Shadows of Moral Imagination

“Until the day breaks and the shadows flee…”
– Song of Solomon 2:17

“The moral imagination,” Russel Kirk wrote, “aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth.” He resurrected the Burkean moral imagination and maybe modernized it in the process. Jonathan Leamon Jones, similar to Gerald Russello and William F. Byrne, argues that Kirk’s moral imagination wasn’t modern but postmodern in its mistrust of metanarratives, including those of mainstream conservatives and radical right-wingers (others such as Peter Augustine Lawler go further in declaring that all of “conservative thought today is authentic postmodernism.”).

Modernity is always the frame of the reactionary mind, as conservatism in operating within the liberal paradigm can’t help but be an endless response to and borrowing from liberalism. The attempt to speak for the pre-modern inevitably leads to a post-modern attitude, even as modernity remains securely in place. There is no ‘pre-modern’ and ‘post-modern’ without the modern that defines and frames it all.

Such is the case with the development of moral imagination, but as a consciously articulated notion it took form in conjunction with the mature rise of modernity. The French Revolution symbolized the end of the ancien regime. Edmund Burke wasn’t postmodern, that is for sure, since modernity was only then taking hold. And moral imagination has its roots in the distant past. One important difference to keep in mind is that Kirk’s moral imagination, as opposed for example to the reactionary imagination of a conservative-minded classical liberal like Jordan Peterson, included the social or sociological imagination (Peterson is so post-post-modern that he is all the more modern for it). Burke did speak of the social, but of course he lived long before social science and social constructivism. “I contend that,” Jonathan Leamon Jones writes,

“Kirk, as a figure more concerned with culture than politics, attempted to negotiate his conservatism as a denial of the “autonomous self” and as an acceptance of the social construction of life (guided by, in his case, religious and socially traditionalist norms developed over extended periods of time). What is shared with Lyotard is that his postmodernism rejects the “grand narratives” of liberalism (such as “autonomy” and “progress”) as well as collectivism (such as fascism, socialism, and communism). Even so, Kirk is grounded in what might be termed a metaphysical master narrative, one of divine interaction with humanity. And because human beings are sinful and severely lacking in knowledge, their statements about the world can only be provisional, subject to revision and circumstance.”

Burke was a professional politician of a partisan variety. Kirk was not, as he was more wary of formal politics, it ironically being in part because of his own interpretation of Burkean moral imagination that he avoided following Burke’s political example. It was Kirk’s moral imagination as a conservative that actually allowed him to vote for those who didn’t identify as conservative, since his moral imagination allowed him to put moral character and personal concerns above both narrow ideological dogmas and lockstep political partisanship.

Where Kirk resonates with Burke is maybe along the line of the Burke’s denial of natural law as a human-imposed abstraction that risked idealism and radicalism. This is an attitude that he shared with John Dickinson’s worldview of Quaker constitutionalism (a constitution not as a paper document, espoused dogma, or mission statement but as a living pact between God and a specific people). Natural law has been cited by conservatives in making claims of traditionalism, but it was used even more persuasively and powerfully by radicals and revolutionaries seeking divine authority above human law.

One might note that Burke came from a family that was originally Catholic whereas Kirk converted to Catholicism as an adult. And one might note that both Burke and Dickinson were educated by Quakers. The commonality between Catholicism and Quakerism is the heavy emphasis on the social, specifically the social imagination as expressed through social theology and social action, including social activism. The moral imagination ultimately is a social imagination, overlapping with what some simply call culture or what Daniel Everett describes as the dark matter of the mind (i.e., the sociocultural unconscious). The social component isn’t only about what defines imagination but also what constrains or focuses it. Enculturation as with conversion is all about moral imagination, as are social control measures from propaganda to perception management.

To continue with Jones’ analysis: “Kirk sought to guide the reader to that place where he made his “home” – the small, local networks of associations that echo Burke’s well-known “little platoons” of society. Set against the “modern” in ways at once superficial and philosophical, such guidance was placement in an uncertain yet transcendently-grounded “postmodern” time and place.”

This is where, I’d argue, Burke lost the thread of his own narrative. With the French Revolution, his fevered rantings and detached fantasies about distant royalty had nothing to do with human-sized “little platoons” at the local level of comunity, certainly nothing to do with the lived experience and real world concerns of the average person in France or England — as Thomas Paine put it: “He is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it striking his imagination. He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.”

A major point Paine made was that modernity had destroyed those “little platoons” and that the remnants of that loss required moral re-imagining to compensate for what was stolen for that loss was intentionally caused by those who gained from it. Those in power had intentionally and actively targeted the destruction of those “little platoons” (the communities and commons of feudalism) and on the rubble they built the British Empire.

This created an insurmountable problem for the burgeoning conservative mind. Burke’s moral imagination had become untethered since, for whatever reason, he lacked Paine’s urgent sense of the living memory of the disappearing past. Maybe that is because Paine, in having come to the colonies as Burke never did, saw with his own eyes the Indian tribes living within their “little platoons” and so this concrete experience that no longer could be found in England ensured that Paine didn’t get mired in idealistic fantasies and ideological abstractions. In speaking of common sense, Paine was turning to the common past and gave voice to the most powerful vision of moral imagination of his generation.

Kirk’s moral imagination is the perception of others as moral beings as part of a moral community. That much I agree with and so would the likes of Thomas Paine. It is reminiscent of a distinction I often point to. Germanic freedom embraces this kind of moral imagination whereas Latin liberty does not, as freedom is etymologically related to friend and means being a free member of a free people whereas liberty originally meant just not being a slave in a slave-based society. This concern over a moral community is where Burke’s moral imagination met Paine’s common sense, not that either of them saw the connection.

Kirk’s ultimate failure as with Burke’s was a too limited imagining of moral imagination in that over time conservatism despite all its protestations to the contrary had shackled itself to ideological dogmatism and so denied the radical challenge (radical, etymologically-speaking, as going to the ‘root’) of moral imagination as it operates in the human mind and human society, an unwillingness to follow negative capability into the dark unseen realms of the collective psyche. In relation to the likes of Julian Jaynes and Lewis Hyde, I might argue that Burke and Kirk were comparably superficial thinkers which is not entirely their fault since, in being products of a specific place and time, they both lacked education in such fields as linguistic relativism, anthropology, social constructivism, consciousness studies, etc; although Kirk seems to have had a broader a liberal education.

These two had an intuitively astute sense of the moral imagination while lacking the cognitive frame to fully and consciously articulate it, such is the sense I get from reading their writings and reading about their lives. In the end, there is something lacking and dissatisfying about the conservative constraints placed not just on the enactment of moral imagination but on its very definition and explication. Before beginning to explore it, moral imagination in these earlier texts had already been made into something small and manageable. In constructing a moral imagination into something usable for the modern conservative mind, maybe a few important parts get left and forgotten on the shop floor.

