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Keith Burgess-Jackson: My Journey to Conservatism [Common sense wisdom from a philosopher]
TechCentralStation ^ | 01/06/2004 | Keith Burgess-Jackson

Posted on 01/06/2004 7:33:30 AM PST by Tolik

"A young person who's conservative has no heart; an old person who's liberal has no brain." Have you heard this saying? There are two ways it can be interpreted: as a statement of fact (about people's actual political trajectory) and as a judgment of value (about which trajectory is good). I read it as both. It says that as a matter of (natural) fact, there is a progression from liberalism to conservatism; and it adds (quickly) that this is good. The saying is both descriptive and prescriptive, like "S is lazy" and "T is a coward." It commends young liberals and old conservatives. It condemns young conservatives and old liberals.

I used to be liberal. When I was, I thought conservatives were uncaring, unintelligent, irrational, and obstructionist. They seemed to resist every attempt to make the world a better place -- by my standards. They seemed stuck in the past, oblivious to changes that were taking place in technology, demographics, and world affairs. Didn't they see the threat to the environment posed by global warming? Didn't they see that their cramped understandings of marriage and family were doing real harm to people? Didn't they see that their opposition to redistributive taxation was perpetuating -- indeed, exacerbating -- poverty, sickness, and illiteracy? Didn't they see that in affairs of state, no less than in personal relationships, force never solves anything but only makes things worse?

Plotting My Trajectory

I know I held these views because I dutifully recorded them in my journal from the time I was twenty-one years old. My journal is a record of my intellectual and moral development (which is another reason for every young person to keep one). For more than five years (since 21 November 1998), I have been transcribing my handwritten journal entries to the computer in real time, twenty years after the fact. Today, for instance, I will transcribe the entry of 22 December 1983. I was a freshly minted lawyer (in Michigan) and had just completed my first semester of graduate study in philosophy at The University of Arizona. I was, to put it bluntly, full of myself. (Some say I still am.)

Reading my journal of twenty years ago is amusing as well as instructive, because I invariably hold the opposite of each view I held then. I was adamantly opposed to capital punishment, for example. Now, like John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant, I support it. I took the moral permissibility of abortion for granted, thinking that only a misogynist could oppose it. Now I am convinced of its immorality, having been persuaded by Don Marquis's brilliant essay, "Why Abortion Is Immoral," The Journal of Philosophy 86 (April 1989): 183-202. (Please write to me if you want a copy.)

I thought Ronald Reagan was a national embarrassment: a smiling, well-coiffed dolt. Now I consider him one of our greatest presidents and thank goodness for his strength, leadership, and vision. I defended redistributive taxation. Now I oppose anything more than a Nozickian minimal state. I shared the feminist belief that women are oppressed by men. Now I think men are just as oppressed as women, albeit in different ways. I also think that feminism has done real damage to women, despite its protestations to the contrary.

What changed? How did I go from left to right on the political spectrum? My critics (including several former friends from whom I've grown apart -- in some cases because of political differences) will say that I became meaner. I got mine, they will say, and closed the door behind me. I lost my compassion, my decency, my sense of fairness, my very humanity. I became a misanthrope. I smile at these insults, because I know I didn't get meaner. I got wiser. I grew up. They didn't. Maybe they will -- I hope they will -- but they haven't yet. The good news is that as long as one lives, one can be saved into conservatism. It is never too late to let the heart be ruled by the brain.

Growing Wiser

What is wisdom, anyway, and why does it come with age? Wisdom is understanding and judgment rooted in experience. A wise person examines all aspects of a problem, not just one or some of them, before rendering a judgment. A wise person asks what effect welfare has on its recipients (besides providing for their material needs). Does it undermine their self-respect? Does it decrease their self-sufficiency? Does it destroy incentive? Does it, in the end, undermine or erode their personhood? A wise person thinks through the implications of a solution before offering or adopting it. For example, what effect will homosexual marriage have on childrearing and child development? What effect does living with homosexual parents have on one's character, sexuality, self-image, and values? These are not idle questions. They're real questions with real answers, even if the answers are (currently) unknown. And they're important questions, questions that bear on our communal life.

Wise people are discriminating. They appreciate that the moral life is complex and that details matter. To paraphrase Judith Jarvis Thomson, "There are cases and there are cases." A seemingly small difference between two cases can make a large moral difference; and, conversely, large differences sometimes make no moral difference at all. Wise people concern themselves with the unintended and unforeseen consequences of action as well as with those that are intended and foreseen. They attend to the realities of a situation and not just to ideals. They are oriented to particulars, not just to universals. They work from the ground up, as it were, not from the top down. They have the capacity for practical judgment -- what the Greeks called phronesis.

