I was talking to an old friend a few days ago, and he asked me why I identified as a conservative. I thought about it for a little bit, and realized that outside of Edmund Burke's old writings, there don't seem to be a lot of through and logical defenses of the conservative philosophy. To some extent conservatism is a reaction to liberalism, and not a philosophy in and of itself.
So I decided to piece together a logical argument for the conservative philosophy, starting with 5 fundamental axioms, and arguing that conservatism follows logically from the 5 fundamental axioms.
These five axioms are necessary and sufficient conditions for one to be a rational conservative. If one does not accept these axioms, then it is not rational for one to be a conservative. Likewise, if one accepts these axioms, then it is not rational for a person to not hold conservative views.
Axiom 1: Identity
Allowing every person in a society to create an identity for themselves has an intrinsic value. A person creates an identity for themselves by going through a process of using their own physical and mental effort to achieve their goals or proxies for their goals. The widely cited psychologist Erikson says that these are a person's major "life stage" goals (note that all of these goals are a reflection in one way or another of a person's survival, socialization, and reproduction so I think that we could definitely shorten Erikson's list):
8. Ego Integrity
For example, if I give you a button that dispenses water when you press it, you do not develop identity. But if I give you a math problem that you have to solve to get water every day, you will develop an identity by using your own skill and ingenuity to meet your basic needs. To generalize, a person who gets everything that they ever wanted without ever having to work would not develop any sort of identity, and would not be satisfied with themselves.
Axiom 2: Freedom
The freedom of all individuals has some intrinsic value. Freedom is the extent to which a person is free from psychological and physical coercion, that is the extent to which they act in their own rational self interest. Freedom and choice are "black boxes". A person's freedom can be measured by whether they act in their rational self interest or not based on what actions they actually take. The actual form of the coercion does not change the amount of freedom that they have.
To illustrate this, suppose that I have a mouse in my lab which, on my command, runs around in a circle for no reason at all. If I insert an electrode into its brain which forces it to run around in a circle, it is not acting with freedom. If I condition it from birth to run around in a circle, it is not acting with freedom. If I somehow convey to it the message that it will die if it does not run around in a circle, and then tell it to do so, it is not acting with freedom. In essence we are looking at freedom as a black box. A person is free or not free based upon the actions that they take, not based upon any specifics of how they are coerced.
Axiom 3: Dignity
The dignity of an individual has an intrinsic value. A person's dignity is the extent to which a non-sensitized person would intuitively react to their condition.
For example, if I showed you a mutilated dead person you would probably feel a great deal of unease and discomfort (assuming that you haven't been sensitized towards that sort of thing). In that sense mutilating a dead person is wrong because it takes away their dignity.
Axiom 4: Utilitarianism
What is utilitarian for a group of people is not necessarily what gives all of its members freedom, dignity, and identity.
A good example of this is eugenics. Traits which are very useful to society like intelligence are somewhat heritable, and it is easy to demonstrate that you could make society more intelligent quite quickly by controlling who breeds. Eugenics are utilitarian, because they make society much more productive. But eugenics does not create a society in which people have freedom, dignity, and identity. One loses the freedom to decide who they reproduce with, and how much. One loses the dignity of going through life in a natural way. One loses their identity because they do not have the ability to have their own effort result in their major life outcomes.
Axiom 5: Harmonics
In an ideal world all individuals have freedom, dignity, and identity - and that it is better for a society to have a relatively equal amount of all 3 of these properties, then more of one than another. For example, if I had the power to turn invisible, I would have a lot more freedom, but I would lose my dignity and identity (because a person with the ability to turn invisible will probably not go through their life stages in a healthy way). Also I would more likely than not use the power to take away the freedom and dignity of others.
Britannica defines classical liberalism as:
"A Political doctrine that takes the abuse of power, and thus the freedom of the individual, as the central problem of government"
To the libertarian the central problem for freedom is the lack of the rights, or absolute protections, from government force and coercion. The problem with this is that absolute rights do not exist, because between any two choices people will lose rights (for example if I am given the freedom to smoke, then I take away another person's freedom to have clean air).
But how do we know what action violates a person's rights, and what simply violates a person's interests? Typically we'd look at something along the lines of proximate cause. If I shoot you in the head, then I raise your chance of immediately dying to close to 100%. Most people would see this as taking away your right to life. But what if I create a product that raises your risk of cancer by 50%. Is that taking away your right to life? If I create a product that causes another product to be created that raises your chance of dying, am I taking away your right to life?
Natural liberties only exist if we can set limitations on what constitutes proximate cause. But as our ability to expand proximate cause increases (through science, statistics, and other means), the concept of natural rights will erode, because we'll know with more detail the effects of certain actions. If we knew everything, then we could determine the effect of all of your actions on other people's rights, and know that your best action would be to minimize the total amount of damage to other people's rights.
In effect, as we know more and more, a system of classical liberalism based on natural liberties become more and more identical to utilitarianism - which completely defeats the point.
Conservatism is the philosophy that continued technological progress is not a sufficient condition for creating a better society, and that we must retain conservative social structures that allow individual humans to live useful fulfilling lives.
People create technology for the purposes of acquiring money (private enterprise) or prestige (academia). Both money and prestige are allocated based on how much society is strengthened by the new technology, and by axiom 4 we know that freedom, dignity, and identity are not necessarily going to be strengthened by progress. By axioms 1-3 we've established that these things are important and should be a goal of policy, and by axiom 5 we know that they are all necessary.
So if you accept axioms 1-5 as being correct, then you should accept the conservative philosophy.
(So what do you guys think?)
(Note: this was edited on February 16th to include a brief critique of libertarianism, largely to address the comments made by AKACCMIOF)