Philosophy & Ideas

Kenneth Minogue: A Conservative Among Ideologues

Ideology is running amok in the West. Every day dichotomies of oppressors and oppressed are created in radical campaigns to foster anger and resentment against the West, saturating our discourse with radical ideas in misguided attempts to liberate those perceived to be oppressed.

The oppression that ideologues attribute to the West stems from their perception of the individualism that underpins modernity. Individualism emerged in Western Europe during the late Middle Ages, ushering in a shift from traditional communal living to a modern lifestyle focused on the individual pursuit of felicity and moral identity. Ideologues argue that modern individualism lies at the heart of oppression in contemporary society, and embark on moral and political campaigns aimed at establishing a future that rejects these values.

Click here to subscribe to enjoy immediate access
to all Quadrant‘s paywalled content and archives

The remarkable success of this leftist crusade is evident in the ever-expanding graveyard of traditional practices once considered of great importance to the identities of individuals, communities, nations and civilisation that are now labelled tools of oppression.

The Right has responded, but the tangible lack of outcomes demonstrates the Left’s dominance. The absence of tangible results has fostered the emergence of the “reactionary global Right”, a movement that challenges liberal culture and practices using the language of struggle and oppression. This creates a peculiar paradox, wherein, in its opposition to the Left, this movement unwittingly adopts the characteristics it vehemently opposes. Consequently, our world is flooded with ideologues seeking to eliminate the imperfections of modernity and establish a rationalist hegemony. 

These radicals pose a daunting challenge to the West because they question the foundations of the modern world. Kenneth Minogue (1930–2013) gave a conservative response, navigating between the extremes, maintaining balance, shielding himself from ideological sympathies, yet receptive to concerns about the modern world. Three of his key themes provide valuable insights: conservative individualism, conservative realism, and his ideas on politics and ideology.  


Conservative individualism 

Individualism isn’t commonly associated with conservatism, as it implies rebellion against traditions and institutions. Minogue understood that, left unchecked, individualism could lead to licentious conduct. He saw no contradiction, however, in advocating for individualism and authority, as they have a symbiotic relationship. Within the framework of conservative individualism we find the unique characteristics of Western civilisation and the modern world it fostered.

Minogue traces the emergence of individualism to the Italian Renaissance in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries which was influenced by Christianity, particularly the concepts of individual will and salvation, and the individuality of the soul. Minogue argues that individualism did not stem from a specific event or idea, but from the inherent desire of individuals to pursue their personal felicity and moral identity. This resulted in their questioning of established norms and the adoption of a sceptical stance towards them. New perspectives of the world emerged, ultimately leading to the “discovery” of the individual.

The discovery of the individual marked the shift from traditional societies which dictated one right order, to modern societies where individuals were free to pursue their felicity and moral identity: “The essence of modernity lay in the development of this new sentiment of individuality: the disposition increasingly to guide one’s life by one’s talents and inclinations rather than to fill the place into which one had been born.” Minogue identifies individualism as the driving force behind the rich and diverse European modern world.

Minogue’s narrative offers a valuable distinction between conservative and liberal concepts of individualism. The former takes into consideration the historical and intellectual factors that contributed to its development, the latter emphasises human advancement in terms of individual rights and autonomy. 

Minogue’s most significant distinction however lies in his view of individualism as a moral practice. It draws on Oakeshott’s concept of a moral practice as a way of life with specific conditions to which individuals must subscribe in order to participate in an activity. By viewing individualism as a moral practice, Minogue suggests this way of life encompasses more than the mere pursuit of individual desires. It entails the acceptance of certain conditions without prescribing specific outcomes of human conduct. The conditions are characterised by three forms of authority: formal, informal and inner.

Formal authority refers to the rule of law, that is, mutually agreed non-instrumental rules to which individuals adhere. The law does not dictate or constrain all aspects of human conduct, rather it seeks to modify conduct while allowing room for the individual pursuit of felicity. 

Informal authority encompasses social institutions that derive their authority from long-standing practices, the promotion of societal stability, and the moral commitments individuals make to pursue shared interests. 

