What does it mean to be a conservative? Let us first dismiss the purely literal meaning of “cautious” or “prudent”. Of course, a conservative will avoid needless and reckless change, but so will an intelligent liberal. Does it mean to hold some set of political beliefs? It must be more than that, since we often hear about “conservative” or “liberal” religions, ethical beliefs, and sociological theories. Furthermore, these orientations are sufficiently connected that a person is nearly always liberal or conservative in all areas. No, to be a conservative is to have a certain attitude or orientation towards the whole order of being. It is this orientation which I wish to describe and defend.
Man experiences the world’s order in three levels. The first is inert matter and the empirical or “brute” facts about the world which it embodies. Matter qua matter has neither purpose nor higher meaning; it is raw material which man subjects to his will. The second level is that of subjective will. Man is aware of himself as a being with desires, goals, and opinions, in sum as one who assigns value. As an assigner of values, he can “color” his world with meaning, finding a thing good or bad, useful or harmful, beautiful or ugly. The level of subjective will is also the level at which we encounter the liberal version of morality. Man recognizes that other sentient beings also assign desires and fears, values and disvalues to the things in the world. He realizes that the subjective valuations of others are in some objective sense “equal” to his own and entitled to the same respect.
Inert fact and subjective valuation do not exhaust our experience of order; each of us recognizes that the world is “weighted” with meanings which seem to exist prior to and independently of anyone’s will. For example, one can see the distinction between the three orders in the relationship between a mother and her child. On the level of empirical facts, there is the fact that this baby is the offspring of that woman, there is the inability of human young to care for themselves, and there are the many facts about the woman, such as her ability to nurse, which are relevant to child rearing. On the level of subjectivity, there are the feelings of the mother and child towards one another. Finally, there are the stations of mother and child, the un-chosen context which gives meaning to their acts toward each other and the standard by which they are judged. All cultures recognize a duty for mothers to nurture their offspring, and a duty for children to honor and obey their mothers. The nature of these stations cannot be derived by mere logic from any set of empirical facts. On the level of empirical fact, one cannot even surmise a basic fact like that the purpose of the uterus is reproduction, but only that it can be used for this purpose. Objective meaning belongs to an entirely different and higher order of intelligibility. In fact, it is the idea of the station of motherhood which allows a woman to make sense of the many empirical facts of her femininity. Nor does the station of motherhood derive from subjective desires; neither the mother nor the child nor both together have the authority to dissolve the bond between them. Of course, a woman may neglect or abuse her child, but even so she doesn’t escape the context of her maternal station; she just fulfills it poorly, making herself a bad mother.