I am attempting here to channel how "conservatives" think. I am not a conservative, so you should not see this post as in any way authoritative. I am trying to be as charitable as I can manage.
I believe that a lot of the kind of thinking I describe here is common to progressives and left-radicals. Deciding whether such commonality is good or bad is left as an exercise for the reader.
The only thing that really matters is good and evil. Everything else is minutia.
The human struggle is, and has always been, a struggle between good and evil. It is not a struggle against nature; it is the struggle between good and evil that exists in men's minds. (I use the gendered term advisedly.)
Material prosperity doesn't really matter. Knowledge doesn't really matter. Progress doesn't really matter. They're all kinda nice, I suppose, but they're not what it's all about. It's all about good and evil.
Good is difficult. Good is uncomfortable and often painful. Good is rare. People don't want to be good.
Evil is easy. Evil is pleasurable. Evil is common. People want to be evil.
The only reason evil does not immediately triumph over good is that good is, well, good. Good has an intrinsic power that evil does not. In any society, however primitive, however corrupt, there will be some men who will choose good, no matter how painful, no matter how difficult, simply because it is good. These men are the architects of civilization.
Good and evil exist in men's minds, thus it is intrinsically social. The fundamental purpose of human society is to be the struggle between good and evil. This point bears repeating: human society is not for the struggle, it is the struggle. The struggle between good and evil is eternal. It cannot be "won" (although it might be possible to be lost). What it means to be a human being is to be a part of the struggle; with apologies to Aristotle, any man who is not part of the struggle is either a beast or a god. Without good and evil, without this struggle, it would mean nothing to be "human"; man would be nothing more than an unusually clever animal.
We are always refining our understanding of good and evil, so there is always some controversy over what exactly is good and evil. Still, it is generally agreed that good has to do with hard work, self-denial, personal responsibility, frugality and saving, sexual continence; evil is laziness, self-indulgence, parasitism, profligacy and debt, and promiscuity. The good looks always to the future; evil always only to the present.
It is not strictly necessary to be religious to understand and endorse the struggle between good and evil. However, most of the world's great religions, especially Christianity, are directly built around the struggle. Not all Christians are conservative, of course, but religion, especially Christianity, is a natural springboard for conservatism.
There are three key social elements to the struggle between good and evil.
First, society must discover good and evil. We cannot see directly into the hearts of men, so we need to look at means and results to discover good and evil. That's why sports are really important. If athletes don't cheat, success in sports is dependent on all of the virtues of conservatism: hard work, self-denial, etc. Cheating in sports is reprehensible not because of pragmatic concerns, but because it corrupts the "good-detecting" function of sports.
Second, society must reward good and punish evil. Again, there is no underlying "reason" to reward good and punish evil; there is always good and evil, and good must be rewarded just because that is what a reward is fundamentally for; evil must be punished because that is what punishment is fundamentally for. Trying to search for a fundamental reason is to miss the point. Like the struggle between good and evil, rewarding good and punishing evil isn't "for" anything; it just is.
Third, society must force most people to be good, because they won't do it on their own. Every individual's life must be guided by society; without such guidance, they would be evil. Even the rulers must be governed; indeed, the moral restrictions on the rulers must be stronger than those on the ruled. When these moral restrictions on the rulers are removed, they become weak and eventually lose their rule.
Some corollaries emerge from the above principles.
First, although the rulers are, to a certain extent, more good than the ruled, the most important criterion of rule is not virtue but strength. The rulers must have the strength to force the ruled to be good. Because virtue is not the defining characteristic of the rulers, it is not really hypocrisy when some ruler is found to be less than perfect. The rulers, just like the ruled, are struggling with good and evil, and their success in that struggle is not foreordained. What is more important to determine when some ruler indulges in evil is whether he has the strength to overcome it, and the strength to enforce the good on the weaker and more evil.
Second, authority is a fundamental element of society: authority is the act of the strong forcing the weak to be good. To argue against authority is not to argue for a different kind of society or civilization; it is to undermine the very essence of society and civilization.
Finally, the status of women presents two specific challenges. First, women have to be forced to bear children. Childbirth is such a difficult, painful, dangerous task that without strong social coercion, only the few, rare women capable of being good for its own sake would have children, and the human race (or a society that does not force women to have children) would become extinct. More importantly, the natural* role of women is to rear children. Girls have to be nurtured to become nurturing women, and boys have to nurtured for a while before they become men and step up to struggle between good and evil. Nurture, however, is antithetical to the adult male struggle between good and evil, so women (with some exceptions), because they are by nature nurturing, cannot fully participate in the struggle between good and evil.
*Not necessarily biological nature; the role of women might be socially constructed. However, the role of women as the bearers and rearers of children is so pervasive and deeply embedded in all civilized cultures that it might as well be biological.
What conservatives fear about liberals is not that they think liberals have different ideas about what is good and what is evil, it is that liberals abandon the struggle between good and evil. They want to make the rulers decadent and weak so that they cannot perform their primary job of making weaker people, who are more prone to evil, act and be good. Liberals do not argue for a different kind of society, they wish to undermine what it means to be a society, a society of human beings at least. They say they want a society of gods, but men cannot be gods; all we will get is a society of beasts, living in the moment, with no thought for the future. Elite and common alike will abandon the struggle between good and evil, beinging a society of parasites and hosts, all equally morally bereft.
It is precisely because conservatives are trying to uphold the fudamental nature of society that social mores that seem silly and irrelevant to liberals take on such importance to conservatives. Any corruption of the soul makes more corruption easier; steal a dollar and it's much easier to steal the next \$10, \$100, and so on. To say, "It's only a dollar," is to miss the point completely: the amount doesn't matter; the principle matters.
If you don't understand good and evil, and the every-day, every-second struggle as the foundation of society, you don't understand conservatives.