Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Continuing Relevance of Edmund Burke's Political Thought


I recently started re-reading Burke's Reflections, and was struck by the continuing relevance of his argument to today's debates over social justice. I'm surprised that more political philosophers have not attempted a serious appraisal of his work. A former colleague recommended Yuval Levin's book, but it seems primarily intended for a popular audience.

There is also a convergence between Burke's view of the wisdom of inherited traditions and recent work on the evolution of human culture--I'm thinking specifically of Joseph Henrich's The Secret of Our Success. Henrich argues, inter alia, that the capacity to learn a culture is an evolutionary adaptation, and that a crucial element of this capacity is the ability to have faith in customs for which there is no known rational justification. Humans learn their society's culture largely by imitating others, with preferential imitation of people of high status.

An example that Henrich gives that has a Burkean flair is the set of customs practiced by some South American cultures related to the processing of manioc, a tuber which is a staple of their diet. The Tukonoan people, for example, engage in five separate practices--scraping, grating, washing and separating, boiling, and waiting two or more days--that involve great time and effort, but that greatly reduce the quantity of neurotoxins in the manioc--even though none of the Tukonoans have a rational justification for any of the practices, nor are they even aware of the presence of neurotoxins in the manioc. Ex hypothesi, many human customs and social institutions are similarly functional, even though we don't know what function they serve nor how they serve it.

Of course, there are presumably some "junk" customs and institutions in the mix, but attempting to institute radical, revolutionary change is seemingly bound to cause great harm and destruction by weakening or eliminating vital customs and institutions. This is relevant, too, to U.S. attempts to "nation build" in ways that do not sufficiently heed the matrix of existing customs and institutions in other societies.


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