Quine’s conservatism raises interesting questions about the relationship between a philosopher’s metaphysical commitments and his ethical and political commitments. It would be hard to deny that the sort of commonsense metaphysics associated with Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas had a bearing on the conservative character of their moral and political views, or that the radicalism of Marx’s social theory was at least in part a consequence of his brand of materialism. Yet while Quine’s metaphysical position was among the most radically revisionist of any that philosophers have produced – physicalist, behaviorist, eliminativist – his political views were, again, conservative.
It is hard to think offhand of too many parallels in the history of philosophy. It is true, of course, that Hume’s far from commonsense epistemology and metaphysics also went hand in hand with a kind of conservatism, but then again Hume was also inclined to emphasize how irrelevant the results of abstruse philosophical speculation were to ordinary life, and inclined also halfway to give back to common sense with his right hand, via an appeal to the primacy of “custom and habit,” what his left hand had taken away via philosophical criticism. Quine, committed as he was to scientism, seemed less inclined then Hume to think that common sense would remain more or less intact regardless of the findings of scientists and philosophers.
There is a very widespread belief these days that ethics can be done more or less without paying attention to metaphysics. I think this is completely mistaken, and that most of the philosophers who hold this belief, being almost always metaphysical naturalists of one stripe or another and rarely having their naturalism challenged, have lost sight of how deeply they are themselves committed to what is really just one metaphysical position among others, and of how deeply it has in fact permeated their moral theorizing.
I also think that it is no accident that naturalistic philosophers tend toward unconservative positions in ethics and politics. Naturalists have a tendency to suppose that the methods of the natural sciences are the right models to apply to the study of the human world. Since the history of natural science has often been a history of proving common sense wrong where matters far removed from everyday human life are concerned, the expectation understandably forms that common sense is likely to be wrong where the human world is concerned as well. This is an attitude Michael Levin has called the “skim milk” fallacy – the fallacy of assuming that “things are never what they seem, skim milk masquerades as cream” – and there are good Burkean and Hayekian reasons for thinking that it is indeed a fallacy. It is, Burkeans and Hayekians would argue, unlikely that deep errors about human nature would persist within common sense, given how crucial a right understanding of the human world is to the success of everyday human intercourse, and even to survival.
(I should qualify these remarks by saying that it is the scientistic brand of naturalism, which is the kind predominant in contemporary philosophy, that I claim has the implications I am speaking of here. The sort of naturalism associated with Wittgenstein, concerned as it is, in its way, to defend common sense, is very different, and for obvious reasons more conducive to a conservative position in ethics and politics.)
Whether or not I am right about all this, Quine would seem at least on the surface to be a counterexample to the claims I just made. But I think that in fact he is not, if only because his philosophical and political views seem to have had absolutely nothing to do with one another, even on a subconscious level. As far as I can tell, Quine’s philosophical and political thinking were conducted in two different and hermetically sealed off compartments of his mind. Even with Hume, one can detect a clear connection between his metaphysics and epistemology on the one hand and his politics on the other: the centrality of custom and habit in the former finds a parallel in the conservatism of the latter. There seems to be no similar systematic connection in Quine’s thinking.
Far more than other contemporary naturalists, Quine apparently never so much as entertained the possibility that conservative political views might sit uneasily with such a radical metaphysical position. Most naturalistic philosophers end up at least subtly re-conceiving the world of everyday human life along naturalistic metaphysical lines, and this influences they way they think about ethics, whether they realize it or not. Naturalism tells them we’re just clever animals, or “machines made of meat,” or whatever, and at some level the ethical theory reflects that. The average human being doesn’t think this way, of course, and indeed the average naturalistic philosopher doesn’t think this way either in day-to-day life. It is simply too inhuman a way to think about human beings to be possible to sustain for very long. Like the Humean skeptic, the naturalistic philosopher, once he exits his study, leaves the revisionist metaphysics behind and deals with other human beings as creatures having souls (whether you interpret “soul” in the traditional metaphysical sense or in a more figurative Wittgensteinian sense). Unfortunately, though, most naturalistic philosophers seem to write on ethics and politics while they’re still in the study. Quine did not. His conservatism was apparently not an intellectual one, but a matter of ingrained temperament. (That definitely does not mean it was an irrational one, as every conservative understands.)