In looking for what has been lost, let’s return to the issue of modernity. For all that post-Enlightenment modernity gets blamed, the seeds of modernity including autonomous individuality and vast meta-narratives were planted during the Axial Age. The entire civilizational project following the Bronze Age has been a suppression and retooling of the moral imagination. According to Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind, earlier humanity was fully immersed in the moral imagination such that it was their entire lived reality, even to the point that the imagination was taken for (superimposed upon) reality and this imagination spoke to them in clear voices. The archaic moral imagination is no longer part of our paltry consciousness with ego boundary-walls that keep it all safely contained and controlled, such that the gods no longer are even a small inner voice to be heard at all.

For all its florid and flaunted fantasizing, Burke’s moral imagination is a pathetic, weak creature that is chained, beaten and starved if not yet fully subdued and domesticated. Burke wonders how moral imagination might serve us, but for archaic humanity they served at the behest of moral imagination. Burke’s censures of radicals was the replaying of Plato’s banishment of the ancient poets whose wild and unruly more-than-human imaginings threatened that aspiring civilizational order. Revolution wasn’t caused by a lack but by an excess of moral imagination, as it had become unleashed from millennia of oppression. Burke felt the necessity to philosophize about this fearsome moral imagination in order to safely put it back in its cage and then to lock the door to that Burkean wardrobe.

What Burke’s moral imagination and Kirk’s conservatism touched upon but never quite grasped is that Eric Hobsbawm’s invented traditions didn’t merely replace but were used as weapons to destroy and dismantle the traditions that came before, erasing the living memory of them from the the public mind. Conservatism, as a modern phenomenon, is a non-traditional tradition (within the liberal tradition itself that is the paradigmatic framework dominating and defining all of modernity). As such, conservatism inherently is a reactionary persuasion and there is no way to escape this for all the attempts at philosophical diversion and special pleading. There is no going back for the revolution, once begun, can’t be stopped. Moral imagination is a living fire that consumes the world and remakes it. And conservatives have played a key role in radically creating something entirely new.

Paine’s radical liberalism acknowledges the dire situation of tragic loss, not getting deluded in the process by nostalgic fantasies. And so Paine’s moral imagination seeks to engage the world rather than evade the situation. Kirk, in his friendship with the sociologist Richard Nisbett, maybe comes closer to seeing what Paine was pointing toward, the loss of community. But what Kirk didn’t understand is what community once meant, not just in the near past but centuries earlier. Consider the Jeffersonian freedom proclaiming each generation’s right to self-governance which seems like a radical and revolutionary ideal of the Enlightenment but in actuality was built on the Anglo-Saxon (and Scandinavian) tribal tradition in Britain, as written laws and constitutions were as abstractly modern as was ethno-nationalism and colonial imperialism. Jefferson was invoking the traditional moral imagination of a once free people and, such as his referencing the fight against Norman invasion, was quite explicit about it.

Burke ran up against this issue. He struggled to admit the problems of colonial and corporatist imperialism and to admit the impotence of his moral imagination in dealing with those problems, stating in a 1783 speech about the British East India Company that, “it is an arduous thing to plead against abuses of a power which originates from your own country, and affects those whom we are used to consider as strangers.” This caused Burke to switch back and forth between progressive reformer and reactionary counterrevolutionary, at one moment criticizing empire and at the next reverencing its authority, at one moment defending the rights of corporations and next demanding a corporation be put under government control. Moral imagination, however it was dressed up, offered little guidance for making sense of the radical character of imperialism that was forcefully remaking the world. Rather than inducing moral clarity in Burke’s mind, the only thing moral imagination made easy was moral rationalization.

Kirk had an idiosyncratic take on conservatism, and such idiosyncrasy is common among conservatives because of the underlying reactionary impulse. Kirk’s conservatism wasn’t easily defined. It was a mindset, temperament, attitude, tendency, or even just a mood. He sometimes spoke in Catholic terms of a canon which simply means an argument made, one argument among many and so not conclusive. This conservatism was a supposed “negation of ideology,” a claim that is never convincing for anyone who has given much thought to the topic. The real issue, as I describe with symbolic conflation, is that the power of conservative ideology is precisely dependent on it being hidden. This is the purpose of obfuscation to which Burke applied moral imagination and Kirk found it likewise useful. Burkean moral imagination uses the mental wardrobe to veil the tender naked skin of truth, to keep it from the prurient eyes of the conscious mind and the harsh glare of Enlightenment thought. This is political ideology transformed into a vague and shifting theology of mysticification.

Right-wing ideologues, interestingly, are always attacking ideology because only other people’s beliefs and values (and not their own) are ideological — this kind of anti-ideological ideology goes at least back to the 1800s, such as the defense slaveholders used against the -isms of the North: abolitionism, feminism, Marxism, etc (and yes Lincoln was friends with all kinds of radicals such as free labor advocates and there was a Marxist in Lincoln’s administration). Moral imagination when cut off from ideological worldview (in Louis Althusser’s sense) becomes an ideological realism that closes down the mind, as the eyes are drawn to the shadows cast on the cave wall.

Related to this, Kirk wrote that “a conservative impulse, if denied intelligent leadership and moral imagination, may be diverted banefully into ideological fanaticism.” Not quite right. Moral imagination is never denied for it is always present, if typically below the threshold of consciousness. Between Burke and Paine, the disagreement wasn’t over being for or against moral imagination but about what kind of moral imagination and to what end. Paine’s complaint was that Burke’s horror fantasies were abstractions of suffering disconnected from the real world experience of living humans. Kirk was less guilty of this, so it seems to me. Being a professional politician muddied Burke’s thinking, a problem Kirk tried to avoid in maintaining a more philosophical position.

Some have talked about moral imagination and more generally about the mind in terms of closed vs open, constrained vs unconstrained, thick boundary vs thin boundary, and similar categorizations that loosely correlate to conservative-mindedness and liberal-mindedness. Both serve purposes for the survival of the species and the functioning of society, but to be trapped in either one is problematic. Flexibility is the key, although this is a biased position for flexibility is a trait of the latter and not the former.

I’ve made the argument that the liberal mind can only operate during times of peace and tolerance. And this relates to how the liberal mind can allow space for the conservative mind in a way that is not possible the other way around, which is why liberalism can only operate under optimal conditions. And maybe liberal-mindedness is more common among tribal people with their low stress lifestyles, indicated by relaxed attitudes about sexuality among most hunter-gatherers. Consider my favorite example the Piraha who are extremely laid back and anti-authoritarian, disregarding hierarchical authority altogether.

