Conservatism and progress

Near the end of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov, the eldest brother Dmitri is wrongly accused of his father Fyodor’s murder. Spectators at the trial had mostly assumed Dmitri’s guilt, and many in the crowd felt that Dmitri’s personal wrongs against them were being avenged. Only the reader has witnessed the scene in which Dmitri, seething with rage at his wretched adulterer of a father, grasps a pestle in his pocket—and then, mastering himself, swallows his anger and backs out of his plan to kill his forebear. Only the reader has seen Fyodor’s illegitimate son Smerdyakov admit to the murder.

The Brothers Karamozov concludes, some months after Dmitri’s trial, with the funeral of a peasant boy named Ilyusha. Earlier, Dmitri had learned that Ilyusha’s impoverished father, the “Captain,” was involved in Fyodor Karamozov’s illicit business dealings. Dmitri, who had been swindled by the Captain, exacted a humiliating revenge, dragging him through the street by his beard as his son and neighbors looked on. Ilyusha’s schoolmates teased him violently for the incident, throwing stones that hit him hard in his chest. Ilyusha died from his wounds two days after Dmitri was found guilty for a murder he did not commit.

No court could ever convict Dmitri for Ilyusha’s death. The legal system can only sentence the person immediately responsible for a murder. But Dostoevsky’s genius shines a floodlight on the intricate and thorny web of moral cause and effect.

In a sense, Dmitri’s nasty and vengeful actions led to the death of Ilyusha. In the same sense, Smerdyakov was not the only person whose immoral hatred led to the death of Fyodor Karamazov. Smerdyakov’s childhood tutor Grigory frequently punished the young boy, resulting in his psychological disfigurement; Grushenka, a local woman, had dalliances with both Fyodor and Dmitri that caused resentment among the whole family and left Fyodor all the more contemptible a figure; additionally, the cold and logical atheist Ivan advised Smerdyakov before the murder that “if God does not exist, everything is permitted.” The Karamazovs and their acquaintances dwelt in a moral thicket of ill will and indignation, jealousy and jaundice. The ultimate result was Fyodor’s murder and intense suffering besides. Woven through the pages of the novel are the unmistakably prophetic words of Father Zosima: “Each of us is guilty in everything before everyone.”

So much of our political and social thought ignores the latent ways that our actions affect those around us. In our public culture, the standard test for condemning or allowing something is whether or not it directly harms other people. Often, as essayist Helen Andrews observes:

Bad behavior can be condemned only if it is shown to correlate with some quantifiable negative outcome like a greater likelihood of receiving a free or reduced-price lunch among grade-schoolers, a higher incidence of antidepressant use among adults, or a measurable decline in the national GDP. Moral questions are treated as if they were, at the end of the day, merely empirical.

It’s of only peripheral importance to plumb our human and emotional depths, or to ponder the direction and misdirection of our interwoven fates. Life expectancy and the Dow are up, so all is well—so goes our contemporary wisdom.

This “atomic” view of humanity, the idea that we exert little to no causal force upon others unless by direct or semi-direct action, lies implicitly at the root of the progressive ethos. It is understandably attractive, especially in light of the American conversation surrounding same-sex marriage in the last decade. This issue has enjoyed such dominance as the social issue of our age that entire worldviews have formed around it. It was and is plainly obvious to a sizeable portion of America that a loving union between two gay people yields no harm; in the end, they were right about the issue itself.

Conservatives should not have been so trenchant on the issue of gay marriage. Progressives should be proud of the work they’ve done on this issue and so many others. But every conscientious American, at this important point in our social history, should think carefully about the lesson we take away. Have we made progress, as some argue, by seeking the highest degree of individual autonomy and freedom from others, shrugging off seemingly outmoded practices, and allowing ourselves to do anything that does not visibly harm other people? Or, will lasting progress result when we learn to love others rather than just ourselves, seeking prudent reform with the recognition that we are all bound together?

Flickr photo by Stephen Melkisethian
70s-era progressives rallying in support of abortion profiteers. How quaint.

Today’s progressivism proliferated in the 1960s and 70s. By 2015 it has become enmeshed in the basic assumptions of multiple generations. There is much to admire in progressive philosophy and its results. Previous progressive movements—the civil rights movement, the temperance and women’s movement—held strong communitarian beliefs and goals. But today’s progressivism is built on a founding creed of radical individualism, one whose tendency is to divide. This atomistic creed, lodged somewhere deep in the American consciousness, impels many of us to seek liberation by flouting tradition and community.