A wise person, in short, brings all relevant considerations to bear on a problem, assigns them their proper weight, and resolves it. Humbly. A wise person understands that even when one acts rightly, all things considered, important moral values may go by the board. This is cause for regret. Nobody, not even the great Socrates, is perfectly wise, but some people come nearer to it than others. We should all strive to be wiser.

Young people, bless their idealistic hearts, have no experience. Actually, it's a mistake to say that they have no experience, for experience begins with birth (or before); but young people don't have as much experience as their elders. They are, to use the argot, experientially challenged. The world, to the young, came into existence with them and exists to be manipulated by them. What came before is to be questioned and, if found wanting (as it usually is), abolished. The world is to be built anew, from the ground up, using only our ideals and our technology. Instead of punishing people, let's understand why they commit crimes and try to help them. They're victims of their environment, not malicious choosers. Instead of threatening other nations, let's build bridges. Let's tolerate the wonderful diversity of religions and ways of life. Let's stop thinking of our own way of life as superior to that of others. That creates resentment, animosity, and ultimately violence, which is the summum malum. If we talk, we won't fight.

With regard to wealth, why should some people have more of it than others? Let's take wealth from the haves and distribute it to the have-nots. There's plenty of wealth to go around, after all; it's just maldistributed. This goes not only for the citizens of this country but for people around the world. Americans consume and pollute too much. They -- we -- must cut back for the good of all.

And while we're at it, let's take wealth out of the political system. Everyone's voice should be heard, whether rich or poor. Why should a corporate executive have a greater say in policy matters than the person who cleans his or her office every evening? Law should equalize income and wealth, or at least move in that direction. It is obscene that some have so much while others have so little. How did we let things get this way? It is entirely up to us how wealth, status, privilege, and other social goods are distributed. A choice not to redistribute these goods is a choice to accept the existing (unjust) distribution.


Gaining Experience

Experience -- working, marrying, becoming a parent, buying a house, being a neighbor -- deepens and broadens understanding. The experienced person realizes that disparities in wealth are a by-product of a robust market-based economy that works to the benefit of all, including those in impoverished parts of the world. (Would there be an African AIDS initiative if the United States were a poor country? Foreign aid for the destitute presupposes affluence. Do critics of Western affluence want universal poverty?) The experienced person knows that corporations are not abstractions but legal embodiments ("corpus" = body) of human aspiration. Corporations (such as IBM, Halliburton, and Microsoft) are composed of people: shareholders such as you and me, employees, managers, officers. Corporations, whether big or small, are the engines of prosperity. Without them, our standard of living would be much lower than it is. This is not to say that corporations should be able to do as they please. That is anarchy, and conservatives are not anarchists. It is to say that there is nothing intrinsically immoral or suspect about corporations. They are individuals writ large.

The experienced person realizes that institutions such as marriage evolved for a reason, even if the reason is hard to articulate. Institutions represent tradeoffs and compromises among disparate values and interests. Sometimes these values and interests are difficult to discern, so defenders of tradition are easily put on the defensive by their critics. They are accused of being blind, biased, and obfuscatory. They are said to be "prejudiced" and "bigoted." Why, they cannot even articulate their opposition to such things as homosexual marriage or adoption! What ignoramuses! If you can't articulate the reason for something, it is said, you should cease believing and defending it.

This attitude toward belief -- that one should believe a proposition only if one has articulable reasons for it -- represents liberalism in the epistemic realm. The contrast is epistemic conservatism, which holds that belief -- in God, in the importance of marriage, in the value of tradition -- needs no defense. To a conservative, beliefs are presumed innocent until proven guilty. To a liberal, they are presumed guilty until proven innocent. The liberal epistemic standard begs the question against political conservatism, just as a conservative epistemic standard would beg the question against political liberalism. Conservatives must not fall for the liberal trick of making nonbelief the default position.

Respecting Tradition

Liberals deny even a weak presumption to traditional ways of life. Conservatives, in contrast, accord tradition a strong presumption, preferring to err on the side of caution rather than boldness. The conservative mantra is to move slowly. It is not, as liberals are fond of saying, to thwart change altogether. It is to slow the rate of change so that along the way we can see the unfolding effects of what we are doing. It is the caution of the wise and experienced, the caution that comes with age, the caution that acknowledges one's fallibility (moral as well as epistemic) and humility. If the effects of the change are not as expected (or hoped), we can make adjustments or reverse course. It will not be too late. Just as it would be unfair to say that liberals want change for change's sake, it is unfair to say that conservatives value tradition for tradition's sake. The difference is subtler than that. Liberals and conservatives have different temperaments, different attitudes toward risk.