This has to do with the circle of concern and the capacity to empathize. We can only empathize with those we perceive as moral beings, as humans like us. This is determined by our moral imagination. It is unsurprising that Edmund Burke, a professional politician operating in fear during a revolutionary era when his beloved British Empire was under threat, had a severely constrained attitude that did not only disallowed him to experience more openness toward others but made it hard for him to even imagine that such openness could be a part of human nature. His conservative-minded imagination excluded liberal-mindedness from his conception of moral imagination. We never know moral imagination in general for we can never step outside of our own moral imagination which typically is shared by those immediately around us.

What has changed over time is the expansion of moral imagination. Even those who identify as conservatives today are more liberal-minded than those who identified as liberals in the early 1800s, a time when liberals were divided over issues such as slavery. Much of what Burke complained about as dangerously radical has since become mainstream thought, even among conservatives today. Thomas Paine’s moral imagination won the struggle over hearts and minds, even as the struggle over Paine’s politics lags behind.

That is how it always happens, the revolution of mind preceding the revolution of society and politics, sometimes the one preceding the other by centuries. Heck, it took the Axial Age revolution of mind a couple of millennia to more fully take hold. And I might add that moral imagination in how we understand it as part of an intentional civilizational project (as opposed to an implicit experience of social reality) began with the Axial Age, as it was in the late Axial Age that religion and politics began to be thought about in explicit terms and as distinct categories, coinciding with the invention of rhetoric proper. Burke’s openly philosophizing about  and questioning the modern moral imagination demonstrated how far that millennia old revolution of mind had gone.

In explaining this phenomenon, Kwame Anthony Appiah notes that the arguments for something being right, true, or necessary become common knowledge long before public opinion and political will emerges to cause change to happen (such that most of the arguments against slavery used during the Civil War were widespread and well known prior to the American Revolution). It can take a long time for a society to assimilate new ideas and implement new ways of thinking, but eventually a change is triggered and the once unimaginable quickly becomes the new reality. Then as memory fades, the altered status quo dominates the collective moral imagination, as if it had always been that way.

We project our moral imagination onto reality without giving it much if any thought. No matter how philosophical we get about it, moral imagination can’t be disentangled from our experience of being in the world and being in relation with others. It is the substructure of our entire sense of reality. Our ideas about moral imagination are as likely to delude us as to enlighten us about how our moral imagination actually operates. That is because moral imagination is the territory of rhetoric and rationalization. It’s the stories we tell so often that we no longer realize they are stories, making us ripe for indoctrination and propaganda. But there is nothing inherently sinister about it, as this is simply the process of enculturation that is the basis of every society that has ever existed.

An early philosopher on moral imagination was Blaise Pascal. I don’t know that he ever specifically spoke of ‘moral imagination’, but he wrote extensively about morality and imagination. He appears to have been ahead of his time in many ways, having been born more than a century before Burke (some conservatives claim the both of them as ideological ancestors). Maybe his writings influenced Burke for it is highly probable that Pascal’s writings would have been familiar to many well educated English-speaking individuals in the 18th century. Pascal was one of the earliest thinkers to take seriously the impact of modernity, Jack Sherefkin claiming that he was “the first to face and express the experience of living in this new universe without center or limits.”

Sherefkin goes on to say that, “Most pre-modern societies identified with and felt a part of an orderly, purposeful universe. That is no longer believable. We now find ourselves lost in an infinite universe.” The ancient experience of reality was unraveling and so moral imagination was let loose. Pascal lived during the English Civil War, what some consider the first modern revolution because of the radical ideas (e.g., socialism) that emerged at the time. I’ve often thought that what Burke most feared wasn’t the foreign threat of the French Revolution but the homegrown tradition of British radicalism. It was the English, not the French, who first had the idea of beheading a king in order to establish a revolutionary ideal of social and political order. What Burke couldn’t admit was that, long before his birth, revolution and regicide had become established as part of the British moral imagination.

There is an interesting anecdote about the power of moral imagination. “During his final illness,” Mark Malvasi writes, “Pascal often refused the care of his physician, saying: “Sickness is the natural state of Christians.” He believed that human beings had been created to suffer. Misery was the condition of life in this world. His was a hard doctrine.” It’s similar to Burke’s view of the British Empire and monarchy for, though he could imagine reforming it, he couldn’t imagine a world without it. To Burke, imperialism and monarchism was the natural state of the British; despite the fact that both were foreign systems imported by the French Normans.

There is what has been called the banality of evil. It’s what blinds us to evil in normalizing it, often by way of the slow boiling frog effect. Describing his own experience and observations as a German during the Nazi rise to power, Milton Mayer shows how moral imagination operates:

“But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next.”

What is so shocking about the Nazi regime is how normal life continued to be for the average German, right up to the point when war began. Nazism slowly became apart of the German moral imagination. This was only possible because there had been a long history that had already embedded authoritarian tendencies, anti-semitism, and such within the German psyche. The veneer of a free, democratic society kept obscure this dark underbelly. There was never a right moment for a German like Milton Mayer to revolt against German Nazism, as there never was a right moment for a British subject like Edmund Burke to revolt against the British Empire.

The same goes for Americans today with the American Empire. It has become inseparably a part of American identity, largely because American culture emerged from the British Empire with its moral imagination of White Man’s Burden and Manifest Destiny. It doesn’t matter that most Americans find it impossible to imagine their society as an empire. The relationship between collective imagination and objective reality tends to be tenuous at best, specifically in such a vast society that requires a vast meta-narrative.

Moral imagination is as much or more about what it denies than what it affirms. This includes how the moral imagination denies the claims of any competing moral imagination. As such, American conservatives deny the moral imagination of Native Americans and Hispanics whose traditional relationship to the land is far older than the ideological abstractions drawn and written on paper that American conservatives are mesmerized by. Most Mexicans are a mix of Spanish and Indigenous ancestry. With a long history of traveling ranch workers and migrant farm workers, the moral imagination of Latinos in North America is rooted in a profound living memory that can’t be erased by legal and ideological abstractions. Well into the 20th century, Mexicans continued to freely cross the ‘border’ as their ancestors had been doing for centuries or millennia before there was any border. This demonstrates the absolute polarized conflict and contradiction between conservatism and traditionalism. The conservative mind is enthralled by imagined abstractions such as lines drawn on maps, no matter what is asserted by traditional authority of local organic communities.

Consider an even more contentious issue. Abortion has become a defining feature of modern American conservatism. But abortion wasn’t a central concern, even for Christians, until quite recently. In fact, abortions used to be quite common. Not that long ago, any American woman could find a local doctor who would perform an abortion (my great great grandfather was a rural abortion doctor). Even when there were some laws about abortion, they were rarely enforced and everyone in communities knew doctors performed abortions. Abortion is a practice that has early origins in Anglo-American and English society. One can go back even further in reading about how common was not only abortion but infanticide and exposure in much of the ancient world. Sickly and unwanted babies were a potentially dangerous liability prior to modern medicine and the modern welfare state.

