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Study notes

Noblesse Oblige (Conservatism)

  • Levels: AS, A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel

Conservatives claim that those born of a high social status have a duty or responsibility to help those less fortunate within society. This is known by the French term noblesse oblige

Key points

According to conservatives, it is inevitable that an elite will arise within any given society. All societies adopt a structure that best serves its needs. 

For instance, within a closed society an elite emerges from the hereditary principle. Historically, this was the basis of feudalism. 

In a more open society, an elite will surface based upon their talent and effort. As a consequence, our relative position within society is aligned to our achieved status rather than the circumstances of our birth. 

Noblesse Oblige in more depth

Unlike liberals, conservatives are not opposed to the hereditary principle. For conservatives, the basis of hierarchy is largely insignificant. Whereas a liberal always favours a more open and meritocratic society, conservatives merely believe that the source of social stratification must suit the broader needs of society. 

Unlike liberals, conservatives are therefore supportive of a Royal Family because they encapsulate traditional values. In order to back up this argument, one could highlight the level of public support for (and interest in) the Windsors alongside the negligible appeal of republican feeling within the UK.

Conservatives also believe that inequality is inevitable. We are all born with different abilities and different aptitudes for work. This reflects a traditional mindset amongst conservatives that inequality is sanctioned by divine providence. In addition, the distribution of life chances within a society will always be uneven regardless of whatever the government does to even them out. Consistent with the conservative mindset, an elite will always exist regardless of the ideological foundation of that society. This makes the notion of an elite acting in a benevolent manner a stabilising factor.

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