America’s Right contributor Randy Wills asked me a great question in response to a post about conservative philosophy. In the piece I argued for taking a flexible approach to conservative ideology. Randy’s concern is that:
If we’re too flexible and opportunistic, how do we avoid the pitfalls of evolutionary philosophy?
Randy’s question is both insightful and important, but when I tried to answer in the comments section I quickly realized I needed more room.
Paradigms and Big Ideas
“Paradigm” is one of those buzz words you may hear people use all the time without really knowing what the word means. Up until the 1960s it was a technical term about rhetoric, but then the definition changed. Now Merriam-Webster will tell you that it is
a philosophical and theoretical framework of a scientific school or discipline within which theories, laws, and generalizations and the experiments performed in support of them are formulated; broadly : a philosophical or theoretical framework of any kind
In the history of Western Civilization there have been many paradigms, but one of the biggest and longest-lasting was The Great Chain of Being. In its most literal sense, the Great Chain of Being refers to an ordering of the universe with God at the top, followed by angels, then humans, then animals, and then plants. But the Great Chain of Being was more than this. The idea that there was a static ordering to the universe – that everyone fit into a hierarchy – was a paradigm. It was a set of assumptions about the world that influenced that way people looked at everything from politics to religion.
Why do we have kings and an aristocracy? Because in the natural order of things there is a place for the noble-born and a place for the commoners. The Great Chain of Being – which was prominent before the Enlightenment – became the rationale for propping up feudalism.
The Great Chain of Being had a strong influence on Christianity as well. Look at what Satan says to Eve in the Garden:
For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.
If the Great Chain of Being is your paradigm, then there’s nothing worse than for Eve to attempt to transcend her natural place in the hierarchy and become like God. The medieval view of the Fall was that Adam and Eve’s central transgression had been one of attempting to violate their place in the natural order of things.
Death of a Paradigm
Reading the two versions of Faust tells the story of the decline of the Great Chain of Being. The story of Faust is simple. Faust – a philosopher/scientist – is frustrated with the limits of human knowledge. A demon – Mephistopheles – offers him a deal. He will give Faust the knowledge he seeks if Faust will give him his soul in return.
The first major version of this story was published by Marlowe in 1604. At the end of Marlowe’s version Mephistopheles comes and drags Faust’s soul to hell in fulfillment of their bargain. Faust – like Eve before him – attempted to violate the Great Chain of Being and he paid the cost.
Goethe’s version of Faust was published almost exactly 200 years later (in 1808), and it shows how dramatically the Great Chain of Being had fallen. In Goethe’s version Faust makes the same bargain. But when the demon comes to claim his soul, an angel intercedes on Faust’s behalf saying:
He who strives on and lives to strive
Can earn redemption still
This is the exact opposite of the Great Chain of Being. Eve and Marlowe’s Faust were sent to hell because they tried to become more than what they were ordained to be. Goethe’s Faust goes to heaven for the same reason.
The New Paradigm
I’m not a fan of the Great Chain of Being. I like Goethe’s version of Faust better. But when the Enlightenment swept through Europe and overturned old paradigms it went too far. Rising in place of the old paradigm came a new one that is – in most respects – even worse. That paradigm is the evolution paradigm.
It’s absolutely essential to make one point crystal clear. The scientific theory of evolution is not the same thing as the evolutionary paradigm. The scientific theory of evolution simply states that the competition among different species and within members of the same species for finite resources means that the best adapted survive. The survivors are not objectively better in any sense. They are just better at survival relative to the environment they happen to live in. A dolphin is not better than a carpenter ant. A polar bear is not better than a rattlesnake. They are simply adapted to different environments.
But the distinction between “better adapted” and just plain “better” is an easy one to blur. If the theory of evolution is correct from start to finish, then what started out as simplistic single-celled organisms gradually evolved into more and more complex forms of life. It seems natural to assume that this is proof that there’s some kind of perpetual ongoing process of refinement going on. Whatever is newest is best, because it’s newest. Moreover “best” is something we can objectively measure. From these two assumptions it’s a tiny leap straight to eugenics.
Eugenics might be the most blatant example of the evolutionary paradigm gone wrong, but it’s hardly the only one. If you apply the idea of the evolutionary paradigm to religion then clearly it’s less important to understand what the Scriptures meant at the time they were made, and more important to come up with your own modern interpretation. Taken to the extreme, Holy Scripture becomes just an empty suit you can dress your own philosophy in. The exact same process applies to the Constitution. Who wants a dusty old relic if you believe that whatever is modern is always better? Clearly it’s preferable to have a living document that can keep up with the times.
Where the Great Chain of Being locked us into a static view of the universe in which tradition was something never to be questioned, this new paradigm of evolution is not an improvement. It’s just the mirror image. Instead of a fetish for what is oldest we have a fetish for what is newest. (Not hard to explain America’s fascination with youth in this context, is it?)
Principles, Philosophies, and Policies
I’m not sure if this is what Randy had in mind when he mentioned “evolutionary philosophy”, but it’s what I’ve got in mind. Now that I’ve explained what evolutionary philosophy is, I want to explain why what I have in mind is different.
For me conservative ideology breaks down into 3 tiers: principles, philosophy, and policies. Principles are the core values like life, liberty, and private property. They don’t change throughout the years.
The next level is philosophy. Philosophy is derived from the core principles, and philosophy can change a little bit throughout the years as circumstances change. Let me give an example of how a philosophy can change without changing the principle behind it. Take the principle of liberty. To the 18th century Founders this necessitated a philosophical opposition to alliances. Not just to a particular alliance (that would be a policy, not a philosophy), but to all alliances in general. This was because America was a small nation that would have been overshadowed by any encounters with larger nations. More importantly, America was isolated by two oceans, and the best protection of liberty was to maintain that isolation.
In the 20th century that changed. America was no longer a weak nation, and the oceans were no longer as effective at maintaining a protective isolation. As a result the philosophy changed. Instead of avoiding alliances, America led the Allies to victory in World War II and then founded a new alliance – NATO – to confront and ultimately defeat the Evil Empire.
The principle did not change, but because of the changing world our philosophy based on that principle did change. This is the kind of flexibility that I’m advocating now.
A Rock and a Hard Place
It’s always comforting to be able to pick a direction and then just go in that direction as long as possible. There’s something appealing in simplicity. It’s less appealing to try and maintain a balance between extremes, but that’s what we need to do. On the one hand there is a danger of creating an intellectual fetish out of the past. A kind of knee-jerk reactionary approach to politics that says we need to have the same principles, the same philosophies, and even the same policies as in the 18th century. That’s wrong. There’s nothing about the past that makes it inherently better than the future. At the same time there’s nothing about the future that makes it better than the past, and so we should not blindly believe that change is always for the better.
Chronology is not the issue. Principles are. I believe in the fundamental, bedrock principles of this great nation. If we dedicate ourselve to those principles and allow philosophies and policies to flow from them, we can stay true to the spirit of the Founders without becoming mired in Pharisaical ultra-literalism.
Robert Wallace is classical liberal studying economics in graduate school. He and his wife work as business analysis consultants, and they live as undercover conservatives with their two small children in a socialist bastion of a college town. He has been writing for America’s Right since December 2008.