A theory of conservative epistemology

See updates through February 7, 2023, at end of post.

Fig. 1. “Transfiguration.” Oil painting by Raphael, 1520, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Honestly, I had not planned on traversing Kansas two days after, as it turned out, voters there rejected a constitutional amendment that would have cleared the way for further abortion restrictions in the state.[1]

The first sign I noticed along Interstate 70 said, “Kill Relativism, Not Babies.” Okay, I thought to myself, how many people will even know what that means?

I thought of a passenger I’d had a few weeks ago who identified himself as a recovering evangelical Protestant. His critique was aimed at “absolutism,” and seeing that sign I realized I had not given this issue its due. It’s actually key to understanding what’s going on with conservatism right now and to understanding the affliction that besets the United States. I’ll get back to it. First, some context.

This sign, though unique, was far from alone. It seemed like for every exit, there was a billboard opposing abortion, another sign signifying trust in a northern European white Jesus, and yet another sign advertising the services at a local Catholic Church. I should note that the latter bit is a bit surprising: In my dissertation,[2] upon which much of this post will be based, I had associated Thomas Frank’s Kansans[3] with authoritarian populism; in subsequent analysis I found it had merged with social conservatism, that is, evangelical Protestants,[4] then that conservatism had, contrary to the point of my dissertation, become nearly monolithic.[5] That does not convert Protestants into Catholics.

But the important point about these signs is that there is actually very little attempt at persuasion here. They rely on their audience on some level sharing premises of Christianity and, in particular, a particular interpretation of scripture, and on affirming that interpretation.

To someone like me, this is really a rather curious thing. There is absolutely nothing self-evident about any spirituality to me. Ritual may impress me for its reverence, for the comfort people draw from it, and for the love it may express, as in my mother’s second marriage ceremony, but it does not bring me closer to a Divine Anything.

The people who put up these signs clearly assume otherwise. If I am unmoved, they likely suppose, it is because I have “closed [my] heart,” but in fact, I have explored a number of spiritualities and simply have not found the Truth they presume.

I cannot tell you, based on this, that this Truth does not exist. But I also cannot affirm that it does. An absence of evidence is an absence of evidence, nothing more.

To understand why these devout anti-abortionists expected their messages to have an impact, I would point to natural law.

Natural law is supposedly that notion of right and wrong that the Christian God planted in every human heart. It is thus universally true for all humans in all circumstances.[6]

Except that it wasn’t. Not only was it not identical for all people within a society, it changed as that society grew. The differences in this supposedly universally implanted Truth made natural law unworkable and it has now been all but supplanted by written law.[7]

The lesson here is that people are diverse, they are especially diverse in their circumstances, and they are accordingly diverse in their truths. Which is what the author of that original sign I noticed derides as “relativism.”

For the folks who put up those signs along I-70, there is an absolute truth, that truth is a conservative interpretation of Christianity, and that truth must be present in some level in all human beings. It’s a fundamental error, it ignores the truth of a ten-year old rape victim,[8] it ignores the truth of women who may need abortions in medical emergencies,[9] and it ignores the truth of any woman who needs an abortion for any reason. These folks with their signs simply trust in their northern European white Jesus, whose interventions in the various crises that women face are entirely too rare.

But in their way of knowing, you can trust in that Jesus as well. After all, He loves you, right?

Now I can point to any amount of evidence ridiculing this conservative Christian view. Perhaps you can point to more. It doesn’t matter to them because our evidence is of our flawed senses, because it is temporal. You wouldn’t be far off if you were recalling Plato’s Forms, which

are primary, while the visible objects of conventional reality are their direct derivatives. Platonic Forms are not conceptual abstractions that the human mind creates by generalizing from a class of particulars. Rather, they possess a quality of being, a degree of reality, that is superior to that of the concrete world. Platonic archetypes form the world and also stand beyond it. They manifest themselves within time and yet are timeless. They constitute the veiled essence of things.[10]

In my dissertation, I treated this as a naturalistic fallacy, a substitution of what should be for what is, and I observed that it was common to conservatives generally.[11] For conservatives, however, it is a truth even more real than what we perceive, and to be ranked accordingly.[12]

However Plato conceived his Forms, they are abstractions; we can conceive of them only by reference to what is, and to hold them as superior is to hold the ideal as more real than the real. It is, inescapably, to substitute what should be for what is.

