I sincerely hope that this is the right StackExchange to ask this question. Politics deals with pragmatics and History seldom deals with more abstract questions.

As far as I can gather, Burkean conservatives argue for the maintenance of traditions that have survived the test of time, and for social changes to be made slowly and only when public opinion changes enough as to make it necessary. In this sense, conservatism is more about a method, and less about particular objectives, for it depends on the whims of public opinion.

On the other hand, I have found conservative intellectuals that argue for the existence of fundamental values. These would be the values that answered to situations that everybody thinks are bad, such as civil war, injustice, and poverty.

The problem is that in the list of things that are inherently bad, conservatives seem to cobble up things that can largely depend on culture (injustice, for instance). This, coupled with the previous paragraph in which it is stated that conservatives defend changes only when public opinion so demands, makes me ask: how are conservatives not cultural relativists, accepting social structures like India's caste system?

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  • I'd say this is solid political philosophy, exploring the ontological relationship between 'conservatism' and 'cultural relativism'. Not my bag of tea, but I suspect it's related to a tendency of conservatives to be moral absolutists which by definition rejects cultural relativism. – J D Nov 26 '19 at 19:24
  • They argue for social changes to be made slowly and only when public opinion changes enough as to make it necessary and the existence of fundamental values. The two are compatible. That something manifests in culturally varied forms does not preclude it from stemming from a fundamental value (say, the meaning of "political freedom" evolved from 1800-s), nor does deferring to the tradition mean acknowledging all of it as such. It only means working to change the public opinion first when it is otherwise. – Conifold Nov 26 '19 at 20:21
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    @SwamiVishwananda The OP presents a specific philosophical tension (fundamental values vs culturally relative traditions) and specifies a school of thought to address it (Burkean conservatives). Political and social philosophy is explicitly listed as on-topic in the Help Center. This is exactly a type of question this site is designed for. – Conifold Nov 27 '19 at 5:16
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    Political conservatism (method) and traditionalism in ethics (morality) often go together, but do not have to. Some socially liberal writers are politically conservative (Andrew Sullivan and some libertarians, for example). Burke is known, first and foremost, as a theorist of political and social action, not a moralist. Strauss even suggested that his ethics is, at the core, utilitarian, see Value-Centered Historicism of Edmund Burke by Baldacchino, although this is an overstatement. He did see conservatism as an expression of Christian humility. – Conifold Nov 28 '19 at 22:23

Burke as natural law theorist

A proper first step is to note with Russell Kirk that :

[Burke] takes for granted a Christian cosmos, in which a just God has established moral principles for man's salvation. God has given man law, and with that law, rights; such, succinctly, is Burke's premise in all moral and juridical questions. The religion of Edmund Burke is a very interesting topic which cannot be examined in detail here; but it needs to be mentioned before any consideration of Burke's political fundamentals ... God gives us our nature, said Burke, and with it he gives us natural law. But that law, and the rights which derive from it, have been misunderstood by the modem mind - thus Burke continues:

The rights of men, that is to say, the natural rights of mankind, are indeed sacred things; and if any public measure is proved mischievously to affect them, the objection ought to be fatal to that measure, even if no charter at all could be set up against it. If these natural rights are further affirmed and declared by express covenants, if they are clearly defined and secured against chicane, against power, and authority, by written instruments and positive engagements, they are in a still better condition: they partake not only of the sanctity of the object so secured, but of that solemn public faith itself, which secures an object of such importance .... The things secured by these instruments and positive engagements may, without any deceitful ambiguity, be very fitly called the chartered rights of men.("Speech on Fox's East-India Bill," Works of Burke (Bohn ed. II: 176.)

R. Kirk, 'Burke on Natural Rights', The Review of Politics, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Oct., 1951), pp. 441-456: 441-2.)

If Burke's politics is set within this natural law framework, it clearly has some defence against the charge of 'cultural relativism'. Natural law is not relative to culture.

Burke as pragmatic conservative

Burke can and does accommodate an element of historical and cultural specificity, however. He sees the common law rights and associated political arrangements and conventions of his fellow citizens as embodying, firmly but not perfectly, the moral principles mentioned above and as congruous, consonant, with the Christian cosmos. He does not hold that exactly and only the rights, arrangements, and conventions that he defends, circa mid-18th century Britain, are universally prescriptive for politics. Other societies may accommodate the relevant moral principles under different political configurations. He does not criticise pre-1789 France for failing to replicate a British style of politics. One size, to apply a modern phrase to an 18th-century situation, does not fit all.

A further sense in which Burke accommodates historical and cultural specificity is disclosed in his sense that social and cultural change is a fact. The proper response to this fact is not automatically to resist such change or to slow it down (to adopt what one might term a 'reactionary' atttiude) but to initiate and support as much change as is necessary to preserve what is essentially valuable in the rights, arrangements, and conventions that we have. This flexible and pragmatic reponse is clear in Burke's observation: 'A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation' (E. Burke, Revolutionary Writings: Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. I. Hampsher-Monk, Cambridge: CUO, 2014: 23). The requisite change will inevitably be adjusted to circumstance; it cannot avoid being historically and culturally specific.

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To a large extent, Burkean conservatism does involve respect for other cultures. In a speech against the abuses of the East India Company, Burke praises the cultural achievements of India, saying:

This multitude of men does not consist of an abject and barbarous populace; much less of gangs of savages, like the Guaranies and Chiquitos, who wander on the waste borders of the river of Amazons, or the Plate; but a people for ages civilized and cultivated; cultivated by all the arts of polished life, whilst we were yet in the woods. There, have been (and still the skeletons remain) princes once of great dignity, authority, and opulence. There, are to be found the chiefs of tribes and nations. There is to be found an antient and venerable priesthood, the depository of their laws, learning, and history, the guides of the people whilst living, and their consolation in death; a nobility of great antiquity and renown; a multitude of cities, not exceeded in population and trade by those of the first class in Europe; merchants and bankers...

To a Burkean conservative, the enemy isn't backwards culture or political norms. Culture and political structures are the framework within which he must carefully work his reforms. The enemy of a Burkean conservative is the desire by ideologues to remake society according to abstract principles. When a Burkean conservative recognizes the evils of slavery in a society that has had slaves for centuries, his response might be to encourage reforms that would slowly empower slaves and help people recognize the humanity of all people. He might vehemently oppose a measure to incite a bloody slave rebellion likely to kill vast numbers of free people and slaves alike while fomenting resentment and hate for generations to come.

A Burkean conservative can believe in an absolute truth, or be a complete reletavist. The difference between a Burkean coservative and a radical is how he takes his values into the world and tries to make reforms.

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