Our department has, on the whole, coped remarkably well with the Covid situation. A number of students have told us that our teaching and general level of organisation have been among the best in the Faculty. One would suppose that there is a strong self-selection bias at work here, but, as we are philosophers, we are able to see through complexities concerning sampling and statistics and to, clearly and distinctly, perceive our virtue.
The Philosophy department, as is typical of humanities departments the world over, is politically firmly on the left. Personally I am an outlier; in social matters my views are liberal, but economically I strongly favour markets over governments. Most of my colleagues are inclined towards dark grumbling about capitalism, ‘neo-liberalism’ and the like. Their self-understanding is that this is a way of ‘speaking truth to power’, we are good enough friends that they smile pityingly when I call it ‘yelling at clouds’.
Of course the truth is a bit more complicated than portrayed above. They differ strongly among themselves. At least some would not doom us all if they were granted executive power to run the world. Also, I am more Georgist than capitalist, and Georgism is the fuzzy, teddy-bear version of capitalism.
Ultimately though, most of my colleagues claim ‘left-wing’ as an important part of their self-descriptions. I passionately don’t. So it made me smile when I realised that Covid-19 has shown that our departmental functioning is a fine example of the virtues of conservative political philosophy.
‘Conservative’, like ‘right-wing’, is not a self-description I would ever claim. It is too closely associated with religion. I am happily agnostic, the only real passion in my religious views is my dislike for discussing religion. Conservatism, furthermore, is historically associated with racism, sexism, militarism, Trump and similar ills; the term strikes the ear as small-minded, petty and provincial. It is the politics of the proverbial small town, eternally sceptical of outsiders, where everybody knows everybody’s business and deviation from the norm is punished with ostracism and shame. Conservatism seems high school politics writ large.
Conservatism, however, is not all bad. It is closely associated with an ethic of self-reliance, hard work, honesty and thrift. Politics, for a conservative, is a matter of creating a system whereby those who exhibit the aforementioned virtues would thereby flourish. There is nothing in this, except as a matter of emphasis, with which liberals (in the modern sense) would disagree. The difference comes in where conservatives seem deeply reticent to make laws that directly attempt to make people self-reliant, hardworking, honest and thrifty. Whereas the left does not seem to ever lack in regulatory ambition, conservatives think we should have only as much law as our fallen state necessitates. Conservatives do not think that government works. When elected, they are typically proven correct. Conservatives are the old-school parents who send kids out to play, telling them “come back at six, don’t kill each other and try not to get hit by a car again”.
Conservative regulatory reticence strikes the liberal as crazy, and mumbling “self-reliance, hard work, etc.” when social ills are mentioned seems pointless. The liberal tends to see problems as ‘systemic’, as often they are, and so the conservative seems to be psychologising and individualising sociological phenomena. Such systemic issues call for a regulatory response to change the rules of the game. The better strands of conservatism, however, are those that admit the systemic nature of certain problems, while remaining sceptical of regulation as the default solution. Rather they emphasise the degree to which self-reliance, hard work, honesty, thrift and all the rest can be communally incentivised individual traits, i.e. how we informally police and reward each other for exhibiting these traits. When we make friends and enemies, congratulate and gossip, laugh and frown we are all one giant, decentralised regulator that can serve to make each other better.
This decentralised regulator cannot cure all ills, but it can be surprisingly effective. We are social creatures and our reputation is all. Which brings me to our department and its functioning in a time of Covid-19. My colleagues would agree that we are the very opposite of a strongly centralised, highly regulated institutional entity of leftist dreams. Official oversight is minimal. We meet once a term to discuss matters of common concern, individually we are assessed annually in order to be assigned a ‘performance rating’ that means very little. No doubt there exists an array of documents on a server somewhere that regulates our interaction, job descriptions and duties. No doubt those documents have a point; we need the law for when social solutions have failed or the university is sued. Yet there is no sense in which those documents regulate our lives and there would be groans all round if management tried to make us learn their contents. We are regulated by social law, the full statement of which is “teach well, publish, be nice”.
Social law is a matter of values, but are not the values written in mission statements and management missives. Stellenbosch, as it is a modern, value-driven university, has those too. There was a long process to select the values that officially infuse all we do and if I ever need to petition management I will google them. Social law concerns the values informally adopted and enforced in a community, they structure the very way you perceive yourself in relation to others.
The social law in our department, as in the best traditions of conservatism, contains a deep respect for personal autonomy. None of us are particularly concerned with what the other teaches or writes about, yet we are generous with our praise if it is good by the standards of the field. A colleague with deep misgivings about my specific sub-discipline once sincerely congratulated me on a fine publication in “advanced sudoku”. I took it for the compliment that it was intended to be.
Enforcement of the social law is ruthless. No number on a performance evaluation could match how mortifying it would be if my colleagues thought that I am bad at my job and thereby ‘letting the team down’. The real fear, of course, is letting oneself down. But, while such justifications work well for self-aggrandisement and research, they are not as powerful when it is 3 AM and all grading is due the next day. That is where visions of the practiced contempt of our office administrator kicks in to keep me at my desk. Yet enforcement, as is the virtue of social law, is also contextual and based on common sense. If I somehow contracted the virus I would not need to consult any policies, fill in any forms or submit any medical certificates in order to be immediately off the hook.
Social law cannot solve all ills, but when virtuous standards achieve some sort of equilibrium, social solutions can be remarkably effective and robust. Of course social law can also have a dark side. Social punishment can be gleefully vindictive in a way that would make a hanging judge blush, hence the recent calls to demilitarise twitter. But, be that as it may, our department has operated effectively under social law for a long time now.
Conservatism: when it works, it works pretty well. Even in times of Covid-19.