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Existential Conservatism

  • David McPherson


This essay articulates a kind of conservatism that it argues is the most fundamental and important kind of conservatism, viz. existential conservatism, which involves an affirmative and appreciative stance towards the given world. While this form of conservatism can be connected to political conservatism, as seen with Roger Scruton, it need not be, as seen with G. A. Cohen. It is argued that existential conservatism should be embraced whether or not one embraces political conservatism, though it is also shown that existential conservatism imposes constraints on our political thinking. In particular, it is argued that Cohen's ‘luck egalitarianism’ stands at odds with his existential conservatism and that one should be a sufficientarian rather than an egalitarian with regard to economic justice.



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1 ‘On Being Conservative’ (1962), in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, new and expanded edition (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1991), 408.

2 For powerful instances of this, see Gollwitzer, Helmut et al. (eds.), Dying We Live: The Final Messages and Records of the German Resistance (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2009 [1956]).

3 The Autobiography of G. K. Chesterton (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2006 [1936]), 325.

4 A Short History of England, in The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, Volume XX (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press. 2001 [1917]), 463.

5 Chaucer, in The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, Volume XVIII (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1991 [1932]), 172-3.

6 Saint Francis of Assisi, in Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Francis of Assisi (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1986 [1923]), 251; Chesterton attributes this statement to Rossetti (with agreement).

7 Autobiography, 330.

8 See Roberts, Robert C., ‘The Blessings of Gratitude: A Conceptual Analysis’, in Emmons, Robert A. and McCullough, Michael E. (eds), The Psychology of Gratitude (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

9 The language of ‘the given’ here can of course have the connotation of being a ‘gift’, but recall that I am using it as being synonymous with ‘the world as it is’.

10 ‘Earthly Contemplation’, trans. Jan van Heurck, in Josef Pieper: An Anthology (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1989), 144, 146.

11 Though I don't have the space to do so adequately here, this affirmation of the goodness of the world can be filled out in terms of Aquinas's thesis that being and goodness are convertible: ‘The essence of goodness consists in this, that it is in some way desirable. … Now it is clear that a thing is desirable only in so far as it is perfect, for all desire their own perfection. But everything is perfect so far as it is actual. Therefore it is clear that a thing is perfect so far as it exists. … Hence it is clear that goodness and being are the same really. But goodness presents the aspect of desirableness’ (Summa Theologiae, I, q. 5, a. 1; trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province). The corollary here is that things are bad insofar as they are opposed to being.

12 Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), in Select Works of Edmund Burke, Volume 2 (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1999), 277.

13 For more on the problem of cosmodicy, see my essay ‘Nietzsche, Cosmodicy, and the Saintly Ideal’, Philosophy 91:1 (2016): 39–67.

14 London: Bloomsbury. Citations will be provided in-text. This is Scruton's most up-to-date statement of his conservatism; for earlier statements see: The Meaning of Conservatism, 3rd ed. (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's Press, 2002 [1980]); A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism (London: Bloomsbury, 2006). See also: Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2017), which provides a historical overview of conservative thought.

15 See Scruton's ‘Eliot and Conservatism’, which is the last chapter of A Political Philosophy.

16 The love of home – or oikophilia – is a key theme in Scruton's work; see especially How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). On the significance of artistic activities and imagination for Scruton's outlook, see Conversations with Roger Scruton (by Mark Dooley [London: Bloomsbury, 2016]), chs. 1-2.

17 Roger Scruton, ‘The Flight From Beauty’, Axess Magazine 7 (October 2008).

18 Ibid.

19 In Conversations with Roger Scruton (2016), Scruton provides a brief account of his relationship with Cohen: ‘After its [The Meaning of Conservatism] publication, the Marxist philosopher at University College London, Jerry (G. A.) Cohen, refused to teach a seminar with me. Jerry was brought up as a believing communist in a little circle of the same in Montreal. He couldn't cope with what he saw as a sin, as well as a huge provocation. Later though, Jerry, whom I very much admired, moved in a conservative direction, and responded very warmly to my books on architecture and hunting. I was deeply upset by his sudden death in 2009, just at the moment when we were becoming friends again. In 1980, however, ideas like mine were simply unheard of in the universities and Jerry in particular found them deeply offensive. In the library at Birkbeck you couldn't find, in the politics section, a book by any living conservative thinker … There was a real sense that the conservative position is evil, and that sense is still there in the academic world’ (46).

20 Cohen, G. A., ‘Rescuing Conservatism: A Defense of Existing Value’, in Finding Oneself in the Other (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013). Citations will be provided in-text. This essay was in fact his last finished philosophical essay (see Finding Oneself in the Other, ix).