Inner authority requires a sense of honour or self-discipline to guide human conduct. 

Subscribing to authoritative conditions is not contradictory to individualism, it is essential. By doing so individuals act morally, honouring their commitments to self, others and institutions. This fosters the civility necessary for coexistence in a polity while enabling the pursuit of self-chosen desires. Ultimately, individuals exercise their freedom by voluntarily subscribing to these conditions, which enable the pursuit of self-determined desires.

Subscribing to authoritative conditions reveals the character of conservative individualism as “the practice that accords to some personal acts, beliefs, utterances, a legitimacy that may conflict with the dictates of custom and authority”. The individualist attitude is driven by self-interest and the pursuit of felicity through desires, but it is important to differentiate between rational desire, in which consideration is given to personal commitments and coexistence with others pursuing their desires, and impulse, which seeks immediate satisfaction without rational deliberation.

Fulfilling felicity is not the sole aspect of the individualist ethos; the formation of a moral identity is equally significant. Minogue contends that “choice is a much deeper idea because it includes consideration not only of what satisfactions different courses of action may give but also the sense of moral identity revealed in choosing whatever we may choose”. This introduces a crucial element to human conduct and rejects the simplistic notion of individuals as mere collections of desires and impulses.

Conservative individualism legitimises the pursuit of individual desires and identity, while emphasising the importance of being condoned by authority. Despite the potential for conflict, individualism is the source of vitality, creativity and wonder in human experience, the essence and distinguishing feature of Western civilisation, the driving force behind the modern world and a way of life worth defending.


Ideology: challenger of politics and modernity

“Ideology” is a widely used but often misunderstood term in intellectual and political discourse. Coined by Destutt de Tracy during the French Revolution, it originally referred to a scientific approach to seeking truth through empirical means but soon became a derogatory term aimed at critics of the Napoleonic regime. It wasn’t until Marx and Engels used it to refer to the dominant ideas of bourgeois society that it gained renewed significance and a negative connotation, and later Lenin provided a positive Marxist view of ideology. For Lenin, ideology represents the ideas and beliefs of the proletariat in their journey towards revolution. Thus, Marxism encompasses two distinct connotations of ideology: the negative portrayal of falsifying ideas by oppressors, and the positive portrayal of emancipating truth for the oppressed. These connotations are further complicated by the neutral interpretation of ideology in the social sciences, referring to a range of individual beliefs.

Minogue criticises ideology and emphasises its negative connotation; it represents “a comprehensive diagnosis of the fundamental evil of the modern world, which further explains how that evil is to be cured”.

Ideology follows a three-stage process. First, revelation, where ideologists employ social criticism to diagnose the ills of modern society and discredit the ideas that support it. They seek to enlighten the masses, highlighting the perceived evils of individualism and the oppressive system that hinders a harmonious world. Ideologues claim to possess revelatory knowledge about the oppressive world and the means to liberate the oppressed. 

The next stage is the struggle, a crusade for liberation, seeking to free individuals from oppression. Finally, ideologues focus on consolidating the new harmonious world.

Minogue’s conceptualisation, by itself, does not offer a moral assessment of ideology. To understand his criticism of ideology, it is important to grasp its challenge to politics and modernity. Politics is “the activity by which the framework of human life is sustained; it is not life itself”. According to this perspective, politics is the art of governance rather than a science that proposes a comprehensive societal blueprint. It is not guided by a blueprint but by the accumulated knowledge and experience of individuals interacting with one another and the practices that emerge from these interactions. Rejecting the possibility of a societal blueprint, Minogue views politics as a triangular conversation, wherein none of the political traditions in the West—socialism, conservatism and liberalism—provides a complete guide or indisputable truth about political activity.

Politics involves persuading fellow citizens about the necessity of laws that enable individuals to co-exist. This highlights its complex nature, as individuals have conflicting desires and identities. The role of government is to transcend these conflicts.