That’s my armchair speculation anyway, for what it is worth. In any event, whatever one thinks of Quine’s metaphysical position – and for my part, I cannot think of a metaphysical position I am less sympathetic with – it is surely as powerfully developed and articulated as any in the history of philosophy, and deserving of close study. Some philosophers regard it as a brilliant drawing out of the surprising truths implicit in the physicalistic premises Quine starts with; others (like John Searle, and me) regard it as a reductio ad absurdum of those premises. Either way, Quine cannot be ignored.
From Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary:
“Freedom from the trammels of an age outworn can mean quandaries at every turn, for want of a rule, a precedent, a role model, even a vivid self-image” (p. 68)
“Freedom to remodel society, gained by revolution, can be a delicate affair. Society up to that point, if stable at all, was stable in consequence of the gradual combining and canceling of forces and counter-forces, some planned and some not. The new and untested plan shares all the fallibility of the planner, this young newcomer in a complex world. Maybe the new order bids fair to overprivilege a hitherto underprivileged group; maybe it will presently prove to underprivilege all. It is delicate, and delicacy is seldom the revolutionary’s forte. The constraint imposed by social tradition is the gyroscope that helps to keep the ship of state on an even keel.” (p. 69)
“Democratic regard for civil rights and due process affords a shelter for subversive efforts of enemy agents and for seditious activities of native sympathizers. An enemy despot can send his fifth column through democracy's open gates while keeping his own gates secured. Some restraints on democratic tolerance are thus vital to the survival of democracy. Excessive restraints, on the other hand, would be an abdication of democracy. Such, then, is the delicate balance of tolerance.” (pp. 206-7)
“Moral censorship down the years had monitored an ill-defined limit of legitimacy that was regularly pressed, tested, and moderately violated by the literary, artistic, and popular forces for prurience. Burlesque skits had made merry with sexual themes by double entendre and thinly veiled allusion that brought down the house. Press the bounds, however narrowly drawn, and titillation was assured. Withdrawing the bounds did away with the titillation. So far, perhaps, so good; but this was the least of the effects. Pornography burgeoned, ready with ever more extravagant lures lest custom stale. Also apart from such excesses the public prints, films, and broadcasts relaxed their restraints to a marked degree. General standards of taste in speech and behavior could then be counted on to evolve or dissolve apace, dictated as they are by the public prints, films, and broadcasts. It was a bewilderingly abrupt relaxation of the restraints of centuries, and no small achievement on the part of vocal students, liberal English teachers, and a few docile jurists. There were deeper social forces, also, that have yet to be understood. One conspicuous factor, superficial still, was the widespread spirit of rebellion induced by the Vietnam war, when sympathy with the enemy was open and defiant. Insofar, tolerance of the sort that we first considered played a role: tolerance of subversion.” (pp. 207-8)
From “Paradoxes of Plenty” in Theories and Things:
“It was in the increased admittance and financial support of students that the new prodigality [of the post-war university] came its most resounding cropper. Marginal students came on in force, many of them with an eye on the draft, and they soon were as bored with college as they had been with school. In their confusion and restlessness they were easy marks for demagogues, who soon contrived a modest but viable terror. A rather sketchy terror sufficed, in the event, to bring universities to their knees.” (p. 197)
From The Time of My Life: An Autobiography:
“[At the time of the student demonstrations at Harvard] feeling ran high in the faculty between a radical caucus at one edge, which backed the vocal students, and a conservative caucus at the other edge, in which Oscar Handlin played a leading role and I an ineffectual one. Attendance at faculty meetings exceeded all bounds; we had to move them from the faculty room in University Hall to the Loeb Theater. In previous years I had seldom attended, but now duty called. At one of these crowded faculty meetings, two shabby black undergraduates demanded to be admitted and heard. Henry Rosovsky had done a conscientious job of devising a program of Black Studies that might accommodate the new racism without serious abdication of scholarly standards; but the two black youths demanded more radical provisions, on pain, they hinted, of fire and destruction. The serried ranks of faculty, flecked with eminent scholars and Nobel laureates, were cowed – a bare majority of them – by the two frail, bumbling figures and voted as directed. What price scholarly standards, what price self-respect?” (pp. 352-3)
“At Syracuse in May 1981 I received an honorary degree, my twelfth, along with Alexander Haig, who gave the address. Radicals dressed in bloodied nuns’ garb protested our alleged aggression in Salvador and tried to silence him, but he coped admirably and I liked his thoughts on public policy.” (p. 452)