The conservative propensity is to conserve, to not destroy, and, therefore, to not replace, even (within limits) by something more valuable... Conservatism is an expensive taste, because conservatives sacrifice value in order not to sacrifice things that have value.
We all have a bias towards our actual loved ones, and so would not wish for a world in which we somehow had even better relationships with completely different people. I figure that just goes to show that love and personal attachments can distort our preferences in various (fortunate, even if not strictly rational) ways. But Cohen suggests a stronger view, elevating this bias to the status of principle: existing things of value ought to be cherished, conserved and not replaced, not in virtue of any personal connection we may have to them, but simply in virtue of their actual existence.
Hence, for example, even impartial spectators -- and not just the unfortunate teenage mother and others personally involved -- should be glad about her child's existence (once he exists; not, of course, beforehand).
Note that a Cohen-conservative may still be a maxmizing consequentialist of a sort. But what they want to maximize is the quantity of preserved or pre-existing value, rather than value tout court. The objection is thus not to consequentialism per se -- utilitarian sacrifice is unproblematic, so long as it is for the sake of a pre-existing beneficiary. The objection instead concerns the aspect of utilitarianism according to which:
the bearers of value, as opposed to the value they bear, don't count as such, but matter only because of the value that they bear, and are therefore, in a deep sense, dispensable.
This is, without question, the best objection to utilitarianism I have ever encountered. Cohen goes on to press his argument as follows:
1. A thing that has intrinsic value is worthy of being revered or cherished.
2. We do not regard something as being worthy of being revered or cherished if we have no reason to regret its destruction, as such.
3. If we care only about their value, we never have reason to regret the destruction of valuable things, as such.
4. We are right to be biased in favour of existing embodiments of value.
The third premise is analytic: utilitarians (i.e. those who care only about value) may regret the destruction of value insofar as this involves a net reduction in value; it is non-replacement, rather than destruction, that we must regret.
The second premise is also very plausible. As Cohen explains:
One can say, quite properly, upon acquiring a valuable thing, "I shall value this until something better comes along", but one cannot in the same way say "I shall cherish this until something better comes along": that could happen to be a correct prediction, but it could not express a decision to cherish...
So, for example, you do not cherish a Tintoretto if you happily replace it by a slightly better Picasso: you thereby treat the Tintoretto as something that has the merely instrumental value of being a vessel of aesthetic value.
So the issue really comes down to premise 1, i.e. whether all intrinsically valuable things warrant cherishing in their particularity, or whether, perhaps, only things with 'personal value', i.e. that we love or are otherwise personally attached to, call for such cherishing.
- Moral Roots and Alienating Aspirations
- Rationality and Reflective Endorsement.
Update: see also 'Cohen-Conservatism revisited'