What I realized in my dissertation was that the specific object of epistemological adoration matters little. It might be scripture, it might be the market, it might be tradition, it might be Donald Trump’s used toilet paper. Whatever it is, conservatives value it, “the absolute,” over “relative” “temporal” empirical evidence.[13] And so it is that conservatives can convince themselves that in their anti-abortion campaign, they “value them both.”[14]

Update, August 19, 2022: It’s hard to imagine a much better example of white Christian nationalist epistemology[15] than arch-Trumpist[16] Doug Mastriano:

[W]ith less than three months remaining before Election Day, [Doug] Mastriano continues to be haunted by … Doug Mastriano.

Whether it’s a thesis he wrote 20 years ago warning of a left-wing “Hitlerian Putsch,” or a since-deleted Facebook video he posted this spring about the state’s “deceitful” GOP establishment and its secret “disdain for veterans,” the Republican nominee for governor can’t seem to get out of his own way.

The post-primary hits keep on coming. This week? A 2018 radio interview resurfaced in which Mastriano claims that climate change is an academic fabrication (it’s not) and that Islam isn’t compatible with the U.S. Constitution (it is, as Thomas Jefferson himself acknowledged).[17]

He’s right up there with Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert.

Update, November 19, 2022: As usual, and completely consistent with conservative epistemology,[18] the suits challenging Pennsylvania election results in the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races (Democrats won[19]) offer absolutely no evidence in support of their claims.[20]

I’m a human scientist and as such, alternative ways of knowing deserve my respect. But the epistemology of the legal system relies on written law,[21] arguments, and evidence. This epistemology’s relationship to positivism is obvious. It should be unethical for lawyers to accept cases such as this and those who do should be subject to sanctions by the court.

Update, February 7, 2023:

It turns out that doctors who are politically conservative were actually more likely to consider hydroxychloroquine as an effective treatment [for COVID-19], despite the understood research. . . .

“[P]olitical ideology colors the evaluation of scientific evidence to a greater degree when it pertains to a politicized treatment,” the report reads. “After reading otherwise identical results, partisans’ responses were more polarized when the drug was identified as ivermectin relative to when it was anonymized, with participants who were more conservative reporting that the evidence was less informative, the study was less methodologically rigorous, and the authors were more likely to be biased.” The results, they add, “were not detectably different across lay and physician samples.”

In other words, partisans were more likely to dismiss research undercutting the efficacy of ivermectin when they knew the research was about ivermectin.[22]

These were peer reviewed studies, studies which should have been accepted as best knowledge we had at the time. That’s as good as it gets, particularly in an emergency (which conservatives were also very much inclined to discount).

It still failed to persuade people with doctorates in medicine (M.D.), people who should be well acquainted with scientific method and who should be receptive to positivism as a way of knowing. Conservative doctors seem also to have viewed vaccinations as less effective than their ‘liberal’ and ‘moderate’ counterparts.[23]

There is, I’m sure, more to be said here. Right now, the implications are boggling my mind.