But liberating ourselves from the seemingly irrational bonds of sentiment and ceremony sets us on a dangerous path. As we cleave ourselves from custom, we risk cleaving ourselves from one another.

The research on American loneliness is bleak. We feel, despite the unprecedented material bounty of our society, less connected now than at any previous time since 1960, the first year statistics were available. The catchphrases of the radical decades—“doing your own thing,” “free love”—have inculcated in the American imagination a faulty sense of freedom, a notion of human rights severed from human nature. Family and meaningful relationships are increasingly of secondary importance to the individualist aspirations of career climbing and instant gratification. Our indifference  – if not hostility  – to all beyond self yields a disregard for our traditions and an ignorance of our past. We are a generation of radically private historical orphans with little comprehension of a context in which to understand ourselves. Our worlds are shrinking inwards: we seek knowledge only of the immediately relevant; we deign less and less to empathize with others.

It may seem cranky and sentimental to lament the decline of the family dinner or the rise of phony celebrity culture. But these trends come at the cost of family and culture themselves. Progressivism’s strength is also its great danger: we seek liberation from each other, and in a sense, from the past. But human beings do not thrive in a condition of maximal autonomous choice. We need the attachments of community. We must find a way to remove chains without breaking the ties that bind.

The ideas of contemporary American progressivism, for all of the good that they do, cannot stand by themselves. Progressivism is not wrong in seeking progress, but its tendency to shrug away the ties of tradition, no matter their longevity, its tendency to estrange and atomize, leaves a void that conservatism can fill. Many conservatives, notably David Brooks, are calling for a post-Obergefell conservatism, one that sets aside its moral opposition to sexual orientation and addresses the cultural effects of radical individualism with love and warmth. “Social conservatives could be the people who help reweave the sinews of society,” Brooks points out. “They already subscribe to . . . selfless love. They can serve as examples of commitment. They are equipped with a vocabulary to distinguish right from wrong, what dignifies and what demeans. They already, but in private, tithe to the poor and nurture the lonely.”

Brooks is not so much formulating a new conservatism, as underlining a conservative disposition that has been around for centuries, nursed variously by David Hume, Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Wendell Berry, and many others. We need not form a new conservative canon. We need to read the one we have and apply it to our times.

Conservatism in this sense is no enemy of progress—so long as progress is humane. Conservatives seek to tie up the loose ends of our rapidly changing sociality, to give shape and substance to our congealed culture. Every social ideology has its bad side effects; conservatism, with its insistence on familial love and human connection, can be used to negate progressivism’s tendency to isolate and estrange.

As Brooks points out, conservatives must preach community as an antidote to impoverished despair, quiet desperation, and broken homes. But conservatism cannot yield to the dominant culture and overlook the realities of hedonistic life. The unbridled pursuit of self-gratification, the psychologically, socially, and sexually risky behavior of the younger generations, shears at our moral fabric and damages human beings. Conservatives must be willing to point out that the cultural dominance of these immoderations is tearing us apart. The mean but seemingly disconnected action of a Grigory may result in soul-shattering pain and anguish for a Grushenka.

Picture of Richard Hamilton's pop art collage "Just what is it that makes today's homes so different," 1992 version
Richard Hamilton, “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different” (1992)

Smerdyakov commits suicide at the end of The Brothers Karamazov, on the eve of Dmitri’s trial. The symbolism must not be overlooked. He hangs himself from a nail on the wall, where in a traditional Russian home a cross or icon would be mounted. Here, Dostoevsky forcefully shows what is so easy for us to overlook: that isolation and despair are inevitable in a world that glorifies individualism; a world where atomized people have only themselves to worship; a world where “everything is permitted” without thought for the effects of our actions can have upon others.

Father Zosima saw the impending tragedy for which Smerdyakov and the Karamazovs were destined, though he knew that he was helpless to avert it. Yet what he preached is the very thing with which conservatives can heal the fissions attendant to our contemporary hedonistic culture. Genuine love for mankind transcends everything, even tradition. Zosima prays for Smerdyakov, although it was not the Church’s practice to bestow such grace on suicides. The most broken among us deserve the most compassion.

