What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

Conservatives and tradition

A left-of-center friend of mine recently complained to me that conservatives are “guilty of appealing to tradition when it suits [them], and not when it doesn't.” This is a common charge, but not a fair one. There is not, or need not be, anything arbitrary in the fact that conservatives uphold some traditions but not others. For no serious conservative, nor indeed any unserious conservative that I can think of, has ever said that traditional practices and beliefs are always good, or ought always to be preserved. The conservative attitude to tradition is far more nuanced than that.

What is true is that conservatives tend to hold that the fact that a practice or belief is traditional should lead us to regard it as innocent until proven guilty, and to put the burden of proof on the innovator rather than on the upholder of tradition. To be sure, in some cases that burden can be easily met, and the guilt established quickly. Still, the fact that a practice or belief has survived for some time at least says something for it, and should make us at least cautious of discarding it glibly. This is not dogmatism but simply common sense. It parallels the attitude of medieval scholars toward ancient authorities, which is often caricatured as blind subservience but was nothing of the kind. Aquinas himself said that the argument from (human) authority is the weakest of all arguments. But as Christopher Martin points out in his fine Introduction to Medieval Philosophy, Aquinas and other medievals still regarded it as an argument, and a serious one: by no means conclusive, often mistaken, but nevertheless not to be dismissed.

(As Martin also notes, the difference between the medievals and the moderns on this question is not that the medievals respected authorities and the moderns do not. Modern people appeal to authority constantly – “All biologists accept evolution,” “Most economists think minimum wage laws increase unemployment,” “Nine out of ten doctors agree,” and so forth. The difference is that the medievals frankly acknowledged that they take authority seriously while modern people like to pretend that they don’t.)

So, when can the innovator’s burden of proof be taken as having been met? When is a traditional practice or belief to be upheld and when abandoned? To some extent this has to be answered on a case by case basis, but the cases fall into several distinct classes:

1. Some traditional practices might reflect something deep in human nature itself and thus be inherently necessary to human well-being.

2. Some traditional practices might not be inherently strictly necessary to human well-being, but may nevertheless tend to promote the well-being of any human society given the concrete circumstances universal to human societies.

3. Some traditional practices might play such a crucial if contingent role in maintaining the well-being, not of all societies, but of some particular society, given its own concrete circumstances.

4. Some traditional practices might not themselves directly have even this sort of conduciveness to the well-being of a society, but might nevertheless be logically, sociologically, historically, or psychologically connected to traditional practices that are conducive in this way, so that to eliminate them would indirectly threaten the directly beneficial practices.

5. Some traditional practices might not play any of the roles described in 1-4, but the mere fact of changing them might, given circumstances, upset the stability of a given society even though they have no intrinsic value.

6. Some traditional practices might be harmful in some respects, but eliminating them might do even greater harm.

7. Some traditional practices might be benign but not particularly beneficial – they can be either kept or abandoned with no harm of any sort, or with only trivial harm.

8. Some traditional practices might be harmful enough that eliminating them will do more good than harm.

Some conservatives would hold that there is a rational standard independent of tradition (e.g. natural law theory) by reference to which all such traditional practices can be judged. Others would hold that there is no standard apart from existing traditions themselves, so that the criteria for evaluation must be internal (e.g. an appeal to consistency). But what makes them conservatives is that, like the medievals, and like Edmund Burke, they insist that a traditional belief or practice is owed at least some serious consideration before it is abandoned. It should be conserved until we know that it is better to abandon it, rather than abandoned until it is proved to be beneficial. In particular, we need to know which of 1-8 it falls under. And we need to keep in mind that, human affairs being as complex as they are, it is not always going to be easy to determine what function a traditional practice serves even when it does indeed serve one – and that, accordingly, the bad consequences of abandoning it might be discovered only when it is too late.

(I discuss these matters in greater detail in my article “Hayek on Tradition,” though these days I would put much greater emphasis on classical natural law theory than I did there.)

Comments (14)

Great post. One of the things Jim Kalb emphasizes is that the endless effort to make everything explicit can itself damage and undermine traditions which are essential to the good of society: if I am interpreting him correctly, that subjecting tradition to a kind of modern forensic analysis and reconstruction, even where the intention is to keep and preserve what is good in it, often kills the very thing it attempts to analyze and reconstruct; or at the very least makes it into something else. That has to be maddening to many or most modern people, who have this relentless need for everything to be explicit before it can be taken seriously. It is as if they think our individual bodies are irrelevant and useless unless we can pull them to pieces, analyze and catalogue every piece, and put them back together again.

Of course this kind of tinkering doesn't work any better than a mechanic trying to upgrade the engine on an airplane while in flight.

I do think the way modern analysis breaks things in their component bits does tend to remove the sacredness of the whole. This breakdown method does provide some good insights but it can also cause some things to get lost. That loss is often subtle and not well understood by the analyst. It is often realized by people who have not doen the analysis but it seem they frequently cannot articulate exactly what has bee lost and why. They just have a feeling that something important is being missed. Since they have not done the analysis they are not considered "experts" so their opinion carries less weight.

Good post, Ed. I often think that part of the problem we run into as conservatives is just sheer worldview clash on this issue. Liberals will think that some tradition is so horrible that it must be abandoned and that overthrowing it will do more good than harm even when this is obviously not true. I'm thinking here esp. of feminism and professions, schools, or organizations. VMI _had to_ abandon its male-only tradition in the name of "justice," to a liberal mind. I honestly think there may be nothing we can do about this. It's like liberals have messed-up values so deeply ingrained that crazy things are a matter of principle to them.