  1. [1]Annie Gowen and Colby Itkowitz, “Kansans resoundingly reject amendment aimed at restricting abortion rights,” Washington Post, August 3, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2022/08/02/kansas-abortion-referendum/
  2. [2]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  3. [3]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2004).
  4. [4]David Benfell, “The seven tendencies of conservatism,” Irregular Bullshit, n.d., https://disunitedstates.com/the-seven-tendencies-of-conservatism/
  5. [5]David Benfell, “My 2024 forecast,” Not Housebroken, July 28, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/03/10/my-2024-forecast/
  6. [6]R. H. Helmholz, Natural Law in Court: A History of Legal Theory in Practice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2015).
  7. [7]R. H. Helmholz, Natural Law in Court: A History of Legal Theory in Practice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2015).
  8. [8]Megan Messerly and Adam Wren, “National Right to Life official: 10-year-old should have had baby,” Politico, July 14, 2022, https://www.politico.com/news/2022/07/14/anti-abotion-10-year-old-ohio-00045843; Alice Miranda Ollstein, “Indiana AG eyes criminal prosecution of 10-year-old rape victim’s abortion doc,” Politico, July 14, 2022, https://www.politico.com/news/2022/07/14/indiana-abortion-rape-ohio-00045899; Alyssa Rosenberg, “This is what it means to rape a 10-year-old,” Washington Post, July 13, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/07/13/ohio-10-year-old-rape-abortion-childhood/
  9. [9]Reese Oxner, “Texas sues after Biden administration issues guidance saying doctors can perform abortions in emergencies,” Texas Tribune, July 14, 2022, https://www.texastribune.org/2022/07/14/texas-biden-emergency-abortion/; Katie Shepherd, “Texas sues Biden administration for requiring abortions in medical emergencies,” Washington Post, July 14, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2022/07/14/texas-sues-biden-emergency-abortion/
  10. [10]Richard Tarnas, Passion of the Western Mind (New York: Harmony, 1991), 6.
  11. [11]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  12. [12]Sonja K. Foss, Karen A. Foss, and Robert Trapp, Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric, 3rd ed. (Long Grove, IL: Waveland, 2002); Russell Kirk, Conservative Mind (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2001).
  13. [13]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  14. [14]Value Them Both, 2021, https://valuethemboth.com/
  15. [15]David Benfell, “A theory of conservative epistemology,” Not Housebroken, August 6, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/08/06/a-theory-of-conservative-epistemology/
  16. [16]Associated Press, “State Sen. Doug Mastriano opens Pennsylvania election audit plan,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, July 7, 2021, https://triblive.com/news/pennsylvania/pennsylvania-state-sen-doug-mastriano-opens-election-audit-plan/; Marley Parish, Stephen Caruso, and Cassie Miller, “Pa. GOP lawmaker — and Trump ally — Mastriano initiates ‘forensic investigation’ into state elections,” Pennsylvania Capital-Star, July 7, 2021, https://www.penncapital-star.com/government-politics/pa-gop-lawmaker-and-trump-ally-mastriano-initiates-forensic-investigation-into-state-elections/; Andrew Seidman, “A top GOP candidate for governor campaigned at an event promoting QAnon and conspiracy theories about 9/11,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 27, 2022, https://www.inquirer.com/politics/election/doug-mastriano-teddy-daniels-qanon-conference-gop-candidates-20220427.html
  17. [17]William Bender, “Doug Mastriano’s comments on Islam and climate change resurface, the latest hit for his campaign,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 19, 2022, https://www.inquirer.com/politics/election/doug-mastriano-islam-global-warming-2018-governor-pennsylvania-20220819.html
  18. [18]David Benfell, “A theory of conservative epistemology,” Not Housebroken, August 19, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/08/06/a-theory-of-conservative-epistemology/
  19. [19]Kris Maher, “Democrat Josh Shapiro Wins Pennsylvania Governor Race Over Doug Mastriano,” Wall Street Journal, November 9, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/livecoverage/election-midterms-2022/card/democrat-josh-shapiro-wins-pennsylvania-governor-race-over-doug-mastriano-rdDSLqwHlckU7Q5yZYF2; Aaron Zitner, “John Fetterman Wins Key Senate Race in Pennsylvania, Defeating Mehmet Oz,” Wall Street Journal, November 9, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/livecoverage/election-midterms-2022/card/oW3cFfkuo97s4Fa2Q9Sl
  20. [20]Rich Cholodofsky, “Lawsuits request hand recounts of votes for governor, senator,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, November 18, 2022, https://triblive.com/local/westmoreland/lawsuits-request-hand-recounts-of-votes-for-governor-senator/
  21. [21]R. H. Helmholz, Natural Law in Court: A History of Legal Theory in Practice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2015).
  22. [22]Philip Bump, “Conservative doctors were more likely to see hydroxychloroquine as effective,” Washington Post, February 6, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2023/02/06/coronavirus-pandemic-conservatives-ivermectin/
  23. [23]Philip Bump, “Conservative doctors were more likely to see hydroxychloroquine as effective,” Washington Post, February 6, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2023/02/06/coronavirus-pandemic-conservatives-ivermectin/