An Epistemic Argument for Conservatism

RES PUBLICA (2015). ADVANCED ONLINE PUBLICATION. DOI10.1007/s11158-015-9296-8

Abstract: ‘Epistemic’ arguments for conservatism typically claim that given the limits of human reason, we are better off accepting some particular social practice or institution rather than trying to consciously improve it. I critically examine and defend here one such argument, claiming that there are some domains of social life in which, given the limits of our knowledge and the complexity of the social world, we ought to defer to those institutions that have robustly endured in a wide variety of circumstances in the past while not being correlated with intolerable outcomes. These are domains of social life in which our ignorance of optimal institutions is radical, and there is uncertainty (rather than quantifiable risk) about the costs of error. This is an argument for the preservation of particular institutions, not particular policies or outcomes, and it specifically identifies these with the institutions that John Rawls called ‘the basic structure of society.’ The argument further implies that to the extent that there is any reason to change these institutions, changes should be calculated as far as possible to increase their ‘epistemic power.’