A Conservative Virtue

True conservatives are cautious in making judgments. That’s not to say that all who identify as conservative are cautious in making judgments; when such people fail to be cautious in making judgments, they fail to act in a truly conservative way. Nor is it to say that liberals are uncautious in making judgments. A liberal could be cautious in making a judgment, but in doing so, he would not be acting liberally; rather, he would be acting conservatively.

What makes cautious judgments conservative is the reluctance to stick one’s neck out and risk forming false beliefs. Avoiding false beliefs is critical to true conservatism, since it holds truth to be of upmost importance (a topic for another post). Thus, being cautious in the formation of judgments is virtuous because cautiousness protects us against forming false beliefs.

In contrast to cautiously made judgments are hastily made judgments. A perfect example here is liberals’ quickness to conclude that the police are guilty in cases like Michael Brown and Freddy Gray, despite the very weak evidence of this. Or take the eagerness with which liberals accuse others of racism, sexism, homophobia (accusations which, it is often forgotten, require evidence to be justified), or how easily so many have come to believe unsubstantiated claims of an epidemic of hate crimes in the wake of Trump’s election, despite the increase in the number of hate crime hoaxes.

And philosophers are far from immune from making hasty judgments. When they aren’t on the above bandwagons, they jump on their own. The high-profile sexual assault accusations against, for example, Colin McGinn comes to mind (To this day, I still don’t now what to make of the McGinn controversy, despite having read extensively about it at the time. There just isn’t enough strong evidence there for me to form strong beliefs about it, yet most philosophers seem to have confidently judged that McGinn is a moral monster). So does the witch hunt that ensued rumors of a “climate problem” in the philosophy department at UC Boulder. Not that the cases are comparable in gravity, but we have ourselves caught the ire of the pholosoblogosphere for exposing hastily made (though no less viscious) Facebook comments and reactions to the Swinburne affair, as well as the hasty attempt at damage control that followed.

Cautiousness in forming judgments should not be mistaken for indeciveness. Patton could have ordered cautious military maneuvers that were both decivise and quick, for instance. A cautious judgment maker is properly responsive to his or her evidence; he concludes neither more than his evidence warrants, nor less than his evidence warrants. We now see the other extreme–overcautiousness with respect to belief formation.  This is exemplified by the military commander who is too reluctant to call an attack, even when he clearly has the upper hand, for fear of an unlikely disaster.

The problem with  less cautiously formed judgments is that they are more likely to be false, given our cognitive fallibility, our moral blind spots, and our limited evidence. Our inductive base is too small, and small evidence bases could have misleading evidence in them, both of which would lead to bad inductions (And let’s face it; many judgments are based on inductions). The problem with overcautiousness is that it is resistant to the acquisition of justified beliefs.

Cautious judgment making is thus a mean, and the true conservative recognizes this.

*Photo: Protests in New York City on April 14, 2016, by mal3k.

Walter Montgomery

Walter is a philosophy graduate student in New Hampshire. He sometimes wishes he was a lawyer, and other times wishes he was a basketball coach. Some of his favorite childhood memories involve traveling with his immediate family, grandparents, and cousins’ family in big gas-guzzling vans towing campers. He sees philosophy as a tool for getting at Truth, and thinks too many contemporary philosophers see it as a tool for advancing their ideological preferences.

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