Sunday, May 9, 2021

David Hume, or, Skeptical Conservatism

Is skepticism a progressive or conservative force? It depends on what your are skeptical about.

Skepticism about the virtue of inherited social and economic arrangements has been very much part of the modern revolution. I'm thinking of someone like Tom Paine asking what weird power made people born kings so much better than people born peasants. Hostility to established churches and their influence was another major part of the radical worldview in the 18th and 19th centuries.

That is one level of skepticism; if you doubt the wisdom of the world you see around you, you may end up as a radical or even a revolutionary. But the most skeptical people, the ones who are skeptical of everything, often end up as conservatives. To people of this mindset, the current system may be bad, but at least it functions in a minimal way, which is more than can be said for whatever you dream up out of your weak human head. This is the conservatism associated with people like Edmund Burke, Disraeli, or Warren Harding.

To believe that revolution, or even reform, is going to make things better requires a sort of faith. Many people who lack that faith end up as a conservatives.

I was moved to write about this by reading a weird article titled "The Hume Paradox," written by a philosophy professor named Julian Baggini. Baggini asks, in a dozen different ways, how David Hume (1711-1776) could have been so smart in philosophy but so stupid about politics. What he means is, how could Hume have been so skeptical about received philosophical views, but so accepting of traditional social and political arrangements?

Honestly it is a bit embarrassing to have to point this out to a professor, but there is no mystery here: Hume is just a great example of the skeptical conservative type. Hume got famous for his high-level philosophical attacks on Christianity, and his attempt to reconstruct ethics on a non-religious basis. He could be completely and witheringly skeptical about some matters. Most works of philosophy, he wrote, consist of

Principles taken upon trust, consequences lamely deduced from them, want of coherence in the parts, and of evidence in the whole.

Hume's relationship to progressive political and social ideas was complex. He was hostile to slavery, and refused to worship the ancient Romans (as many of his contemporaries did) partly because their economy was based on slavery. On the other hand he was, tentatively, a racist. Looking around the world he saw that the civilizations of Europe, Africa, and East Asia were very different, and he was "inclined to the view" that this was rooted in inherent differences between the races. (Notice the lack of commitment.) In both cases he was looking at such evidence as he could find. What he knew about European colonies in the Caribbean, and ancient Rome, was to his mind sufficient evidence that slavery was awful; but the only evidence he had about the capabilities of the races (not knowing any actual Africans) was the level of their civilizations, which seemed to him to show that Europeans were somehow superior.

In Hume's time there was a great deal of agitation in Britain for radical political reform, and (except on the issue of slavery) Hume was mostly opposed. He was perfectly aware that Britain's system was unjust, but the prospect of revolution did not enthuse him. Baggini:

Another striking example comes when he astutely articulates the harms caused by inequality: “Nature is so liberal to mankind, that, were all her presents equally divided among the species, and improved by art and industry, every individual would enjoy all the necessaries, and even most of the comforts of life… It must also be confessed, that, wherever we depart from this equality, we rob the poor of more satisfaction than we add to the rich, and that the slight gratification of a frivolous vanity, in one individual, frequently costs more than bread to many families, and even provinces.”

Yet, once again, conservative doubts prevented him from advocating anything to set this straight. Creating such equality would require too much force and violence, giving the authority behind it so much power that it “must soon degenerate into tyranny.” “Perfect equality of possessions” would destroy “all subordination, weakens extremely the authority of magistracy, and must reduce all power nearly to a level.” He didn’t seem to consider that this might be a good thing, nor notice the mismatch between his alarmism about the postulated might of an egalitarian order and his indulgence of the established inegalitarian magistracy.

Baggini thinks that Hume was obviously wrong about politics, but I am not sure. If you compare the experience of Britain and the US over the time from Hume's death in 1776 to 1900, do you see much practical difference? The revolutionary US was ahead in abolishing the established church and electing a head of state, but Britain, despite its monarchy and powerful House of Lords, was much faster to abolish slavery. The two nations got to votes for all adult men and votes for women at around the same time. That's before we even get to the results of the Latin American revolutions, or the ones in Russia and China. 

There is nothing absurd about Hume's politics. He was not some kind of obscure reactionary; he supported numerous minor reforms and improvements, and at least one major one, the abolition of slavery. But his age had no example of a successful egalitarian democracy that anyone could point to and say "Look, it works." So it made perfect sense that a man who was intensely skeptical of all the philosophical systems he had ever encountered would be dubious of a supposedly better system he had never seen, and that nobody knew how to make work.

In our age we like to accuse our political opponents of being insufficiently skeptical. They, we say, believe obvious nonsense, whereas we are skeptical enough to recognize nonsense when we see it. But all the major political systems depend on belief in things that are hard to prove. Skepticism can, depending on how you wield it, drive you toward revolution, reform, or the status quo, and there is nothing strange about a skeptical conservative.