Advocates of political doctrines engage in debates about the proper framework of civil association, while ideologues supersede debate by claiming to possess indisputable truths about society. This is where the problem of ideology lies. The ideological logic in political discourse revolves around the belief that only through the adoption of its revelatory principles can individuals be liberated from the world’s evils. It envisions a perfect state, aiming not to reform the framework of civil laws but to completely transform an oppressive system. Ideologues employ state power, guided by their teleocratic terminus, to compel individuals into unchosen ends and identities, blurring the line between the state and the individual. In the ideologue’s utopia, politics is abolished, as its intricate and agonistic nature poses a threat to societal harmony.

Ideologues inherently oppose modernity and the individual disposition that defines it. They view individualism as breeding oppression, aggression and conflict, contrary to their vision of a perfect system. The error of individualism lies in its detachment of the individual from its authentic social self manifested in traditional societies that provided harmony and stability, which modernity disrupted. The solution is to actualise the concept of the “species-man” and restore human life to traditional ideals, where individual felicity and identity are determined by society. Ideologues seek to replace the vitality and diversity of the modern world with a futuristic world based on pre-modern ideas.

Ideology unveils the oppressive nature of our civilisation, necessitating the liberation of the individual. The quest for ideological liberation is “a dagger pointing to the heart of modern Western civilisation”. Its primary target is individualism, which ideologues perceive as the major hindrance to their cause.


Conservative realism

Minogue’s favourable perspective on the individualist modern world is not commonly found in contemporary right-wing discourse, however, as John Kekes points out, conservatism is not a singular doctrine. Minogue’s conservative realism is characterised by its alignment with Oakeshott’s conservative disposition, as seen in Minogue’s view of conservatism as a “preference for what has grown up over a long period of time in contrast to what has been made by deliberate human contrivance”. Rather than imposing specific beliefs or moral systems, it reflects a natural tendency to favour the familiar in the face of the unfamiliar. This does not imply that conservatives idolise tradition and are inherently resistant to change. Minogue emphasises that the conservative disposition is receptive to organic change that naturally evolves over time while remaining sceptical of imposed innovations.

The conservative disposition does not entail that individuals always prefer the familiar in every aspect of human conduct. In certain areas individuals may act in a radical manner, while in other areas they exhibit a conservative approach. The key point is that this disposition represents a habitual approach that individuals can draw upon when contemplating their conduct. What distinguishes it from other modes of deliberation is its reliance on practical knowledge as a guiding principle for human conduct. 

Applying this disposition to the activity of politics, the conservative in politics “governs, rather than [imposes] some dream or other … [he] will be guided, not by a vision of truth, nor by the attempt to impose one project upon its subjects, but by the evolution of the society”. 

Two key aspects of conservative realism stand out. First, scepticism in denying the possibility that through reason or metaphysics, individuals have access to a reservoir of indisputable conclusions about political activity. Second, sceptical politics, where the government’s role is to preserve the framework of laws rather than impose a telos on society. The fundamental wisdom of conservative politics lies in the rejection of teleocratic politics, which is prevalent in both left-wing and right-wing ideologies. Thus, Minogue’s conservative realism rejects the notion of possessing indisputable political wisdom and instead embraces a political disposition focused on preserving stability and avoiding teleocratic agendas.

Minogue’s rejection of teleocratic politics means that conservatism should not approach politics as John Kekes does, by asking: What are the best political arrangements that lead to the good life? Asking and answering this question from a conservative standpoint would make one an ideologue. However, a question still arises: What does Minogue aim to preserve if not a specific conservative society? According to Minogue, conservatism entails “an affirmation and affection for the way of life we have”.

Conservatism embraces the undeniable reality of a way of life that has shaped and nurtured a society of unique individuals, each pursuing their own felicity and moral identity. The fundamental concern of conservative politics is safeguarding the continuity of this individualistic way of life. Conservatism aims to protect the richness of the modern world, deeply intertwined with tangible aspects of human conduct and the practices born of human experience.