If conservative moral imagination is supposed to be about tradition, there is no ancient established social norm about abortion. So, what is the moral imagination about for an issue like abortion? Conservatives often say it is about the sanctity of life. But that is obviously bullshit. Countries that ban abortions have higher rates of abortions, albeit illegal, than do countries that don’t ban them. This is because liberal policies effectively decrease unwanted pregnancies and so eliminate much of the need for abortions. As often is the case, there is a severe disconnect between moral imagination and moral realities. In the end, moral imagination is about social control in enforcing a particular moral order. It’s not that babies shouldn’t die but that loose women who get pregnant should be punished as sinners for that is the divine decree within the moral imagination of contemporary conservatives — such a god-tyrant still haunting the imaginations for many on the political right even after their formal religious faith is lost or weakened.

This fundamentalist deity, as with all of fundamentalism, is a modern invention. As with conservatism in general, fundamentalism didn’t exist prior to modernity. The reactionary mind that provokes this re-imagining only comes into being once the traditional power and authority of the ancien regime was in decline, and that ancien regime experienced its fatal blow centuries before the modern American culture warriors decided to obsess over sexuality. Burke had more of an insight into this. He clearly demarcated moral imagination and natural law, not mistaking the one for the other, as he didn’t believe in natural law. What Burke admitted that many modern conservatives won’t is that moral imagination is built on human customs accruing over time, not on divine commandment decreed at the beginning of time. Burke was a devout Christian but at a time when fundamentalism hadn’t yet fully formed.

Moral imagination isn’t about the world itself, rather about our place in the world. As the world shifts, so does our moral imagination and the entire context for what we are able to imagine. It is a constant process of forgetting about what came before. Living memory is a flame in the darkness and imagination is the shadows on the cave wall. The most radical act of imagination may not be in imagining something entirely new but remembering something forgotten in order to see what was unseen, which happens when moral imagination turns back toward the source of light. It is only in emerging awareness that we can challenge the stories that possess our minds and then tell a different story that speaks more honestly about our shared origins. How we imagine the past determines how we imagine all else.

* * *

Hume’s Theory of Moral Imagination
by Mark Collier

David Hume endorses three statements that are difficult to reconcile: (1) sympathy with those in distress is sufficient to produce compassion toward their plight, (2) adopting the moral point of view often requires us to sympathize with the pain and suffering of distant strangers, but (3) our care and concern is limited to those in our close circle. Hume manages to resolve this tension, however, by distinguishing two types of sympathy. We feel compassion toward those we perceive to be in distress because associative sympathy leads us to mirror their emotions, but our ability to enter into the afflictions of distant strangers involves cognitive sympathy and merely requires us to reflect on how we would feel in their shoes. This hybrid theory of sympathy receives a good deal of support from recent work on affective mirroring and cognitive pretense. Hume’s account should appeal to contemporary researchers, therefore, who are interested in the nature of moral imagination

Why We Think They Hate Us: Moral Imagination and the Possibility of Peace
by Robert Wright

It’s about “the moral imagination”—a term that has been used in various ways but, in my usage, refers to the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of other people, especially people in circumstances very different from our own. I argue that the moral imagination naturally tends to expand when we perceive our relations with other people as non-zero-sum and to contract when we perceive those relations as zero-sum. […]

In general, when a religious groups sees its relations with another religious group as non-zero-sum, it is more likely to evince tolerance of that group’s religion. When the perception is instead of a zero-sum dynamic, tolerance is less likely to ensue. (For an essay-length version of the argument, see this article, based on the book, that I wrote for Time magazine.) The moral imagination, I contend, is involved in this adaptive process. […]

Moral Imagination

The way hatred blocks comprehension is by cramping our “moral imagination,” our capacity to put ourselves in the shoes of another person. This cramping isn’t unnatural. Indeed, the tendency of the moral imagination to shrink in the presence of enemies is built into our brains by natural selection. It’s part of the machinery that leads us to grant tolerance and understanding to people we see in non-zero-sum terms and deny it to those we consign to the zero-sum category. We’re naturally pretty good at putting ourselves in the shoes of close relatives and good friends (people who tend to have non-zero-sum links with us), and naturally bad at putting ourselves in the shoes of rivals and enemies (where zero-sumness is more common). We can’t understand these people from the inside. […]

[T]he point is just that the ability to intimately comprehend someone’s motivation—to share their experience virtually, and know it from the inside—depends on a moral imagination that naturally contracts in the case of people we consider rivals or enemies.

In other words, we have trouble achieving comprehension without achieving sympathy. And this puts us in a fix because, as we’ve seen, some people it is in our profound interest to comprehend—terrorists, for example—are people we’re understandably reluctant to sympathize with. Enmity’s natural impediment to understanding is, in a way, public enemy number one.

It’s easy to explain the origins of this impediment in a conjectural way. Our brains evolved in a world of hunter-gatherer societies. In that world, morally charged disputes had Darwinian consequence. If you were in a bitter and public argument with a rival over who had wronged whom, the audience’s verdict could affect your social status and your access to resources, both of which could affect your chances of getting genes into the next generation. So the ability to argue persuasively that your rival had no valid grounds for grievance would have been favored by natural selection, as would tendencies abetting this ability—such as a tendency to believe that your rival had no valid grounds for grievance, a belief that could infuse your argument with conviction. And nothing would so threaten this belief as the ability to look at things from a rival’s point of view.

In dealing with allies, on the other hand, a more expansive moral imagination makes sense. Since their fortunes are tied to yours—since you’re in a non-zero-sum relationship—lending your support to their cause can be self-serving (and besides, it’s part of the implicit deal through which they support your cause). So on some occasions, at least, we’re pretty good at seeing the perspective of friends or relatives. It helps us argue for their interests—which, after all, overlap with our interests—and helps us bond with them by voicing sympathy for their plight.

In short, the moral imagination, like other parts of the human mind, is designed to steer us through the successful playing of games—to realize the gains of non-zero-sum games when those gains are to be had, and to get the better of the other party in zero-sum games. Indeed, the moral imagination is one of the main drivers of the pattern we’ve seen throughout the book: the tendency to find tolerance in one’s religion when the people in question are people you can do business with and to find intolerance or even belligerence when you perceive the relationship to be instead zero-sum.

And now we see one curious residue of this machinery: our “understanding” of the motivations of others tends to come with a prepackaged moral judgment. Either we understand their motivation internally, even intimately—relate to them, extend moral imagination to them, and judge their grievances leniently—or we understand their motivation externally and in terms that imply the illegitimacy of their grievances. Pure understanding, uncolored by judgment, is hard to come by.

