A central conceit is the substitution of an unexamined contradiction in place of an unresolved paradox which, by the explosion principle, may be used to justify any inappropriate desire, behavior, or belief. The “centrality” of it comes from its function as something like a centroid around which a person’s existence is organized. It can be found as the common element in most aspects of a person’s life history, and major life shifts accompany movements of such points (and possibly resolutions of the underlying paradoxes).
I’ve been thinking about this “central conceit” idea a lot lately. The central conceit of sadism, for example, is that the people you’re hurting will be better off for it. Really you’re helping, not hurting. And if they died under the torture, you can hardly be blamed for their weakness. “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, and if not then they were going to die anyway. And anyway they deserved it. If they hadn’t originally deserved the treatment, you wouldn’t have had to torture and kill them.
The psychopath’s excuse for victimizing people is similar and more commonly understood. “The old lady deserved to be fleeced because she was stupid enough to be fleeced. Better me than someone truly bad, and she’ll learn from it too!” Another example is one of my own, which has to do with hope and despair.
America’s central conceit is the lack of formal status leading to snobbery, as de Botton pointed out. How is wealth distributed? “According to status!” Who is accorded status? “Those with wealth!” Unfortunately, we appear poised to respond to the failure of snobbery with “more and better”, similar to the carousel of public education reform. This is, in my opinion, why Christianity is dying. It is fundamentally anti-snob and in practice often anti-status, but cultural reforms are driven from the top down and even Christian leaders are unwilling to throw out their equivocation of form and function.