Origins of Conservatism Part III: David Hume
Brad Johnson, Politics Contributor
*For the second installation of this series, click here.*
The term “ideology” has gradually become a swear word of types. If one allows their ideology to shape their politics, they are not grounded in reality, or so the trope goes. As Jonah Goldberg notes in his book Liberal Fascism, 20th century American Progressives, like Richard Ely, sought to eschew contemporary conservatives as “Ideologues” and thus metaphorically pinning a scarlet letter on the chest of Conservatism. Their anecdote to what they saw as poisonous Conservative policy lay in the omniscient schemes of Progressive heavyweights like our 28th and most ruinous President, Woodrow Wilson. Thus, Progressivism ascended to dictatorial prowess over the agenda of the American political Left, and has stayed ever since.
Within Progressivism’s generally unspoken maxim, “We know better than you,” lies their hypocrisy in claiming pragmatism. Progressives focus on how the world ought to be (in their view), rather than how it actually works. Dogma reigns supreme over empiricism, despite their claim to the latter over the former. Ask any diehard Bernie supporter to identify a case in which Socialism has succeeded in history. Their response is usually some form of “It hasn’t been implemented correctly (or in accordance with their dogma), yet.” The correct answer to that question is that even in ideology, Socialism and any of its similar ideologies (Communism, Fascism, etc.) have worked out exactly as they were intended in the annals of history; to oppress, steal, and murder massive amounts of people. It is in this distinction between ideology and empiricism where Conservatism sees its next great contributor leave his mark.
David Hume, born 1711 in Edinburgh, grew to manhood under the rule of the Hanoverian King, George I (Grandfather to the infamous figure here in America, George III). Hume spent much of his philosophical life battling with abstract ideas (that may contain a smidgeon of truth in a specific example) applied to reality as a whole, something he likened to “false philosophy”. Its superior counterpart, Hume labeled “true philosophy”. True philosophy, Hume believed, was “reflections of common life, methodized and corrected.” Essentially, Hume’s view on philosophy was that it was based on empiricism and nothing else. This is an extreme view that excludes to account for man’s ability to reason. However, it does emphasize something incredibly crucial to Conservatism today; the heavy reliance on observation of reality.
The ability to be pragmatic is essential to Conservative thought today. The realization that a Welfare State eventually implodes due to its inevitable evaporation of other’s money. Along those lines, the fact that there exists a negative graphical correlation between the size of government and freedom possessed by individuals is an empirical observation of history. What is purely dogmatic, and not based in reality, is the Progressive past-time of spending money and increasing the size of government, to solve economic troubles. Yet Leftists continue to tightly grasp the Communist Manifesto like the “silly” Evangelicals and their Bible, members of the Left like to ridicule so much. They’re bible-thumpers all the same, just with a different book.
Supplemental to his emphasizing of empiricism, another central tenet of Conservatism can be attributed to Hume. In ethics, two main schools of thought have developed. The first, made famous by J.S. Mill, is Utilitarianism. A Utilitarian is concerned, put succinctly, with the ends over the means. Progressivism today generally subscribes to this belief. On the contrary, Deontology is the brainchild of one Immanuel Kant. Deontology judge’s morality based on actions performed, rather than the consequences of the aforementioned actions. In today’s political realm, this can be likened to Progressive’s near complete disregard for precedent, and Conservative’s penchant for it. Kant was greatly influenced by Hume. He even credits Hume in his essay Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, “I openly confess, the suggestion of David Hume was the very thing, which many years ago first interrupted my dogmatic slumber.” Hume insisted that actions matter, and the judgement placed upon such actions must be grounded in reality instead of creed.
Conservatism today was greatly influenced by one of the titans of British Empiricism. A healthy grounding in empiricism sets us apart from the incredibly dogmatic Progressive doctrine. Let us not pretend, however, that ideology as a whole to be unhealthy. Everyone has dogmatic tendencies, and Conservatives are no different. It is that pursuit of a better world which breeds ideologues. However, mankind must recognize that the world in which we live is not one capable of total equity. Progressivism’s aim is complete equity, but in practice only generates equity among the masses which live under tyranny. Equity is not a worldly attribute, but instead a heavenly one. In reality, liberty remains the prerequisite for an improved world. An ideology grounded in reality, cognizant of precedent, and focused on liberty is needed to improve society, and Conservatism is just what the doctor ordered.
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