Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The Conservatism of Doubt

Andrew Sullivan's latest lengthy analysis of conservatism attempts to coin a new phrase: The conservatism of doubt. Sullivan's definition of the conservatism of doubt begins with:
What other kind of conservatism is there? The alternative philosophical tradition begins in precise opposition to the new conservatives' confidence in faith and reason as direct, accessible routes to universal truth. The conservatism of doubt asks how anyone can be sure that his view of what is moral or good is actually true. Conservatives of doubt note that even the most dogmatic of institutions, such as the Catholic or Mormon churches, have changed their views over many centuries, and that, even within such institutions, there is considerable debate about difficult moral issues. They understand that significant critiques of human reason--Nietzsche, anyone?--have rendered the philosophical quest for self-evident truth even more precarious in the modern world. Such conservatives are not nihilists or devotees of what Pope Benedict XVI has called "the dictatorship of relativism." They merely believe that the purported choice between moral absolutism and complete relativism, between God and moral anarchy, is a phony one. Their alternative is a skeptical, careful, prudential approach to all moral questions--and suspicion of anyone claiming to hold the absolute truth. Since such an approach rarely provides a simple answer persuasive to everyone within a democratic society, we live with moral and cultural pluralism.
Ramesh Ponnuru has already posted a smackdown of the conservatism of doubt starting here (just keep scrolling upwards). Personally I think Andrew Sullivan should be congratulated for finally articulating a definition of conservatism that is indistinguishable from the political philosophy of Senator John Kerry.

Pretty much anyone who pays attention to politics for any length of time has seen the tactic of muddying the waters as an attempt to trick your opponent into giving up his or her disagreements with you. The converatism of doubt is essentially based on the same trick. If critics say that your political position is too absolute or that you seem to sure of yourself, then you can accuse them of an unseemly relativism. If opponents says that your political position is too unrealistic, then you can accuse them of holding onto moral absolutes that should be subjected to doubt. If people give you a challenge that you can't parry right away, tell them to come back when their Ph.D. theses get signed by their advisors.

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