The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 20, 2018

W. Wesley McDonald - 01/02/12

As Edmund Burke employed the term in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), prejudice is not to be confused with merely arbitrary opinion. Rather, by prejudice Burke meant the “untaught feelings” and “mass of predispositions” supplied by the collective wisdom of a people. He was deeply critical of the Enlightenment view that the lives of men and societies could be ordered by “abstract speculation.” Burke held instead that a person’s private stock of wisdom is meager and unreliable. “The individual is foolish, but the species is wise,” he declared. Far from being necessarily irrational feelings or fancies of the moment, the prejudices of a people may be derived from that body of accumulated wisdom found in long-established habits, customs, and traditions. Burke considered prejudice to be an indispensable guide to social and moral decision-making. People are advised to cling to their prejudices to avoid the pitfalls of moral confusion, doubt, and error.

Elaborating on Burke’s definition, Russell Kirk wrote that prejudice “is prejudgment, the answer with which intuition and ancestral consensus of opinion supply a man when he lacks either time or knowledge to arrive at a decision predicated upon pure reason.” Hence, in much, man must rely on this body of ancestral wisdom because, as Burke taught, “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.”

Prejudice is a necessary part of the predisposition of the civilized person. Insofar as the traditions of a people are civilized, the prejudices that shape and restrain their thought and actions will also be civilized. “Prejudice,” Burke explained, “is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, skeptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.”

Burke believed that the English had been inoculated against the “armed doctrines” of the French revolutionaries because they cherished their prejudices. Because of their “sullen resistance to innovation,” Englishmen abjured the radical doctrines of the French philosophes, convinced “that no discoveries” in morality, or “the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty” have been made or will be made. Such truths “were understood long before we were born” and will continue to be long after the present generation perishes. The civilized prejudices of the English provided a safeguard against unwise, rash, and potentially destructive innovation.

Kirk incorporated this Burkean principle into his political thought. Among the prejudices to which we should cling, Kirk advised, is the “prejudice against organic change, a feeling that it is unwise to break radically with political prescription, an inclination to tolerate what abuses may exist in present institutions out of a practical acquaintance with the violent and unpredictable nature of doctrinaire reform.”

Further Reading
  • Kirk, Russell. The Conservative Mind. 7th rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1995.
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