This idea of temperament begins to get to the nub of it. Liberals are optimistic about human nature, whereas conservatives are pessimistic. Liberals assume that people are good until corrupted by society; conservatives know that they are bad and can be made decent (or at least law-abiding) by society. Liberals think that what needs explaining is why social projects fail. Conservatives think that what needs explaining is how they ever succeed, given human selfishness, ignorance, greed, envy, and vanity. Liberals view the state as a facilitator of good; conservatives view it as an engine of evil that must be carefully monitored and controlled.

Liberals think children should be given wide latitude to explore, experiment, and create. Conservatives know that children, for all their innocence and promise, are animals who require discipline, rules, and punishment. Liberals believe in the power of love. Conservatives believe in the power of tough love. Liberals think Bobby Knight is a bully. Conservatives know that in spite of his rough edges he is a shaper of character and a maker of men. The world needs more Bobby Knights, not fewer.

Many of the problems we see in the world today are the result of lax and irresponsible parenting. We Americans worship liberty, but fail to see that it goes hand in hand with responsibility. Animals are free, after all, but hardly responsible, which is why it makes no sense to blame them for what would, in the case of humans, be misbehavior. Humans must be both free and responsible, else they become mere animals. By not understanding (and therefore misrepresenting) the connection between liberty and responsibility, liberals dissolve the person and degrade the social environment. Each of us, the liberal thinks, is what we were made to be: by our parents, our teachers, our friends, our neighbors, our popular culture. The element of personal choice disappears from view, and with it the person. This is why liberal punishment, rationalized as rehabilitation, is disrespectful. Conservatives show respect for criminals by paying them back for their misdeeds -- in proportion to the gravity of those misdeeds.

As I've aged, I've come to appreciate the vastness, complexity, and intricate beauty of things. I've come to see the delicate evolved equilibria in human institutions. Just as it is unwise to disrupt a natural ecosystem, it is unwise to disrupt, disregard, or disrespect longstanding human practices. I've come to appreciate the other side of various issues. (There is always another side, although liberals seldom acknowledge as much.) I've come to appreciate and respect the wisdom of our forebears, from whom we inherited so much: everything from marriage to mechanisms of wealth transmission to free markets to individual rights to our rambunctious, expressive language. Conservatives don't live for the moment, as liberals do. They respect the past and care deeply about the future. The present, in their view, is merely a bridge (or contract) between the dead and the unborn. Conservatives love history; liberals love sociology. Conservatives are archaeologists; liberals are engineers.

Cultivating Humility

History looms large in the conservative mind. Conservatives learn from history, which is a repository of both good and evil. Liberals, seeing only the evil, view the past with scorn -- as a record of mistakes, failures, and injustices. Liberals wish to replace the ugly, shameful past with a new regime of justice and love. (Think of the well-meaning but clueless hippies.) This is of course hubris, and it is dangerous. Please don't misunderstand: I'm glad that there are liberals. Young people should be liberal. Youth is a time of idealism, exploration, hope, and searching. These traits need to be cultivated if the emerging adult is to be an integrated whole rather than a personal fragment.

Fortunately, most young people survive the turbulence and naiveté of adolescence and gain the experience and judgment necessary to become proper conservatives. They begin to use their brains after relying for so long on their hearts. Because the natural movement is from liberalism to conservatism, I hold out hope for the salvation of my middle-aged but childish liberal friends. Long live conservatism!

 Keith Burgess-Jackson, J.D., Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at The University of Texas at Arlington, where he teaches courses in Logic, Ethics, Philosophy of Religion, Biomedical Ethics, and Philosophy of Law. During the fall of 2004, he will teach a course on the virtues and vices of Lewis and Clark. Please visit his blogs: and


TOPICS: Editorial; Philosophy; Politics/Elections
KEYWORDS: burgessjackson; epiphany; keithburgessjackson

1 posted on 01/06/2004 7:33:32 AM PST by Tolik
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To: Tolik
I follow Keith Burgess-Jackson's writings with a great pleasure. He is a rare bird among his colleagues (as he admitted himself) because of his conservative views. He adds a new dimension to the dialog because he addresses our leftists intelligentsia in their own language.

His archive:

My Journey to Conservatism
The good news is that as long as one lives, one can be saved into conservatism. It is never too late to let the heart be ruled by the brain.

