How can Edmund Burke's philosophies in Reflections on the Revolution in France be seen in modern day politics?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Because Edmund Burke was a conservative, his philosophies, as set out in Reflections on the Revolution in France, are most commonly seen in the ideas of conservative parties and politicians. Let us look at two major aspects of Burke’s philosophy that can still be seen today.

Burke’s overarching philosophy in Reflections is that human institutions that exist at any given time are likely to be the best possible institutions.  This is because these institutions have evolved over time.  If these institutions were not the best possible institutions, they would have been discarded or altered.  Burke did not believe in altering traditional institutions just because someone had created a theory that argued that those institutions were bad.  We can see a good example of this philosophy in conservative opposition to the idea of gay marriage.  Marriage, as defined as a relationship between a man and a woman, is one of the oldest of human institutions.  Therefore, it must be the best possible way to set up families.  Many conservatives use this reasoning as the basis for their opposition to gay marriage.  They say that it is reckless to change an institution that has been around since before written history just because our new theories of rights say that gay marriage should be legal.

Burke also says that we should not base our government or our laws on abstract ideas but rather on specific, concrete rights.  He says that basing laws on abstract ideas can lead to tyranny because the abstract ideas can be abused in ways that lead to the diminution of people’s rights.  This idea can be seen today when conservatives insist that we need to stick to the rights that are explicitly laid out in the Constitution and/or the Bill of Rights.  Conservatives think that it is dangerous for us to grant new rights based on the fact that they go well with the abstract ideas of liberty and equality.  When we do this, we give the government the ability to change our rights depending on current ways of thinking.  Conservatives would see this in the gay marriage debates as well.  They would say that we have granted the right to gay marriage (as with the right to an abortion and other rights) based on theories of liberty and equality, not on specific rights granted in the Constitution.  As government does this, it tramples on (conservatives would say) rights such as the rights of religious people to avoid participating (even in tangential ways) in marriages that are abhorrent to their religious beliefs.  Thus, conservatives continue to hold to Burke’s idea that we should adhere to written guarantees of specific rights rather than changing the list of protected rights as our theories of liberty and equality change.

In at least these two ways, we can see Burke’s ideas from the Reflections in modern politics in the United States.

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