Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Conservative vs.liberal

Columbia University professor Mark Lilla, writing in the New York Review of Books, has a go at defining "conservative" and "liberal."

"Conservatives have always seen society as a kind of inheritance we receive and are responsible for; we have obligations toward those who came before and to those who will come after, and these obligations take priority over our rights. Conservatives have also been inclined to assume, along with [Edmund] Burke, that this inheritance is best passed on implicitly through slow changes in custom and tradition, not through explicit political action."

"Classical liberals like John Stuart Mill, in contrast to conservatives, give individuals priority over society, on anthropological as well as moral grounds. They assume that societies are genuinely constructs of human freedom, that whatever we inherit from them, they can always be unmade or remade through free human action. This assumption…is what makes liberals suspicious of appeals to custom or tradition, given that they have so often been used to justify privilege and injustice…Principles are the only legitimate constraints on our freedom."

Lilla goes on to distinguish classical conservatism and liberalism from more extreme forms of reaction and revolution. He is, as you might guess, engaged in a discussion of contemporary U. S. politics, which for many of us seems to have lost its moderate middle, at least in its rhetoric. We will see what the electorate does in November, but for the moment the debate seems to be driven by extreme voices of right and left.

I am, as you have surely guessed by now, politically liberal, whether by birth, upbringing, or philosophical reflection I do not know. In any case, it is irrelevant here. I would not, however, dismiss the idea that science has had an influence on my politics.

Science, it seems to me, has found the sweet spot between philosophical conservatism and liberalism. It is firmly grounded in tradition. Careful citation of previous work is mandatory. Peer review within the existing paradigm is rigorous. Every idea is measured against the received consensus. Generally, progress is incremental. But progress is universally welcomed and expected, as the gift of human curiosity and creativity, and traditional paradigms are overthrown when necessary. I have previously defined the situation thus: Science is radically open to marginal change and marginally open to radical change.

If in the marketplace of ideas all ideas are equal, then none are worth fighting for. But no idea should be codified as dogma. If I have learned anything from a lifetime in and around science, it is this: Respect the best of the past; be open to a better future.