Dostoevsky had an ability matched by few other authors in history to touch the core of humanity and expose it. The Brothers Karamazov is an exercise in lamentation over the profound if subtle ways we affect each other, too often pushing one another toward brokenness. But occasionally he shows us the way out. A human life, as Dostoevsky sees it, is a “moment of acting and living love,” a moment in which each of us has a chance to counteract the pain and suffering of our fellow men. If the dark-spirited actions of Dostoevsky’s characters send ripples of hate and despondency across the sea of human relations, deep, neighborly love can calm the troubled waters.

If the conservative movement is to have a serious future, it must take up this task. The message of the basic moral interconnectedness of mankind and the importance of love cannot be abandoned. The ills of modernity are simply not going to cure themselves.


WILL SHIREY is a junior at Penn, from Waterloo, Iowa. His hobbies include reading, swimming, and having occasional medical emergencies. He owns three flannel shirts and is working on cultivating other hipster affectations. Not yet brave enough to stand athwart history yelling “stop,” he enjoys standing idly by the leftist consensus of his campus and whispering “you are way too mainstream for me.”

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William Shirey

WILL SHIREY is a junior at Penn, from Waterloo, Iowa. His hobbies include reading, swimming, and having occasional medical emergencies. He owns three flannel shirts and is working on cultivating other hipster affectations. Not yet brave enough to stand athwart history yelling “stop,” he enjoys standing idly by the leftist consensus of his campus and whispering “you are way too mainstream for me.”

10 thoughts on “Conservatism and progress”

  1. I really appreciate this post. The question of what lessons supporters of marriage equality should take from their victory about how society should be structured is an important one,as are the possible implications for future visions of how we should relate to one another in our society. Is the author Pro-Life and LGBT?

    1. Sorry for the comment approval delay. Apparently our email notifications were not working. I can’t speak for the author–if he sees this comment maybe he’ll respond.

  2. Sorry, just saw this now. (and sorry for commenting from a WordPress account that is not mine, but a magazine’s). I am in favor of SSM and am pro-life. Thank you so much for your kind comment!

  3. yeah, but like, have you heard the word ‘neoliberalism’? That’s a liberal thing, but it’s not a ‘leftist’ thing. (In my country the Liberal party is DEFINITELY not the leftist party. they’re not synonyms.)

    The trend of atomisation + modernisation + individualism is championed more by the American brand of “conservative” right-winger and the free-market gods than anyone else.

    1. All of those words are functionally meaningless at this point and it’s useless to get too mired in the semantics of it all. You are right: it individualism and atomization are the products of a free-market system undergirded by a fetishization of choice, none of which create any sort of value or social cohesion. What I was arguing *against* is what you referred to as “the American brand of ‘conservative’ right-winger and the free-market gods”… we are on the same page. When I talked about conservatism in the essay, I was not really talking about the Republican Party or dogmatic free-marketism.

      1. OK, I think we are generally on the same page, but I disagree.

        Perhaps this rationale of ‘conservatism’ within a progressive civilised framework is not the answer. I would go a step further and say that progress, modernity, rationality, Christianity individualism and western civilisation are the same thing. And not inevitable or universal. We should take a culturally relativist anthropology-style approach and critique modernity itself. I mean, now that we’ve entered postmodern consumer capitalism, we can’t really go back to ideas about objective truth and certainty…

  4. As I finished reading the first section of this post, getting to the point where you said “So much of our political and social thought ignores the latent ways that our actions affect those around us.”, all I could think was YES! This is exactly what I have been trying to say is wrong with Conservatism in the United States! But then you did a complete 180 to attack progressivism instead, and I find the logical dissonance disturbing.

    Take, for example, your own scenario of gay marriage. Correct me if I’m wrong, but your conclusion is that gay marriage hurts no one (which is NOT what Conservatives have been arguing btw), but the notion that individuals should be free to make their own choices harms everyone in the long run, right? Because we lose sight of how we’re all connected?

    First of all, this “logic” can be applied to pretty much anything that Conservatives hold dear. Welfare should not be given, regardless of the direct good it offers, because of the indirect harm that occurs when people stop “working” for survival. Public education should not be expanded, regardless of the good it would do the nation, because an individual should pay for their own education. The same goes for public healthcare. Or pretty much ANY public service that has long been the hallmark of progressivism.

    It would seem that your argument is one FOR Progressivism, not against.

    1. Michael, I’m sure the author will see your comment at some point and respond. For our part, we don’t actually oppose some public involvement in welfare or healthcare or education, at least in principle–although we have plenty of concerns about the way progressives have approached such things. We do not align with the right-liberal or libertarian view that says such things are never the province of government.

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