Ewan Burns

Research title

Conservatism: toward a traditionalist moral and political epistemology


Research Summary

Areas of Interest

My principal areas of interest are Political Philosophy and Moral Philosophy. I also have an interest in Epistemology and the Philosophy of Music.

Research Summary

My research concerns whether there is a sound epistemic argument for conservatism. I take the core claim of conservatism to be the thesis that traditions enjoy default epistemic status in respect of normative matters. Conservatives often cash this out in terms of the idea that the experience of the political community is 'distilled' in traditions, so to speak. The relevance of this is that, according to the conservative, normative knowledge is social and empirical: its source is the accumulated experience and wisdom of the political community. Thus, we can acquire normative knowledge by 'trusting' or 'deferring to' traditions, in the same way that we might gain knowledge about matters of fact by trusting a reliable testifier. We should simply form beliefs whose contents are propositions which capture traditions, without seeking independent confirmation of those beliefs' truth. Moreover, the conservative claims, we are entitled to hold those beliefs unless and until we discover defeaters for them, in the same way that, according to anti-reductionism about testimony, we may take another's word for it that such-and-such is the case, unless we find reason to think otherwise. For example, if there is a tradition in one's society forbidding stealing, one ought, on that basis alone, to believe that one ought not to steal, unless there are positive reasons for thinking otherwise. Thus, other things equal, we ought to defer to traditions in forming beliefs about normative matters. I call the principle that we ought to defer to traditions the 'Tradition Principle'.

The argument from the political community's accumulated experience to the tradition principle is a long-standing and classic argument for conservatism. However, I offer a new proposal, drawing on recent work in epistemology. The hypothesis of my research is that the Tradition Principle can be supported by a reliabilist epistemology. The conservative can argue that traditions are the outputs of cultural evolution and that since cultural evolution generally produces traditions which reflect the demands of morality (and other normative domains), deferring to them is a reliable method of normative belief formation. This argument has an interesting upshot in respect of recently developments in epistemology, specifically the rise to prominence of virtue epistemology. For if the argument I offer is sound, character traits and methods of belief formation which are not typically thought to be virtuous, such as deference, humility, conforming to group belief etc., might in fact be epistemic virtues. Crucially, this form of philosophical conservatism does not necessarily support party political conservatism. Liberal and even socialist political orders can be justified by appeal to tradition, if the relevant traditions exist in the political community in question. 

 

 

 


Teaching

2018-2019

  • Philosophy 1B: How Should I Live?
  • Philosophy 2M: Self and Society
  • Philosophy JH4: Political Philosophy 
  • Philosophy JH9: Moral Philosophy 

2017-2018 

  • Philosophy 1M: Right And Wrong.
  • Philosophy 2M: Self and Society.
  • Philosophy JH9: Moral Philosophy. 
  • Philosophy SH3: Liberalism. 

2016-2017

  • Philosophy 1M: Right And Wrong.
  • Philosophy 2M: Self and Society.
  • Political Philosophy (Philosophy Summer School).

2015-2016

  • Music 2001/4001: Aesthetics and Philosophy of Music.
  • Philosophy 1M: Right And Wrong.
  • Philosophy 2M: Self and Society.
  • Introduction to Philosophy (Taster Session for S5 and S6 school pupils).
  • Political Philosophy (Philosophy Summer School)

 

 

 


Grants and Awards

I have received the following grants and awards:

 

  • Alexander Ogilvie Scholarship in Moral Philosophy (2018)
  • Royal Institute of Philosophy Jacobsen Studentship (2017)
  • Arthur Jones Memorial Prize in Citizenship (2015)
  • Edward Caird Bursary (2013)
  • Goudie Prize (2013)
  • Francis and Marta Johnson Summer Scholarship (2012)