“Conservatism has different versions because its advocates disagree about what political arrangements would make a society good. There is, however, no disagreement about having to find the right political arrangements by means of reflection on the history of the society whose arguments they are. Some of these arrangements have proved to be conducive and others detrimental to good lives. Conservatives aim to conserve the former and reform the latter. The conservative attitude, therefore, is not indiscriminate prejudice in favor of traditional arrangements, but a reasonable and reflective defense of traditional arrangements that have stood the test of time.
“One distinctive feature of the conservatism defended here is its commitment to four basic beliefs: skepticism, pluralism, traditionalism, and pessimism. These beliefs are not theoretical constructs invented as external standards for evaluating political arrangements. They are constitutive features of the arrangements themselves, features that partly explain why the arrangements have been conducive to good lives. The beliefs are extracted from political arrangements rather than imposed on them as conclusion derived from some philosophical, political, or moral theory.
“Another distinctive feature of conservatism is its insistence that any adequate political morality must have three levels: universal, social, and individual. A good society requires the protection of possibilities and limits on each of these levels. The possibilities are conditions necessary for good lives; the limits prohibit the violation of these conditions. Some of these possibilities and limits are universal, because they are some conditions all good lives require, no matter how they are conceived; others are social, because there are some conditions that all good lives require within the context of a particular society, although these conditions usually vary from society to society; and yet others are individual because they are required only by particular conceptions of a good life, and they vary with these conceptions. Each good life, therefore, has universal, social, and individual requirements, and conservatives believe that the aim of political morality is to make political arrangements that protect these requirements on all three levels.
“Political moralities must be concerned both with approximating the good and with avoiding evil. The first involves stressing possibilities; the second limits. The first is the constructive contribution of political arrangements that enable individuals to make good lives for themselves. It is on this that all the main contemporary rivals of conservatism concentrate. They differ from each other only because they differ about how the good is to be approximated. It is yet a further distinctive feature of conservatism that it attributes equal importance to avoiding evil by setting limits. A good society must prohibit certain ways of living and acting. What these way are depends on the universal, social, and individual requirements of good lives as they are historically conceived in the political morality of a particular society. How reasonable these historical conceptions are partly depends on the extend to which they reflect the fundamental importance of the basic conservatives beliefs of skeptisim, pluralism, traditionalism, and pessimism.”
▪ John Kekes, A Case for Conservatism (Cornell University Press, 1998) extract from pages 1 and 2.