclusion that Conservatism
has no rationale. It is that this political tradition has contained
different parts. In particular, it has contained the New Right, or
what Magill calls Right-Wing Liberalism, and also what can be
called Traditional Conservatism. It is plainly false that I take the
New Right as typical or within what is typical of the tradition of
Conservatism, which Magill seems to say. My book regularly
makes clear that it is Traditional Conservatism which is typical.

Magill’s more important proposition is that the New Right and
Traditional Conservatism think differently, have different objectives, and are different ideologies.

It seems to me that these three claims can obviously be taken

in ways that make them true. What I am not nearly persuaded of
is that it follows that a tradition which contains both of these
tendencies cannot be regarded as having a ruling principle or that
this cannot be true of a party or a person who incorporates both,
as Magill allows was true of the party of Mrs Thatcher and
herself. The plain fact of the matter is that every tradition of
interest, however monolithic, has parts and tendencies within it.

It is near enough to a necessary condition of something’s being a
tradition that it has a rationale, and the fact is evidently consistent with diversity in it. There are many relevant examples.

It is of course of some importance to my argument that the
New Right and Traditional Conservatism were and are together
in single political parties, above all the British Conservative
Party. Magill nevertheless thinks it proper to ask a certain question. If the New Right and Traditional Conservatism had been
separate political parties, traditionally in alliance, would it be
reasonable to look for an overall rationale?

The usefulness of this question is plainly disputable, on
account of its presupposition that the New Right and Traditional
Conservatism are more disparate than I allow, but never mind
that. It seems to me also plain that anything that deserves the
description of being an ongoing let alone traditional alliance will
indeed have a rationale. How could two entities engaged over
decades in real and effective cooperation, and allied against
common adversaries, lack such a thing?

My fourth and slightly premature reply to Magill is therefore
that he has not got an argument which takes him from diversity
within Conservatism to there being no rationale. It may be, I
allow, that his denial of a rationale also rests on something else.

My book, he says, ‘lacks a distinct subject (or, in so far as a
subject is distinguished, it corresponds to nothing in political
reality)’. That sounds like something from which you could
conclude that what I purport to be discussing lacks a rationale,
along with anything else that might be assigned to an actual or
proper subject. But forget about the issue of a rationale for a
while. What does it mean to say that the book fails in the given
way? This in itself sounds like a disaster.

Is the complaint that the book lacks a subject really the
complaint that it lacks a uniform, homogeneous or monolithic
subject – since Conservatism has had in it the New Right,
Traditional Conservatism, and more? That complaint, in effect a
demand for homogeneity which would rule out almost every
book ever written, would be absurd. Is it then being complained
that my conception of something is vague, ambiguous or otherwise conceptually inadequate and so picks out nothing? There is
no breadth of argument to that conclusion in the review, and the
conclusion would be mistaken. Is the complaint that what I pick
out cannot be effectively treated because of its diversity? Well, I
find a great deal in common between the several sorts of Conservatives, even before getting to the point of assigning them all
the sole rationale of selfishness.

In saying that the book at best has a subject but one which
corresponds to nothing in political reality, what can Magill
possibly mean? Are we again hearing the truth that Conservatism, like every other political tradition, includes political differences within itself? I have said enough of that. Is the point that it
is not politically relevant or important or the like to consider
together all of what I call Conservatism? To my mind, that point
would be crazy. No doubt there are positions or viewpoints from
which it is most profitable to consider differences within Conservatism. But to say, in effect, that there is no position or
viewpoint such that it is important to consider all of it together is
indeed crazy. Consider a voter in Britain in the late twentieth
century. I cannot believe Magill intends the point in question. In
the end, I am left in the dark.

So my fifth reply is that my book has a subject. The sixth is a

challenge, anticipated in my opening remarks and since then. If
you are trying to decide how to vote, or what is to be said for or
against the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, or whether
your inherited feelings about the Right and Left are reasonable,
or what to say in a political book, what are you to do?

According to both Magill and myself, I think, you see what is
on offer from Conservatism and what is on offer from the Left.

You arrive at the Conservative ideology, which is to say you run
through that tradition’s distinctions or features. You arrive at the
Left’s ideology, which is to say you run through that tradition’s
distinctions or features. What do you do then? Wait to see if a red
light saying ‘Vote Labour’ comes on? Notice whether you’re
feeling warmer about the concept of a General Strike? Find out
by introspection whether you’re empathising with Mr Major?

Discover you’re a Tory by observing your behaviour, maybe
where your pencil puts its X on the ballot paper? Consult Hegel?

Well, you might, and for all Magill says, you might as well.

On the other hand, you might engage in what a lot of us do, and,
incidentally, is far from being rationalistic, which is to arrive at
a rational summary of Conservatism and a rational summary of
the Left. See what they come to. Arrive at the rationale of
Conservatism and the rationale of the Left. I cannot see a rational
alternative if the aim is to come to a judgement.

Some smaller matters remain. There is not much difference
between Magill and me on Conservatism’s tedious insistence
that only narrow freedom, or freedom without power, is exactly
freedom. Still, he has stressed what needs stressing. As for the
family and nationalism as features of Conservatism, I did not so
much overlook them as the review implies. With respect to
pragmatism, or what I called empiricism, I remain unimpressed
by arguments for social or economic institutions from their
having passed the test of time – and unimpressed by the proposition that there is much recommendation in the fact by itself that
an institution maintains social cohesion. An army can do that.

Radical Philosophy 61, Summer 1992

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