Dodging the Issue
President Bush's critics seem unable or unwilling to address the morality of the war directly.

Utilitarian Punishment of Saddam Hussein
There were ample utilitarian grounds for the military action in Iraq.

How to Argue
Citizens in a democracy must know two things: how to argue and how to evaluate arguments.

The "Real Reason" for the War
The motivation and justification for war in Iraq. PLUS: Visit his blog home.

Logic Cop Asks, "Is Bush a Liar?"
Falsely asserting that someone is a liar is a lie: a metalie, a lie on stilts.

The Natural History of Bush-Hating
I did not vote for President Bush ‑- I voted for Ralph Nader the past two times ‑- and hold no brief for him.

Dusty Baker, Philosopher
Science gives us one picture of the world. It does not give us the picture.

Democrat Duplicity
One prophylactic is acceptable, apparently; the other is not.

Are You Living Uprightly?
Two cheers for Peter Singer.

Nader in '04!
There's no such thing as a thrown-away vote.

The Uranium War
Let's make all the assumptions most favorable to President Bush's critics.

Bush's Critics as Repeat Offenders
The logic cop restores order.

Is Taxation Theft?
A philosopher's puzzle: Is the wealth individuals possess undeserved?

So Which Side Won?
Unspinning the affirmative-action cases.

Why Liberals Think Conservatives Are Stoopid
Solving a political puzzle.

Bush's Critics Meet the Logic Police
Do not contribute to the degradation of public discourse.

2 posted on 01/06/2004 7:35:45 AM PST by Tolik
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To: All

3 posted on 01/06/2004 7:36:13 AM PST by Support Free Republic (Hi Mom! Hi Dad!)
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To: Tolik

4 posted on 01/06/2004 7:38:42 AM PST by Tolik
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To: Tolik
Thank you for this very well written, thoughtful article. I'm going to have to look up the article that the author mentioned on abortion.
5 posted on 01/06/2004 7:47:28 AM PST by Eva
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To: Tolik
Thanks for turning me on to this body of work !

Funny, I was reading a blurb in a Federalist News Letter that runs on the same line. More humor in it, here it is.

"A young woman was about to finish her first year of college. She considered herself to be a very liberal Democrat, but her father was a staunch Republican. One day she was challenging her father on his beliefs and his opposition to high taxes and welfare programs. He stopped her and asked how she was doing in school. She answered that she had a 4.0 GPA, but it was really tough. She had to study all the time and never had time to go out and party. She didn't have time for a boyfriend and didn't really have many college friends because of spending all her time studying. On top of that, the part-time job her father insisted she keep left absolutely no time for anything else. He asked, 'How is your friend Mary?' She replied that Mary was barely getting by. She had a 2.0 GPA, never studied, but was very popular on campus, didn't have a job, and went to all the parties. She was always complaining about not having any money, but didn't want to work. Why, she often didn't show up for classes because she was hung over. Dad then asked his daughter why she didn't go to the Dean's office and request that 1.0 be taken off her 4.0 and given it to her friend who only had a 2.0. That way they would both have a respectable 3.0 GPA. Then, she could also give her friend half the money she'd earned from her job so that her friend would no longer be broke. The daughter angrily fired back, 'That wouldn't be fair. I worked really hard for my grades and money, and Mary just loafs. Why should her laziness and irresponsibility be rewarded with half of what I've worked for?' The father slowly smiled and said, 'Welcome to the Republican Party'." --Unattributed

The Federalist - 04-01 Brief

6 posted on 01/06/2004 7:53:48 AM PST by Tank-FL (Keep the Faith - VMI Christmas furlough ends Jan 11 !)
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To: Tank-FL
LOL. May I use it?
7 posted on 01/06/2004 8:05:52 AM PST by Tolik
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To: Tolik
Great article, thanks for posting it.
8 posted on 01/06/2004 8:07:46 AM PST by Tennessean4Bush
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To: Tolik
Excellent article! Thanks for giving the heads up for this refreshing guy!
9 posted on 01/06/2004 9:27:15 AM PST by luckymom (if you step past my tagline, you're it!)
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To: Tolik
10 posted on 01/06/2004 9:43:24 AM PST by Tank-FL (Keep the Faith - VMI Christmas furlough ends Jan 11 !)
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To: Tolik
BTT for a thought-provoking article.
11 posted on 01/06/2004 10:00:38 AM PST by Billthedrill
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To: Tolik
A worthwhile read...thx for the post
12 posted on 01/06/2004 10:31:14 PM PST by beckett
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