G. Verloren said...

Skepticism can, depending on how you wield it, drive you toward revolution, reform, or the status quo, and there is nothing strange about a skeptical conservative.

Nothing strange, but much that is destructive and unhealthy.

If skeptical conservatives had had their way, we'd still be living under kings and despots, with slavery in full force, women disenfranchised, and endemic warfare the everyday norm of reality.

We'd still have no sanitation, medicine, education, etc - all things to be deeply skeptical of fear they might upset the delicate balance of life and make things worse than they already are. No automation, no industrialization, no mass production - the fearful Luddites would have hurled sabots into every set of gears and smashed every mechanism to preserve the status quo, however bad it was, for fear of change.

If our ancient hunter/gatherer ancestors had been skeptical conservatives, we'd never have developed agriculture or civilization! Humanity wouldn't have spread to every inhabitable continent, but rather would have stayed in Africa, for fear that venturing in the terrifying unknown would only lead to ruin! Go far enough back, and we might never have even descended from the trees, skeptical as we were that the ground could offer us anything to compare with the safety of the branches!

If you are so skeptical of everything that you fear change, you may as well just roll over and die already, because you've chosen oblivion. We adapt or we die - that has always been true, not only for us humans, but also for all life ever known. Stagnation is extinction.

szopen said...

Verloren, at this point I am convinced that you never in your life really knew any real conservative.

karlG said...

The best expression of such conservatism is simply, "Look before you leap."

G. Verloren said...


Or rather, "Look before you leap... and then look again... and then again... and then keep looking, over and over, for a few more generations at least..."

We still have a large number of people who refuse to believe that climate change is real, despite the evidence having been strong and only growing since the 1950s, and the current global consensus being overwhelming.

We still have a large number of people who don't trust vaccines, despite over two centuries of safe and effective usage around the globe.

We still have a large number of people who don't trust modern fiat currency want to return to the gold standard, including prominent politicians such as Ron Paul and much of the Tea Party movement.

We still have a large number of people who don't trust "GMOs", yet fail to realize that every food crop they consume is a genetically modified organism, it just was modified through the far more random and far less precise method of breeding.

We still have a large number of people who think cell phones and wifi cause cancer; that crystals and magnets can heal wounds and cure sickness; that the relative appearance of the position of the stars on the date of your birth somehow influences your personality or future; that homeopathy is medicine; that poor people are lazy; that women are hysterical; that non-white races are inferior; and on and on!

You can lead these people to all the evidence, point it out to them, explain it to them patiently and comprehensibly, have them take a good long look at it, and they will still shake their heads and say, "No sir, I'm not convinced, I'm going to keep looking, I'm not going to make THAT leap!

At some point, you have to believe in something, or else you're just a nihilist. If all you ever do is did your heels in and resist change, you choose annihilation - because the world is going to change without you, and if you can't keep up, you're going to lose out.

David said...

What I'm most impressed by is how different political allegiances and tendencies were in the 18th century and most of the 19th century, from those we see now. In that period, revivalist Christianity tended to be seen as radical--we might even say leftist now. Protestant revivalist Christianity was the heart of abolitionism, and, certainly in England, at the forefront of social leveling. Aristos famously found Methodist meetings appalling for their social egalitarianism. Plenty of those same aristos, I'm willing to bet, were religious skeptics, even aside from their anti-Methodism. There was a time when prohibition, "scientific" racism, eugenics, and even imperialism could be seen by many as "progressive" movements.

That said, I think we also need to realize that Hume's acceptance of traditional social hierarchy (including hereditary hierarchy) was actually pretty typical, even characteristic of Enlightenment thinkers. Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws is, in some ways, a giant rationalization of the old system of privileged estates. Voltaire, in spite of his famous quarrel with the chevalier de Rohan, was obviously more comfortable with aristocrats and royal families than he was with common people. The same could be said for Diderot and others. Rousseau is famous as the great antecedent to Marxism, but that's partly because his Discourse on Inequality targets meritocracy more than hereditary aristocracy. A lot of the weakening of the French monarchy over the decades before 1789 had to do with the Crown's Enlightenment-driven attempts at replacing archaic privilege with rationalized systems of tax and trade, etc., and the hostility these generated from the common people as well as the privileged orders.

Paine and others like him were, in many ways, outliers in the Enlightenment. His ideas arguably go more back to the 17th-century Levellers than the 18th-century philosophes.

John said...


I think it fair to say that some kinds of skepticism were rife in the 18th-century elite, including the philosophes. This included some things that strike us as progressive, such as their mocking of witch trials, but also the Montesquieu-Hume skepticism about radical political reform.

