Conservatism is the political philosophy based upon the idea that society needs to "conserve" traditional structures of authority and morality. Conservatism as it is understood in the modern era is a product of the French Revolution - specifically, a product of the reaction to the French Revolution by those in society who felt that changes were happening too quickly and going too far.
Conservatives tend to oppose changes in society which, they argue, will only cause a breakdown in traditional beliefs, traditional morals, or traditional social structures. It is a basic premise of conservatism that whatever has worked well in the past should be assumed to be good enough to work just as well in the future, unless very compelling counter-arguments can be offered. Even so, changes which do take place should do so gradually and as an outgrowth of the natural order of things.
Conservatism is ultimately based upon a generally negative and pessimistic view of human nature. The preference for traditional authority systems to maintain social order is premised upon the idea that humans are basically selfish, unreasonable and even violent. These baser instincts cannot be allowed to run rampant and the only defense against them is a strong government and traditional values - they have, after all, managed to preserve society thus far. This can be contrasted with the perspective of liberalism in which human beings are, to one degree or another, "perfectable" providing the right environment is created (usually through some form of social engineering).
Conservatism is often mistaken for the doctrine that government should be small and should not interfere too much with people's lives or with the economy. This is fundamentally incorrect and the error seems to be caused by the fact that conservatives in the United States often campaign on a platform of smaller government. However, closer attention to what they actually support will reveal that they only advocate limited government powers in certain areas, but not in others. For example, such conservatives will favor less government involvement with welfare, but more government involvement with regulating sexual activity.
Thus, it is important to realize that Conservatism is not inherently for more or less government power and authority. Conservatism supports whatever policy will be most likely to support or reinstate traditional forms of morality, authority and social structures. If less government will mean that traditions stay strong, then that is what conservatives will likely support (for example, welfare programs are opposed because they are believed to lead to a breakdown of traditional family structures).
On the other hand, if it takes more government involvement to keep traditions strong, then conservatives will likely support that (for example, laws banning certain private sexual activities are supported because those activities are also believed to lead to a breakdown of traditional family structures).
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What are Political and Legal Philosophy
The Philosophy of Politics and the Philosophy of Law are often studied separately, but they are presented here jointly because they both come back to the same thing: the study of force. Politics is the study of political force in the general community, while jurisprudence is the study of how laws can and should be used to achieve political and social goals.
What is Philosophy?
What is philosophy? Is there any point in studying philosophy, or is it a useless subject? What are the different branches of philosophy - what's the difference between aestheitcs and ethics? What's the difference between metaphysics and epistemology?