It might be nice if we could sever this link between comprehension and judgment, if we could understand people’s behavior in more clinical terms—just see things from their point of view without attaching a verdict to their grievances. That might more closely approach the perspective of God and might also, to boot, allow us to better pursue our interests. We could coolly see when we’re in a non-zero-sum relationship with someone, coolly appraise their perspective, and coolly decide to make those changes in our own behavior that could realize non-zero-sumness. But those of us who fail to attain Buddhahood will spend much of our lives locked into a more human perspective: we extend moral imagination to people to the extent that we see win-win possibilities with them.

Given this fact, the least we can do is ask that the machinery work as designed: that when we are in a non-zero-sum relationship with someone we do extend moral imagination to them. That would better serve the interests of both parties and would steer us toward a truer understanding of the other—toward an understanding of what their world looks like from the inside.

Nietzsche on Truth, Lies, the Power and Peril of Metaphor, and How We Use Language to Reveal and Conceal Reality
Brain Pickings

Two centuries after Pascal, whom Nietzsche greatly admired, examined the difference between the intuitive and the logical mind, he ends by considering the tradeoffs between these two orientations of being — the rational and the intuitive — as mechanisms for inhabiting reality with minimal dissimilation and maximal truthfulness:

There are ages in which the rational man and the intuitive man stand side by side, the one in fear of intuition, the other with scorn for abstraction. The latter is just as irrational as the former is inartistic. They both desire to rule over life: the former, by knowing how to meet his principle needs by means of foresight, prudence, and regularity; the latter, by disregarding these needs and, as an “overjoyed hero,” counting as real only that life which has been disguised as illusion and beauty… The man who is guided by concepts and abstractions only succeeds by such means in warding off misfortune, without ever gaining any happiness for himself from these abstractions. And while he aims for the greatest possible freedom from pain, the intuitive man, standing in the midst of a culture, already reaps from his intuition a harvest of continually inflowing illumination, cheer, and redemption — in addition to obtaining a defense against misfortune. To be sure, he suffers more intensely, when he suffers; he even suffers more frequently, since he does not understand how to learn from experience and keeps falling over and over again into the same ditch. He is then just as irrational in sorrow as he is in happiness: he cries aloud and will not be consoled. How differently the stoical man who learns from experience and governs himself by concepts is affected by the same misfortunes! This man, who at other times seeks nothing but sincerity, truth, freedom from deception, and protection against ensnaring surprise attacks, now executes a masterpiece of deception: he executes his masterpiece of deception in misfortune, as the other type of man executes his in times of happiness. He wears no quivering and changeable human face, but, as it were, a mask with dignified, symmetrical features. He does not cry; he does not even alter his voice. When a real storm cloud thunders above him, he wraps himself in his cloak, and with slow steps he walks from beneath it.

Blaise Pascal on the Intuitive vs. the Logical Mind and How We Come to Know Truth
Brain Pickings

Pascal argues that our failure to understand the principles of reality is due to both our impatience and a certain lack of moral imagination:

Those who are accustomed to judge by feeling do not understand the process of reasoning, for they would understand at first sight, and are not used to seek for principles. And others, on the contrary, who are accustomed to reason from principles, do not at all understand matters of feeling, seeking principles, and being unable to see at a glance.

He considers what mediates the relationship between our intellect and our intuition:

The understanding and the feelings are moulded by intercourse; the understanding and feelings are corrupted by intercourse. Thus good or bad society improves or corrupts them. It is, then, all-important to know how to choose in order to improve and not to corrupt them; and we cannot make this choice, if they be not already improved and not corrupted. Thus a circle is formed, and those are fortunate who escape it.

Blaise Pascal on Duplicity, Sin, and the Fall
by William Wood
pp. 137-139

The Imagination Bestows Value

The preceding analysis raises an important question. If the heart produces immediate moral sentiments, and if those sentiments are both true and compelling, then why does anyone ever act immorally? Why do we not always act in accordance with our sentiments? Pascal’s response to this question leads back to his famous critique of the imagination. Even though our moral sentiments have the felt sense of truth, according to Pascal, we are also strongly motivated to believe that our imaginative fantasies are true. If it is the heart that responds to the perceived value of moral goods, it is the imagination that bestows value on them in the first place. As a result, even though we do respond immediately to moral goods, we typically perceive those goods only after they have already been filtered through a haze of imaginative fantasy. Without repeating the discussion of the imagination in Chapter 2, recall that, according to Pascal, the imagination can “fix the price of things” and so invest moral goods with value. Moreover, “Imagination decides everything: it creates beauty, justice and happiness which is the world’s supreme good” (L44/S78).

Pascal’s account of the socially constructed imagination reveals that he is not just an ethical intuitionist but a social intuitionist. A social intuitionist recognizes that people are “intensely social creatures whose moral judgments are strongly shaped by the judgments of those around them.” While moral intuitions may be innate to everyone, social intuitionists claim that people acquire most of their particular moral intuitions through custom and habituation — that is, through their participation in thick cultural webs of moral practice. Once again, although social intuitionism currently enjoys pride of place among empirically oriented moral psychologists, there has been no recognition that Pascal is an early advocate of its key claims. Social intuitionists often look for inspiration from David Hume, or even Aristotle, without ever recognizing that Pascal is an even closer cousin to their own work. Moreover, Pascal is able to wed a social-intuitionist ethics to a full-blooded account of moral and axiological realism, something that contemporary social intuitionists often find themselves unwilling or unable to do.

Both the imagination and the heart are cognitive and affective faculties. The heart intuitively grasps moral and spiritual goods, and perceives moral beauty (L308/S339). Yet it is also an affective faculty associated with loving and desiring. Like the heart, the imagination also unites various cognitive and affective functions into a single faculty. In its cognitive aspect, the imagination allows us to form mental representations. These representations include theeveryday images by which we inwardly grasp the things that we perceive with our external senses. In its affective dimension, the imagination bestows value on goods. Although Pascal does not directly speculate about how the heart and the imagination would work if human beings had not fallen, it seems clear that the heart should perceive moral goods accurately, leading us to love and desire them according to their true value. Similarly, the imagination should also correspond to the world as it is, and supply us with accurate mental representations. In both cases, there should be no conflict between what is true and what we find beautiful. A moral agent that is not fallen would accurately perceive the beauty of spiritual goods and would love them as a result.

Instead, after the Fall, the imagination has become a “proud power” that oversteps its bounds and creates moral value independently, setting “the same mark on true and false alike” (L44/S78), and the heart has become “hollow and foul” (L139/S171). The sinner rejects the sentiments of the heart — the seat of conscience — and instead acts on the basis of the false, self-serving fantasies of the imagination.

