Conservatives adopt a pessimistic view of human nature

Conservatives adopt a pessimistic view of human nature. According to conservatives, we are all psychologically flawed and imperfect. Indeed, during the Enlightenment conservative theorists rejected the rationalist assumption that we should be optimistic about humanity and seek to improve it. The conservative view of human nature is largely grounded upon the Catholic notion of original sin and Biblical warnings over human wickedness.

Firstly conservatives believe that we are driven by baser instincts rather than higher reasoning, this is a fundamental difference with liberalism. For instance, conservatives believe that we seek protection for ourselves, our homes and our families. As such, we are by instinct suspicious of outsiders and prefer to live in a society based upon cultural homogeneity. Human beings are also drawn towards competition over the acquisition of money, status and property. At times, this can lead to behaviour that needs to be regulated by the forces of law and order. An example of this is the 1979-1990, first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. In this time, ‘Thatcherism’ arrived. This developed new ideas about human nature, believing that humans were capable of rational thought in the economic sphere, yet not in the moral/social field. New Right thinkers, and Thatcher herself, called for a strong authoritarian state in terms of law and order, yet minimal state interference in the economy. The term authoritarian relates to a form of government characterized by strong central power and limited political freedoms. Individual freedoms are subordinate to the state and there is no constitutional accountability under an authoritarian regime. Informally defined executive power with often vague and shifting powers. Thatcher’s assured analysis of society and human nature allowed for this apparently contradictory role of the state (known as the ‘Paradox of the New Right’) to be put into practice, and opened up the doors for dogmatic principles to flood into conservatism.

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However, New Right neo-liberalism has departed from these ideas in that it believes in human rationalism and individual self-reliance. Both types of liberalism (modern and classical) have an optimistic view of human nature. Liberal thinkers such as John Locke and Jeremy Bentham perceived humans as rational beings who act in their own self-interest by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Classical liberals would argue that if humans are inherently reasonable and self seeking, then a successful society can based on meritocracy without the need for an overbearing state to control us. Jeremy Bentham argued that the state should only intervene in the case of ‘other regarding actions’, i.e. cases in which an individual’s freedom imposes upon another’s. The modern liberal T.H Green suggested that people have a natural desire to enhance others’ welfare as well as their own. Hence, people are both philanthropic and egotistical. In redefining what it means to be free after viewing the negative outcomes of the Industrial Revolution, this philanthropic instinct suggested that the state should help those in need, enabling them to achieve the same fulfilment as others through the provision of state welfare ( as proposed, for example, by the Beveridge Report in 1942). In the economic sphere, however, the state should remain firmly in the background. This optimistic view of human nature regards the state as a precautionary observer with limited interference, contrasting with the paternalism necessitated by a conservative’s pessimistic view of human nature.

Thirdly, those ideologies which adopt a fixed view of human nature are inherently wrong. The leading proponent of this argument is the Austrian theorist Karl Popper (1962). Furthermore, we cannot predict the future and should simply recognise the limits of our understanding. Those ideologies that promise a utopian system must be open to criticism in order to expose such thinking as a doomed exercise in self-deception. Ultimately, all humans are intellectually flawed. The one-nation school of thought dates back to the work of the nineteenth century statesman Benjamin Disraeli. In his novel ‘Sybil’ (1845) Disraeli examined the gap between the wealthy elite and the working-classes. He laments that they were “as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings as if they were inhabitants of different planets.” Disraeli argued that it was in the interests of the ruling elite to adopt a stance of paternalism towards those less fortunate. For instance, the provision of a safety net for the unemployed would alleviate the most acute forms of poverty. More importantly, it would prevent the emergence of revolutionary consciousness amongst the disaffected. Disraeli was a consummate politician who argued persuasively that the one-nation outlook would enable the Conservatives to reach out towards all sections of the electorate. With the benefit of hindsight, this proved to be a highly effective electoral strategy. Paternalism has enabled the Tories to present themselves in a positive light to those with very little wealth to actually conserve (the term conservative stems from the Latin “com servare” to preserve). In doing so, one-nation ideas have allowed the Conservative Party to claim a mandate to govern on behalf of society. Partly because of paternalism, the Tories are the most electorally successful party in the UK with a sizeable level of support amongst working-class voters. Throughout their history, the Conservatives have often appealed to a wide swathe of the electorate due to their ‘catch-all’ nature.

A Conservative view of human nature depends varies as to what strand of Conservatism you want to talk about, though there are similar themes. In general, Conservatives have a negative, pessimistic view of human nature which means that we are imperfect and imperfectible. Conservatives view humans as generally selfish and self-serving and thus unable to achieve what they view as utopian dreams. Conservatives view human reason as very limited and so it is dangerous if we plan a whole new society, detached from established norms and traditions which pertain wisdom from the fact of surviving.
Subsequently, more modern Conservatives, such as Margaret Thatcher, believe people should focus on being individuals and that ‘society’ is an abstract concept. However, some Conservatives, like Edmund Burke, see people as part of a huge community of society who should each contribute in a well-ordered hierarchy and this stability is necessary for the positives of human nature to flourish. Burkean Conservatives see human nature as one which needs order to be controlled and thus the state must act almost like a parent to a child. All Conservatives generally view human nature as destructive when given too much power in government and thus the state should be fairly small.
In conclusion. The view of Human Nature and Human Imperfection has changed throughout the years from classic to modern conservatism but still share similar ideas and philosophies via conservative philosophers.


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