Like most sociologists, I am conservative in the sense that I believe in the existence of barely perceived social mechanisms—mechanisms that satisfy the deep physiological, psychological, and cultural needs. This sociological world view contains a conservative element: the belief that a sufficiently great attempt to alter society will introduce more unintended, and undesired, consequences than the innovators can anticipate.
At some level of abstraction, nearly everyone is “conservative” in this sense. Nearly everyone acknowledges the possibility of alterations that, by ignoring realities, invite disaster.
It would be easy, for example, to dismiss the funeral as an atavistic residue of rituals that make sense only for the primitive men who inhabit an apparently random world. It is hardly possible to attend a funeral without hearing someone ridicule the institution as “barbaric.” At first glance this does not seem unreasonable: The funeral may indeed cause unnecessary pain, and it might be better to do away with the ritual altogether. However, a little reflection will bring us to the realization that funerals today continue to serve their ancient purpose; they force the bereaved to acknowledge that society has—from his viewpoint—changed dramatically and irreversibly; at the same time, society rallies round the mourner to remind him that he is not alone. The funeral, in other words, is testimony not to the primitive’s ignorance but to his understanding.
Now, the beliefs of the political conservative certainly accord with the social conservatism I describe. But so do the beliefs of virtually anyone this side of the pure anarchist. The issue here is the length of the nexus between the social mechanisms and the day-to-day political life that the conservative (or liberal) spends his time addressing. The reactionary may see the introduction of a new traffic light as threatening the very fabric of society, while the radical calls for abolition of all stratification by Tuesday. But the overwhelming majority of observers accept the possibility and desirability of the former and the impossibility and undesirability of the latter.
In general I, as opposed to the political conservative, see the nexus between the social and the political as sufficiently long to render the conservatism of the social view irrelevant to most political realities. This does not require me to reject any specific conservative political position, but it does mean that I am not bound by any belief in the practical relevance of a conservative social view to accept a conservative political position. My acceptance or rejection is not based on the impossibility or dangers inherent in some social alteration but on other considerations. In truth, I often accept the liberal political view, not because I doubt the correctness of the conservative’s belief in the dangers of sufficiently great social alteration, but because I do not find that many suggested political changes ignore the barely perceived social realities of which we speak. I mention all of this not because there is anything interesting about my political beliefs; I don’t believe that I have ever made an original or interesting political observation. By the time I finally learn which side is which in one of the world’s troubled spots, the issue has become moot.
I mention this only because the incorrect belief is widespread (among the 16 people who have ever heard my name) that I am a political conservative. More interesting, perhaps, is the reason why I am thought to be a political conservative:
I am, and have been by intuition as long as I can remember, an empiricist, a species abhorred by some political conservatives and seen by others as at best only vaguely relevant to anything politically interesting. Without dotting all of the semantic and logical i‘s and j‘s, let it suffice here to say that an “empiricist” is one whose interest lies in empirically ascertainable conclusions and in the logic of the explanations. An empiricist, while he may often be impressed by the brilliance of a moral or normative argument, feels in his bones that such an argument is, by its very nature, subjective and that any desired conclusion can be reached by selection of the appropriate (but untestable) moral or normative assumption. The political conservative often labels such an empiricist a “positivist.”
I believe that the reason that my empiricism is seen as political conservatism is this: In the academy and in the press, a large number of empirical beliefs have been accepted not because they are correct, but because they meet a felt ideological need, and it is to demonstrate the incorrectness of such empirical beliefs that I have devoted much of my career. For example, the belief that capital punishment has been demonstrated to lack deterrent effect, or that stereotypes are untrue, that neuroendocrinological differences between males and females are of little causal importance to male-female behavior—to use just a few examples—are maintained not because they are correct but because they are felt by the adherent to be required by moral or normative imperative.
There is, in fact, no reason why anyone must feel this: Just as an empirical “is” can never generate a moral or normative “ought,” so too a moral or normative “ought” is immune (as long as the “ought” is possible) from empirical criticism. So, for example, one who is morally against capital punishment is not in any way required to deny the deterrent effect of the death penalty. He can accept the possibility of the deterrence of the death penalty while rejecting its morality; this is just what he would do if, for example, he were asked his opinion of invoking the death penalty for double parking.
But the liberal, like me but unlike the political conservative, accepts the empiricism of the 20th century. He feels in his bones that the ultimately subjective nature of the moral or normative position that makes it immune to attack also renders it incapable of persuading anyone who does not already accept its assumptions. Where the political conservative rests easy with the admission that a moral position is ultimately rooted in a value, the liberal, seeing a value as subjective and therefore argumentatively worthless, accepts the most dubious empirical belief if it camouflages the basically subjective nature of his (and all) moral and normative beliefs. One might look upon this liberal tendency favorably and see it as choosing the good over the true, or he may look at it unfavorably as choosing to lie in support of an arrogant assumption of infallibility. From an empiricist point of view, the two are the same.
I used to believe that the conservative discovery of my empiricism would cause conservatives to be understandably dubious about my work. In fact, the conservative discovery of my empiricist assumption has not led to any rejection of my logical or empirical work. It seems that conservatism has had to endure empiricists for so long now that it expects empiricism from all non-conservative writers. Conservatives simply ignore this and accept as an unexpected gift the refutations that demonstrate the inadequacy of liberal empirical arguments.
The liberal’s faith in empiricism may not be the entire explanation of their willingness to invoke fallacious empirical arguments. For the 40 years preceeding this decade (and to the present, though less strongly), the universities and the national media have been far more liberal than conservative. The liberal willingness to accept terrible empirical arguments to support liberal values may be owing not so much to empiricism as the inevitable intellectual flaccidization that comes with being in power too long. If this is correct, we may expect increasing numbers of fallacious conservative empirical arguments (reflecting the conservative rise to political power in the 80’s). If, on the other hand, my original explanation is correct, then we would not expect power to intellectually corrupt conservatives to the extent it has already corrupted the liberals.