Although Pascal usually focuses on the way we excessively magnify the value of our own selves, any object may be imaginatively invested with more value than it can bear: one may build up a fantasy about a commodity (a new car, for example), a specific self-understanding (of oneself as being just the kind of dashing person who would drive such a car), or some other pursued goal (making enough money to buy the car). The possibilities are endless. In each case, however, the perceived value of the object sought is a function of how it is imaginatively construed.

Although Pascal recognizes that the imagination is central to the moral life, his thought challenges the sometimes facile claims of contemporary narrative ethicists and those who would look to the “narrative imagination” for moral renewal. Pascal reminds us that the imagination is not just the locus of individual creative genius and speculative possibility. It is also a socially constructed repository for the (often immoral) dispositions and values of the wider world. Far from being the initial launching pad for moral critique, the imagination is often itself the faculty most in need of such critique. Furthermore, Pascal would remind us that reorienting the moral imagination is no simple matter. Certainly it is not just a matter of reading the right novels or passages from scripture, imaginatively identifying with the right moral exemplars, or trying to dream up new possibilities for moral community. Because the imagination is socially constructed, reorienting the imagination requires something like a massive program of counter-habituation, comparable to becoming a native member of a wholly new society. In short, reorienting the imagination would require something that looks quite a lot like an ongoing program of religious conversion. Pascal therefore sounds an important note of caution about the moral possibilities of imagination.

* * *

Inconsistency of Burkean Conservatism
Poised on a Knife Edge
The Haunted Moral Imagination
A Phantom of the Mind
The Fantasy of Creative Destruction
Violent Fantasy of Reactionary Intellectuals
Freedom From Want, Freedom to Imagine
Orderliness and Animals
On Rodents and Conservatives
Imagination: Moral, Dark, and Radical
The Monstrous, the Impure, & the Imaginal
Lock Without a Key
On Truth and Bullshit
Sincere Bullshit
Racism, Proto-Racism, and Social Constructs
Race & Racism: Reality & Imagination, Fear & Hope
Racial Reality Tunnel
Race Is Not Real, Except In Our Minds
Race Realism and Symbolic Conflation
Symbolic Conflation & Empathic Imagination
Liberal-mindedness, Empathetic Imagination, and Capitalist Realism
Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park
Delirium of Hyper-Individualism
The Group Conformity of Hyper-Individualism
Ideological Realism & Scarcity of Imagination
Foundations and Frameworks
The Iron Lady: The View of a Bleeding Heart
A Conflict of the Conservative Vision
Avatar: Imagination & Culture
Our Shared Imagination
The Way of Radical Imagination
Imagination, a Force to Be Reckoned With
Vision and Transformation
The Master’s Tools Are Those Closest At Hand
Imagined Worlds, Radical Visions
A Neverending Revolution of the Mind
The World that Inhabits Our Mind
Beyond Our Present Knowledge
Revolution and Apocalypse
To Imagine and Understand
Fantasyland, An American Tradition
Memetic Narratives of War and Paranoia
Cold War Ideology and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
Of Dreamers and Sleepwalkers
The Living Apocalypse, A Lived Reality Tunnel
The Elephant That Wasn’t There
Stories: Personal & Collective
The Stories We Tell
The Stories We Know
A Compelling Story
A Storyteller’s Experienced Meaning
A Story of Walking Away
Conscious Dreaming, Conscious Self
Dark Matter of the Mind

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A Phantom of the Mind

Liberalism often gets defined narrowly. This is true at least in mainstream American politics, by which I mean the present dominant society with its dominant frame.

It isn’t just conservatives and right-wingers misrepresenting liberalism, as seen with the arguments of Russel Kirk (also, consider Thomas Sowell, whose view of conservative constrained vision is similar to Kirk’s conservative claim of balance, both arguing against the imbalance supposedly expressed by liberal and left-wing extremism). Even certain kinds of liberals will fall into the same trap. Take for example the strange views of Jonathan Haidt.

This wasn’t always the case. In earlier 20th century, liberalism was praised widely by major politicians (including presidents) in both of the main parties. What this implies is that liberalism was seen more broadly at the time.

Consider Eisenhower’s words when he stated that, “Extremes to the right and left of any political dispute are always wrong,” and that “The middle of the road is all of the usable surface. The extremes, right and left, are in the gutters.” Yet, in speaking of extremes, he saw liberalism as part of the moderate and moderating middle:

So that here we have, really, the compound, the overall philosophy of Lincoln: in all those things which deal with people, be liberal, be human. In all those things which deal with the peoples money or their economy, or their form of government, be conservativeand dont be afraid to use the word. And so today, Republicans come forward with programs in which there are such words as balanced budgets, and cutting expenditures, and all the kind of thing that means this economy must be conservative, it must be solvent. But they also come forward and say we are concerned with every Americans health, with a decent house for him, we are concerned that he will have a chance for health, and his children for education. We are going to see that he has power available to him. We are going to see that everything takes place that will enrich his life and let him as an individual, hard-working American citizen, have full opportunity to do for his children and his family what any decent American should want to do.

Even in his brand of fiscal conservatism, he advocated for the wildest fantasies of progressives (unions, social security, etc) and defended a top income tax bracket at 91%. It is obvious that what he considered conservative back then would be considered liberal today. He was much further to the left than today’s Democratic Party. So, his moderate middle was also much further to the left than it is at present.

What stands out to me in Ike’s worldview is how he perceives liberalism. Political ideologies in the US get defined by governance and economics, which he sees as the territory of conservatism but not of liberalism. Instead, liberalism is at essence about people. Liberalism expresses the human quality of a good society. In that society is created by and for people, liberalism is an atmosphere that permeates the concerns for the public good. It is the broader guiding vision, the moral standard for our shared humanity.

* * * *

Let me return to the narrow view of liberalism. I came across a Clark L. Coleman who argued for the position of Russel Kirk. He writes that,

Kirk’s point is that conservatism is based on a balancing of numerous principles that society accepts as social goods. For example, we balance the need for law and order with the desire for individual liberty. We balance the desire to propagate our Christian heritage, and the benefits of having a religious populace, with the desire for religious freedom and the wariness of the problems of having an established state church. We seek equality under the law, but temper that with the recognition that institutions (church, marriage, military, et al.) must be exclusive to some degree to accomplish their missions. We desire the strength that nationalist feelings produce, but recognize that they lead to a warlike nation if untempered by other concerns, etc. A kind of Aristotelian moderation is central to conservatism.

Whatever that may describe, it isn’t the actual existing tradition of mainstream American conservatism. So, what is he describing? I really don’t get the argument being made. Obviously, this conservatism is envisioned as an ideal state, rather than the mundane reality of politics as it is. But what purpose does that serve? If this conservatism doesn’t accurately describe most self-identified conservatives, then whose conservatism is this? Is it just a conservatism for detached intellectuals, such as Kirk?

