Three years ago, I suggested that our two political camps reflect two different psychologies, casting conservatives as turtles and progressives as hares. I want to briefly suggest a view of the same distinction through a different, more philosophical lens.
To be a progressive or a conservative is to take sides—albeit tacitly—on an epistemological question: How much information can individuals obtain, relative to the amount of information one needs to make informed and thus responsible decisions? (This applies especially to individual people, but it holds also for individual generations, cf. Chesterton, Orthodoxy 84-85 (1909).)
If one is highly optimistic about individuals’ capacities to obtain all the information relevant to a decision and perform adequate analysis of it, one will be apt to have great faith in the abilities of individuals employed as planners and managers to direct society. By the same token, the more skeptical one is of those capacities, the less confidence that one will have in the ability of planners. Both of these are compounded as one’s intuition as to the amount of information about potential consequences one believes necessary to an informed decision and the degree to which one is willing to accept the risks of unanticipated consequences.
Conservatives want a greater degree of outcome certainty before allowing individuals to meddle, and we are skeptical about the capacity of individuals to acquire the necessary information, given the dense and often subtle interconnections that tie society together. The upshot is that we prefer incremental change over relatively long periods of time, and are dubious about proposals that empower individuals—especially individuals who are epistemological optimists—to make sweeping decisions.