Kenneth Minogue may not have the same level of recognition beyond conservative circles as some of his contemporary conservative intellectuals, such as Roger Scruton. The lack of widespread recognition could be attributed to the fact that his disposition did not align with the demands and actions sought by many conservatives. However, the significance of Minogue’s ideas becomes ever more pronounced in offering a conservative response to the challenges posed by ideologues.

The ideological view of modernity blames individualism for society’s perceived problems, accusing modern life of promoting selfishness and neglecting the common good. Minogue’s concept of conservative individualism emphasises the uniqueness of Western civilisation and its balanced relationship with authority as the source of its vitality, diversity and prosperity. It allows for the pursuit of individual felicity and moral identity while recognising the importance of societal practices.

The misinterpretation of the modern world by ideologues leads them to propose an erroneous ideological solution. Minogue highlights the dangers of ideological thinking, which views the modern world as an oppressive system in need of complete transformation and seeks to impose a rationalistic blueprint on society, disregarding the importance of preserving the framework of laws that enable individual coexistence. The ultimate goal is to replace the individualist modern world, seen as the source of oppression, with a futuristic utopian vision rooted in pre-modern ideas.

Conservative realism provides a perspective that counters the increasing hostility towards modernity within right-wing circles. As Western civilisation becomes more unfamiliar, many on the Right turn to ideology as a means of restoring what is familiar. Minogue rejects this ideological approach as a solution to the unfamiliarity of the West. Ideologues tend to attack the very institutions that support the existing way of life, to which individuals have become accustomed. The pursuit of ideological goals often necessitates a coercive and managerial state that restricts the freedom and entrepreneurial spirit of individuals.

Minogue views conservatism as a disposition that, when applied to politics, acknowledges the importance of scepticism and a realistic perspective on what is achievable in political endeavours. He dismisses the notion of a preconceived plan for society and emphasises the practicality of a society comprising individuals who engage in politics through persuasion rather than coercion. Minogue’s insight lies in recognising that the preservation of Western civilisation does not depend on an enlightened government, but rather on the initiative and creativity of individuals themselves.

More than ten years after Minogue’s death, the pursuit of redemption from the imperfections of modernity remains strong. The discontent with the West has led many to embrace an ideology that reflects a profound self-loathing within European civilisation. Minogue’s ideas serve as a valuable reminder of the perils associated with the dominant radicalism in our political climate. His legacy invites us to reject the ideological dream and embrace the remarkable achievements of the modern individualist West.

Ojel L. Rodriguez Burgos is a professor of international relations at the University of the Sacred Heart in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and a visiting fellow in the Institute of Intellectual History in Saint Andrews. Twitter: @ojelrodriguez.


5 thoughts on “Kenneth Minogue: A Conservative Among Ideologues

  • STD says:

    There is nothing wrong with being, or even the idea of individualism per se. But are the right ends being met. Is the orientation sort for the good (virtue) or is the resultant mired in vice………..” the problems associated with individual leadership can intensify when a follower does not have the capabilities to compensate”.
    Fulton Sheen: Mathew 12:34-40, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh”. The question I would put to you is can a heart that does not know itself, the irreconcilable indifferent heart be reconciled to itself, for itself ,by itself, who exactly is to be the judge of the underlying value?

    Fulton Sheen again,” Every man who refuses to worship God is a ‘social climber’ who wants to sit on God’s throne and thus become hateful and mean because of a terrible inferiority complex: he knows deep in his creature-heart that he is not a creator, and he could not be godless if there were no God. The man who is irreligious is like a man who is ignorant: both are imperfect, one in relation to his intellect and the other in relation to his to his whole being and happiness.”
    But wait there’s more individualism and independence from Bishop Sheen.
    “Every time a man takes off his hat to a lady he is “worshipping” her. Now to worship God is to acknowledge in some way His Power, His Goodness and His Truth.
    If you do not worship God you worship something, and nine times out of ten it will be yourself. If there is no God then you are god; and if you are god and your own law and your own creator, then we ought not be surprised there are so many atheists.
    The basic reason there is so little worship of God today is because man denies he is a creature. Without a sense of creatureliness or dependence there can be no worship. But we have not yet answered the question “ Why should you worship God?” You have a duty to worship God, not because he will pout and be imperfect and be unhappy if you do not, but because if you do not worship God you will be imperfect and unhappy.”
    If atheism is Utopia, where are we at in regards to our individual felicity and moral well’ being – as a society?