Anyway, Coleman goes on to offer the other side. He explains what forms the basis of everything that isn’t conservatism, most especially liberalism:

In contrast to conservatism, liberalism is an ideology in which a particular concept of “fairness and equality” is the principle that trumps all others; libertarianism is an ideology in which “individual liberty” is the principle that trumps all others; and Marxism is an ideology in which a certain definition of class struggle is at the center of all policy decisions and all analyses of the world. Empirical evidence to the contrary means nothing to ideologues; telling them that their One True Principle is insufficient to analyze all public policy would require them to undergo a complete change of world view.

I’m not familiar with the details of Kirk’s views. I don’t know if this is a fair and accurate presentation. But I do know it is a common view among conservatives, specifically more well-educated conservatives. It is even found among conservative-minded liberals such as Jonathan Haidt, who sees conservatism as a balance of values in contrast to liberals as inherently imbalanced and hence prone to extremism.

This argument is a rhetorical trick, so it seems to me. It’s a strategy of the Cold War. The 20th century was a conflict of ideologies. Those ideologies can be labeled and categorized in various ways, but this version of conservatism gets safely removed from the entire ideological debate. It is a declaration that conservatism is above and beyond all discussion and disagreement. This is a stance of refusal to engage.

I felt irritated by that argument. It felt dishonest. In response to Coleman, I expressed my irritation by saying that, “If conservatism isn’t an ideology, then neither is liberalism. Only an ideologue would make an argument that one is an ideology and the other not. That would be a classic case of projection. It isn’t helpful to make caricatures of and straw man arguments against opposing views, attitudes, and predispositions.”

Coleman responded in turn with a defense that touches on the heart of our disagreement. He writes that, “Your comment does not engage my explanation at all. Kirk’s definition of ideology was standard until the common usage became fuzzy. It is not a caricature or straw man.” He is accusing me of not engaging because I don’t accept his premise, but I don’t accept his premise because it is an unproven assumption.

That is intriguing. Coleman is so confident that his view is right. He claims that it was only later that “common usage became fuzzy”. Even many other conservatives would disagree with that claim. This would include Eisenhower, who began his presidency the same year Kirk published The Conservative Mind. Of course, the likes of Kirk and Coleman would simply assert that anyone who disagrees with them aren’t True Conservatives, a pointless assertion to make but it sure does end debate.

* * * *

Both Eisenhower and Kirk were arguing for balance and against extremism. It was something in the air at the time. Across the political spectrum, many Americans were seeking  a new vision  to unify the country in the post-war era. For certain, conservatives like Kirk didn’t have sole proprietorship of this early Cold War attitude. It was the frame of mainstream debate at that time, rather than simply being one side of the debate.

For a while now, I’ve been trying to disentangle the mess of American political ideologies and labels. It’s been on my mind going back at least to the early Bush administration, at a time when I was studying the social science research on personality types and traits, but my questioning has grown stronger in recent years. I began to articulate a new understanding of what liberalism and conservatism mean, both attitudinally and historically (also demographically). I was forced to think more deeply and challenge my own previous assumptions, because the data I was looking at indicated a much more complex social reality.

It is because Coleman and Kirk take a dogmatically ideological stance that they can’t deal with this complexity that refuses to conform to narrow categorical boxes. I didn’t want to fall into the same trap. I want to fully understand various positions on their own terms, even if not on their own rhetoric.

My own views have shifted a lot over time. More recently, I’ve been moving toward the almost the mirror opposite of the Kirkian position, without even knowing that was what I was doing (as I have little direct familiarity with Kirk’s writings):

It seems to me that liberalism isn’t inherently or inevitably opposite of conservatism, at least in American politics. Conservatism has become conflated with the right-wing in a way that hasn’t happened on the opposite side of the spectrum. There is still a clear sense of distance and disconnection between liberalism and the left-wing for the Cold War turned the left-wing into a scapegoat that liberals felt compelled to disown or else be attacked as commies and fellow-travelers. Liberals have instead for the most part embraced the role of the middle, the moderate. I’ve even sensed that liberals have taken up the role of the traditionalists in defending the status quo which is what traditionalists did in the past. I’ve speculated that conservatives or at least reactionary conservatives attack liberals for the same reason they attacked traditionalists in earlier times. Left-wingers are the revolutionaries and conservatives have become the counter-revolutionaries, meanwhile liberals have sought to moderate between the two.

Much of my thought has been driven by social science research. I’ve sought to make sense of the insight that, “It is much easier to get a liberal to behave like a conservative than it is to get a conservative to behave like a liberal” (Skitka et al). That indicates an aspect of the broadness of liberalism. The ease of the liberal-minded to switch ideological positions points to something fundamental to liberalism itself and hence something lacking in conservatism. The liberal worldview is able to cover a larger area of ideological terrain. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, but it demonstrates how little conservatives understand the real weaknesses of liberalism.

One political philosopher that has forced me to rethink even further in this direction is Domenico Losurdo. He is a Continental European left-winger and a critic of American liberalism. His book on the counter-history of liberalism is challenging for any American, for the framework of his thought can feel alien and perplexing.

In my first analysis of his views, I ended up conjecturing that, “Maybe liberalism is more of a worldview than an ideology, a worldview that happens to be the dominant paradigm at the moment. As such, everything gets put into the context of and defined by liberalism.” I elaborated on this point later on, in a discussion with C. Derick Varn (AKA skepoet), the person who introduced me to Losurdo’s work:

In response to Losurdo, I’ve played around with a broader definition of ‘liberalism’ than even he offers. I see ‘liberalism’ in some ways as the ultimate product of the Enlightenment, the basis upon which everything else is built, the ideology everything else is defined according to or against.

Liberalism isn’t an ideology in the way conservatism, libertarianism, Marxism, etc is an ideology. No, liberalism is the ideological framework for all of those ideologies. It is the paradigm of our age.

This connects to why I don’t see conservatism as the opposite of liberalism. Instead, I see conservatism as the opposite of leftism. Liberalism is both the center and periphery of modern politics.

I’m not sure any ideology has yet fully challenged the liberal paradigm. So, I’m not sure any ideology has yet freed itself from liberal taint. We’ll need something even more radical than the most radical left-wing politics to get the thrust for escape velocity.

Now, that is turning Kirkian thought on its head. And I did so without even trying. My purpose was simply to make sense of evidence that had been perplexing me for years. This conclusion emerged organically from a slowly developing line of thought or rather web of thoughts. It makes sense to me at the moment. It has great explanatory power. Yet like anything else I offer, it is a tentative hypothesis.