Which is another reason why I say the American Revolution was radical; something like the Congressional elections of the 1790s was totally new, and exactly the sort of thing that those skeptically conservative elitists said would never work. Imagine what Voltaire would have made of Abraham Lincoln.

Incidentally I think there is still some radical energy in Evangelical Christianity, but right now it comes out in a Trumpist rather than a Progressive direction.

David said...

Of course there is plenty of radicalism in contemporary Evangelical Christianity. Radical has many different meanings. "Radical" is sometimes taken to mean leftist specifically. I think this is erroneous, but that's why I appended the clarifying phrase, "we might even say leftist now." I meant that 18th-century Methodists were in the place we would associate with radical leftists today. "Radical" is more commonly used, it seems to me, to mean support of any extreme politics and/or of extreme action, violent or not. In this sense antifa, the Proud Boys, and William Barr are all radical. Radical is not in itself a term of praise, I would say.

Incidentally, my students tend to use "radical" as a simple synonym for "violent."

The US congressional elections of the 1790s were quite radical in their time. Were they "Enlightenment"? I don't know. I think one would have to revisit, almost line-by-line, American political arguments of the 1780s and 90s to find out. I wonder if one would end up with something like, "American politicians of the 1780s and 90s were heavily influenced in their writing at that time by Hutcheson, Beccaria, Montesquieu, and other Enlightenment thinkers, but those thinkers might well have been surprised at the uses to which their ideas were put." I wouldn't be surprised if common-law writers like Blackstone played as big a role, one way or another.

David said...

Considering further, I think it may be a close question as to how radical US congressional elections really were in the 1790s. The mere idea of an elected assembly, including one at the national level that did not serve at the pleasure of the sovereign, was actually quite old, going back to the Middle Ages, and was still practiced in many European societies. In terms of voting qualifications, most US states still had quite conservative property-based standards for the franchise; I think Vermont may have been the only state with universal male suffrage at that point. The standards were probably quite comparable to at least some English parliamentary constituencies; of course many of the latter had been set back in the Middle Ages, and by the 1790s could be rendered famously eccentric by the passage of time. In France, the franchise for voting for representatives to the Estates General was actually quite wide, and the initial stages of voting were done, as I understand it, on a more or less universal basis in local communities. The constitution of 1791, as is well known, actually came out with a drastically reduced franchise compared to the system that had produced the Estates-General of 1789.

Probably the most radical thing about the US congress in the 1790s was not the electoral system that produced it, but its powers on the national level, notably the power to declare war (many of its other powers, including to establish an army, pass legislation, and approve taxes, were identical to and probably based on the powers of the British parliament).

David said...

I guess I would sum up and say that, on an institutional level, the radicalism of the American Revolution and subsequent constitution cannot be assumed or denied; one would need to revisit the question on a very detailed level, at least to convince me. I would say the same for the hypothesis of the American Revolution as an Enlightenment project, especially again on the institutional level; I think that's very much an open question, and that its answer would depend, again, on a close revisit of the sources.

FWIW, my understanding is that Gordon Wood, in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, located the revolution's radicalism less in law and institutions and more in a dramatic, broad-based change in manners and morals, toward greater egalitarianism and reduced formality. Some of this may have been rooted in Enlightenment "benevolence," and some in the sort of Enlightenment esteem for the common and domestic that one associates with Watteau, with Maupeou's plain brown coat (I think it was Maupeou who became famous for this), with Franklin's homey wit, and so forth. Some of it might have been rooted in 17th-century dissenter leveling, and some in 18th-century Methodist leveling, and so on, and this religious side would be rather un-Enlightenment, or at least un-philosophe. That book, like so many, many others, would be worth reading.

John said...


I believe the thing most contemporaries singled out as radical about the American Revolution was the ban on any sort of hereditary aristocracy. Many of the debates in ensuing years revolved around just that point, for example many people criticized the Society of the Cincinatti as a proto-aristocracy, and there was a long debate about what sort of carriage the President should ride in (closed coaches being seen as aristocratic).

I would say the US constitution was a fusion of old British practice, colonial experience in representative government, and Enlightenment ideas about universal rights etc. I think all are important.

Of course it was the populist spirit that most struck many observers over the following decades, the way perfectly ordinary, badly dressed Americans would march right up to their Senators and demand to be heard at length. So there was definitely a social leveling side to what was happening.

For both the US and French Revolutions it is possible to explain most of what happened without recourse to Enlightenment ideas, but the rhetoric of many actors was all about universal rights etc. I concede that the importance of that rhetoric, and those ideas, is open to question, but I take people like Washington, Jefferson and Robespierre and their words and assume they really cared about humanity and its better future. In fact that is how I might summarize the two sides to the political debate of the 1790s: should we be looking to the past for guidance, or imagining a perfect future and working to make it happen?