  • STD says:

    I guess there’s a reason for the meanings in words dystopia and utopia.
    We cut ourselves off and in due course we despise and spite who and what exactly and precisely?
    Could it be the good in you-happiness, pure unadulterated naked simple little happiness (you) as the good thief next to the embodiment of the crucified truth giver can attest.
    Who in this modern age is the impenitent thief – is it the world of despair and pride (pleasure that can never know true satiety or a joy that never grows weary or loathsome:the moral robber or the moral donor; I hear who ask?

  • Les Glover says:

    I get the premise……….but can’t agree.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    Four centuries ago, James Ussher an archbishop and a professor at Trinity College in Dublin, calculated our planet’s birthdate. Using clues from the Bible, he decided that Earth was born on October 12th in 4004 BC. That would make Earth 6,028 years old today. The modern scientific consensus is that it is a tad older than that: take it as 4.543 billion years (give or take a visit or two from Santa Claus.)
    The consensus among astronomers is that the known Universe is 93.016 billion light years in diameter. That means that it would take a single photon of light travelling at 300,000 km/second, 93.016 billion years to cross that distance with somewhere between 100 and 200 billion galaxies in this observable universe. The average number of stars per galaxy is around 100 million, give or take a few. But wait: there’s more.
    Jews believe that their One God (whose name must not be mentioned) created it all, from the biggest galactic cluster down to the countless subatomic particles (quarks by increasing scientific consensus.) Further, they believe that all the wars, crimes, assaults, greed etc in the world began with a single act of disobedience to a Divine Command, which was the eating of a divinely forbidden fruit by the first woman, who was persuaded to do so by a talking snake, and who liked it and passed it on to the first man, who took a chomp out of it, and agreed that it was damned good. And so everything in God’s Creation went downhill from there.
    But then, after a considerable passage of time and deep thought on God’s part, He came up with a solution. He would have himself born of a virgin woman, given birth to in a stall for the feeding of domestic livestock, do a bit of growing to manhood and teaching of righteousness, and then have himself publicly crucified by the sadistic Romans, who had control of the locality (Judea) as a sacrificial payment of himself (as His own Son) to Himself (as Father-Creator of everything) and with His Holy Spirit ever-handy to supervise all Earthly proceedings.
    Some believe that story because they want to believe it. As well, that belief may be as well part of their family tradition (and the family that prays together, stays together.)
    And so, we can proceed to consider the following exchange:
    Theist: God has always existed.
    Atheist: And on the same basis, so then has the tangible Universe. /
    Theist: But nothing material can last forever. Heraclitus the Ancient Greek argued from that.
    Atheist: But the immaterial idea of God can? So whose eternal and material head gets to carry this head around forever, with this divine idea inside it?
    Theist: God’s. Because He has always existed.
    Atheist: So why not the Universe also?
    And round and round we go….
    The Christian idea of Heaven is also interesting. People die, and the souls (ie consciousnesses, beings; and if they have been good) join the Heavenly Choir and sing God’s praises for the rest of Eternity. That makes God the Infinite Egotist; ie the Infinite Sinful Human. Etc. Etc. Etc.
    But I will have to leave this here. I hear someone knocking on my door. Could be that bloke from the Salvation Army back again.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Good piece and it couldn’t be about a better subject on the topic of ideology and conservative realism than Kenneth Minogue, whose prose and wit I find a little easier to follow than Oakeshott, his senior at the LSE and also very good in my mind.
    Individualism , authority and conservatism surely fit naturally together, with pure ideology a real can of worms and trouble, and one only has to read Minogue’s books ‘Alien Powers’ and ‘The Servile Mind’ to get that message.

Leave a Reply