* * * *

It is now more than a half century since Kirk wrote about his views on conservatism.

It is true that back then, prior to the Southern Strategy, conservatism was a more moderate political movement and may have played more of a moderating role. However, that is most definitely no longer the case, which implies that Kirk’s view of conservatism was historically contingent, at best. He failed to find the heart of conservatism, whatever that may be.

Still, even in the context of the 1950s, it would be hard to take conservatism as some genuinely non-ideological framing of and balance between the ideological extremes. Conservatism, as Corey Robin argues, has always had a central element of reactionary extremism. Or, as I’ve often said, there is a good reason American conservatism is linked to, rooted in, and identified with classical liberalism rather than classical conservatism or classical traditionalism.

My approach is influenced by a larger view. Both larger in terms of historical time and larger in terms of spectrum of positions. The historical is particularly important to my understanding, and I find myself pairing the historical with the etymological. In a comment from a discussion about liberal bias and the meaning of liberalism, I explored some of the background:

If we look at the history of the word ‘liberal’, it didn’t originally relate to an ideology. The original meaning was related to freedom (liber). The earliest use of it was in terms of “liberal arts”, i.e., free inquiry. Another early use was in terms of a free person, i.e., not a serf or slave or indentured servant. In modern history, the main meaning of ‘liberal’ has always directly referred to being liberal-minded: not literal or strict; not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms; etc.

Even in its earliest use, ‘liberal’ meant the same as we mean it today such as being free from restraint, the main difference being that only after the Enlightenment did it take on a more clearly positive interpretation. In the 18th and 19th centuries, people would use liberal in the sense of being free of bigotry or prejudice which has the exact same meaning today. All of these basic meanings haven’t changed over the past centuries since it was first used in 1375. It was only in the mid 19th century that liberalism became a politicized term, long after classical liberalism had become a defined ideology. Limiting liberal to a single ideology is a very recent phenomenon and one that has never been agreed upon since a number of ideologies have been labeled as ‘liberal’.

Conservatism, as a descriptive word applied to people, is a much more recent term. It is for this reason that conservatism has a much more narrow context of meaning than liberalism. So, conservatism always has been defined in contrast and reaction to liberalism, specifically within the parameters of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought.

* * * *

An issue that has been gnawing at mind for longer than almost any other single issue is a particular inconsistency in conservative thought. I’ve come to call it symbolic conflation, which is just to say that conservative identity uses symbolic rhetoric that obscures its own real meaning and purpose.

This isn’t meant as a dismissal, but more as a sociological assessment. As I argue about symbolic conflation, it plays a far different role in society than does the liberal approach. I tend to see conservatism and liberalism as psychological predispositions and social phenomena. They are patterns of cognitive behavior, both individual and collective. “Liberals,” in challenging conservatives, “want to loosen up the social order, but they don’t want to pull out the lynchpin.” As I further explain:

This is why liberals can be more conservative than even conservatives, moderating the extremes. The reason conservatives rule to the extent that they do so is because liberals allow them.

Social order is a strange thing. It would seem even stranger that conservatives take social order for granted more than do liberals. I suppose this is the case because for conservatives social order always has to largely play out on the level of unconsciousness.

None of this is meant directly as a criticism of conservatism. Conservatism can be used in the service of beneficial social orders just as easily with destructive social orders. The deal conservatives and liberals have is the following. Liberals won’t do an all out assault on the symbolic conflation that holds social order together and conservatives will incorporate liberalism into the social order so as to strengthen it. Whether this is a good deal, whether this is symbiosis or codependency (certainly not opposing ideologies in a simplistic sense) is another matter. I offer it just as an observation and analysis of how society seems to operate.

In thinking about this inconsistency, I realize how it connects back to the Kirkian theory of conservative balance. It also occurs to me that this goes back to Edmund Burke. The critics of Burke complained about his inconsistency, something I’ve discussed before. That is important since many conservatives, Kirk included, have seen the Anglo-American conservative tradition as having its roots in Burkean politics. Kirk is using Burke’s claim of balance as a defense against inconsistency:

[O]ne who wishes to preserve consistency, but who would preserve consistency by varying his means to secure the unity of his end, and, when the equipoise of the vessel in which he sails may be endangered by overloading it upon one side, is desirous of carrying the small weight of his reasons to that which may preserve its equipoise.

I guess Kirk isn’t necessarily offering anything new.

* * * *

Going by Coleman’s explication, there are two basic ways of thinking about ideology.

The first definition is as a system of beliefs (or ideas). But that isn’t what Kirk’s conservatism is concerned with.

That brings us to the second definition which, “roughly, is a set of one or two principles from which an adherent attempts to see all of life, and which he refuses to broaden even when empirical evidence indicates that his one or two principles are insufficient for deciding correctly all the great matters of life.” Ideology, in this second sense, is directly related to the ideologue as in a true believer who is dogmatic, narrow-minded, and rigid.

The problem with that view is that what is being described is precisely liberal-mindedness. By definition, liberalism is generosity of mind and spirit. Conservative’s are being haunted not by some dark shadow cast by liberal ideals, but by their own imaginings. They project their own fears onto all other ideologies, while denying their own ideological culpability.

If one thinks too long on all of this, conservatism begins to seem like smoke slipping through one’s fingers. Burke was a progressive reformer who belonged to the party on the political left, but was remembered by most for his reaction against the French Revolution. He never settled into principled position that defined his politics. By his own admission, his politics was the shifting of a boat on an ocean.

All in all, Burke was more like a mainstream Cold War liberal reacting to (real and perceived) enemies of the state and of the status quo. Maybe Kirk himself was just another one of those liberals being pulled by fear. Maybe that is what Anglo-American conservatism has always been about.

That reminds me of the quote by Irving Kristol. He said that a neo-conservative, the central form of modern American conservatism, is “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” There are a number of things interesting about that.

First, he defines neo-conservatism using the same Burkean argument as Kirk, as here described:

an ideology but a “persuasion,” a way of thinking about politics rather than a compendium of principles and axioms.[12] It is classical rather than romantic in temperament, and practical and anti-Utopian in policy.

Second, I sense genuine insight in the admission that conservatism has its origins in liberalism. The liberal in reacting to fear becomes a conservative, but conservatism as such only exists in the reaction. That fits the social science research about liberalism.

It’s possible that, as Corey Robin theorizes, all of conservatism is defined by reaction. The supposed mugging could be literal or metaphorical. The point is that the conservative is responding to something with fear, even if it is only in their own imaginings. Some people find themselves temporarily in reaction while others get permanently stuck. The latter are what we call conservatives.

Permanent reaction is a strange way to live one’s life, for reaction isn’t anything in itself. An independent non-ideological conservatism is a phantom of the mind.