21 In a footnote Cohen cites these remarks from Samuel Scheffler: ‘[It] is difficult to understand how human beings could have values at all if they did not have conservative impulses. What would it mean to value things but, in general, to see no reason of any kind to sustain them or retain them or preserve them or extend them into the future?’ (‘Immigration and the Claims of Culture’, Philosophy & Public Affairs 35:2 [2007]: 106). Similarly, John Kekes speaks of a ‘natural conservatism’: ‘If there were beings who did not enjoy having what they valued and were not afraid of losing it, they would not be recognizably human. … The [conservative] attitude then is basic to human psychology, but it need not be conscious or articulate. … Conservatives can appeal to this basic attitude—to natural conservatism—and realistically hope to be understood’. It is when we become aware of a threat to the good things to which we are attached that such natural conservatism ‘must be transformed into a reflective one that can meet it’ (A Case for Conservatism [Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998], 5-6).

22 Cf. Simon May's account of love as seeking ‘ontological rootedness’ in Love: A History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011) and Love: A New Understanding of an Ancient Emotion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

23 Sameness and Substance Renewed (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 242.

24 The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in an Age of Genetic Engineering (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 85.

25 The Case Against Perfection, 99-100.

26 Cf. Aurel Kolnai: ‘response, not fiat, is the prime gesture of the human person’ (‘Privilege and Liberty’ [1949], in Privilege and Liberty and Other Essays in Political Philosophy [Lanham, MD: Lexington, 1999], 26).

27 Scruton is critical of communitarianism, but this is because he identifies it with the left-wing variety; see ‘Communitarian Dreams’, City Journal (Autumn 1996).

28 ‘The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self’, Political Theory 12:1 (1984), 90.

29 ‘On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice’, Ethics 99:4 (1989), 931.

30 A Theory of Justice, revised edition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999 [1971]), 14; see also 62-5, 86-90, 273-4. Other citations will be provided in-text.

31 Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), 214.

32 Anarchy, State, and Utopia, 228.

33 See Sandel, ‘The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self’, 90-1.

34 Equality for Inegalitarians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), viii.

35 Ethics: Twelve Lectures on the Philosophy of Morality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 306.

36 Ethics, 306. Elizabeth Anderson, who coined the term ‘luck egalitarianism’, similarly remarks that luck egalitarians are concerned with ‘correcting a supposed cosmic injustice’ (‘What Is the Point of Equality?’, Ethics 109:2 [1999], 288). This is well illustrated when Thomas Nagel, another luck egalitarian, asks: ‘How could it not be an evil that some people's life prospects at birth are radically inferior to others?’ (Equality and Partiality [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991], 28).

37 See Roberts, ‘The Blessings of Gratitude’ for an illuminating discussion of how gratitude counteracts envy, resentment, and regret.

38 Harry Frankfurt writes: ‘The mistaken belief that economic equality is important in itself leads people to detach the problem of formulating their economic ambitions from the problem of understanding what is most fundamentally significant to them. It influences them to take too seriously, as though it were a matter of great moral concern, a question that is inherently rather insignificant and not directly to the point, namely, how their economic status compares with the economic status of others. In this way the doctrine of equality contributes to the moral disorientation and shallowness of our time’ (‘Equality as a Moral Ideal’, Ethics 98:1 [1987], 23).

39 Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 67.

40 John Kekes writes in response to Dworkin: ‘It should not escape notice how extraordinary it is to make envy the test of ideal distribution. Envy is the vice of resenting the advantages of another person. It is a vice because it tends to lead to action that deprives people of advantages they have earned by legal and moral means. The envy test does not ask whether people are entitled to their advantages; it asks whether those who lack them would like to have them. … Instead of recognizing that envy is wrong, Dworkin elevates it into a moral standard’ (The Illusions of Egalitarianism [Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003], 71).

41 Rawls writes: ‘[It] is not in general to the advantage of the less fortunate to propose policies which reduce the talents of others. Indeed, by accepting the difference principle, they view the greater abilities as a social asset to be used for the common advantage. But it is also in the interest of each to have greater natural assets. This enables him to pursue a preferred plan of life. In the original position, then, the parties want to insure for their descendants the best genetic endowment (assuming their own to be fixed). The pursuit of reasonable policies in this regard is something that earlier generations owe to later ones’ (A Theory of Justice, 92). Dworkin writes: ‘if playing God means struggling to improve our species, bringing into our conscious designs a resolution to improve what God deliberately or nature blindly has evolved over eons, then the first principle of ethical individualism [– ‘that it is objectively important that any human life, once begun, succeed rather than fail’ –] commands that struggle’ (Sovereign Virtue, 448, 452).

42 Ethics, 200. See also Wiggins, ‘Claims of Need’, in Needs, Values, Truth, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998 [1987]).

43 ‘Equality as a Moral Ideal’, 21.

44 It is also important here to cultivate the virtue of contentment (see Frankfurt, ‘Equality as a Moral Ideal’, 36-41; see also Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2, II.13).

45 Ethics, 306.

46 How to Be a Conservative, 41-2.

47 I thank Kirstin McPherson and Anthony O'Hear for helpful comments that enabled me to improve this essay.


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