One of the strange aspects of this is that they never sense any irony or oddity in the fact that some new "absolute principle" that some tradition must be overturned was not even *thought of* by progressives a relatively short time ago. I, for one, find it hard to imagine Bertrand Russell getting agitated in favor of homosexual "marriage," though I don't suppose he would have cared much to fight it, either. But you get the point. You can go back fifty years and find people who really were very liberal for their time never even contemplating this or that innovation which now is treated as a matter of "natural law urgency"--if we don't eliminate the generic "he" or force the abolition of all male-only schools or call homosexual couples "married," the world is a horribly unjust place. Yet if one confronts the contemporary liberal with the relatively recent nature of this "realization," even among his fellow liberals, he will shrug off the point. It's like a discovery in science to him. "Now we just know" that it is unjust not to change these things.

Lydia, Kalb discusses that ratcheting effect in "Tyranny of Liberalism," a book well worth the reading, if still somewhat unsatisfying. At the risk of misstating his observation, insofar as liberalism is based on common consent, and insofar as it is designed to ensure that men get what they want, it proceeds toward radicalism stepwise, shifting its goals ever 'leftward' as its previous successes change the desires of its subjects.

Very good points, everyone, thanks. In line with them, I would add that whatever intellectual strengths they have in the abstract, conservative arguments from tradition tend to fail rhetorically and practically -- at least when not supplemented by something like natural law theory -- precisely because of their nature they appeal to the good of the social order and of people in general rather than that of any given particular individual.

For example, purely Burkean-Hayekian arguments against "same-sex marriage" will fail to move even many conservatives and Hayekian libertarians, because however clearly the conclusion in question follows from the Burkean-Hayekian premises, the good effects of preserving the traditional order of things seem to them too bloodless and abstract. (Or at least, again, they seem that way if they're not looking at things from a natural law point of view.) I've seen this over and over again over the years: You present the Burkean-Hayekian case to someone who is enthusiastic about such arguments when applied to the economic sphere, but the response is a feeble "But gee whiz, I just don't see how Tom and Bob's getting married hurts me." Their minds are fixated on the individual case, probably some homosexual couple they know personally; and the frustration of these specific individuals outweighs in their minds the abstract argument from tradition, the analog of which they'd happily endorse in other contexts. And since such arguments, at least when purely pragmatic and ungrounded in the sort of metaphysics associated with natural law, admit of exceptions -- pragmatic arguments for the market acknowledge that the occasional interference in the market will not destroy the whole order, and pragmatic arguments for traditional sexual morlity acknowledge that the occasional divorce or act of fornication or sodomy will not destroy the family -- the exceptions come to loom larger than the norm, at least when society in general is coming to hate the norm.

So, only when it can be argued that such-and-such a violation of some tradition is harmful, not just to society at large or to individuals in general, but to every single individual who commits it, can arguments from tradition hope to have a rhetorical force that matches their intellectual force. But that requires something like classical natural law theory and the metaphysics underlying it -- some moral theory on which value is objective, moral imperatives absolute, and claims about human nature true universally, not just as a matter of statistical probability.

This is why I argued in my article "The Metaphysics of Conservatism" that when it is not grounded in a classical realist metaphysics, conservatism tends to degenerate into little more than a slow-motion liberalism:


And that is, I think, exactly what we see happening around us, as mainstream "conservative" support of traditional sexual morality and other elements of "social conservatism" weakens every day. When all your arguments are pragmatic rather than principled, it's hard to maintain them -- not only publicly, but even where the strength of one's personal convictions is concerned -- in the face of an ever more degenerate and hostile electorate, braying like the mob outside Lot's door.

Their minds are fixated on the individual case, probably some homosexual couple they know personally; and the frustration of these specific individuals outweighs in their minds the abstract argument from tradition, the analog of which they'd happily endorse in other contexts

I am not sure this does not happen in the economic cases. When you get a new report on a government cut to some program the reporter will often focus on how the recipient of that program is directly hurt. He will not focus on the problems of society becoming to dependant on government programs. People connect with the argument that has a face, that has a short term pain and pleasure impact.

That's definitely true of left-of-center people, Randy, but I was talking about certain right-of-center people who are often unmoved by individual cases where economics is concerned, but not where "social issues" (to use the standard shorthand) are concerned.

"[Liberalism] proceeds toward radicalism stepwise, shifting its goals ever 'leftward' as its previous successes change the desires of its subjects."

Which is why it is ultimately self-defeating, and will end in either anarchy or authoritarianism. There is always some person, idea, movement, etc., to the left of you; to them you are on the right, and as such are a hindrance to the ever-continuous leftward progression. Leftism, in other words, has no 'governor,' no internal capability for long-term self-correction.

I'm thinking about the question of whether we would be more successful in the social realm if we made more principled arguments. I'm trying to be concrete here: Would we be more successful if we argued against homosexual "marriage" by saying that homosexual acts are objectively immoral and harm the people who engage in them rather than arguing that calling homosexual couples "married" will tear down the institution of marriage and harm society? I find that it's certainly true that people who believe the former (mostly Christians) are more willing and able to see the obvious truth of the latter. But I've also known people moved by the latter, consequential argument, who do not believe the former.

But then again, success isn't supposed to be the measure of the rightness of a particular cause of action, and I'm all on board with suspicion of purely consequential arguments. I think that as you imply, Ed, the greatest problem with them is that sometimes we harm ourselves by forcing ourselves to stick only to such arguments. We sometimes undermine our own confidence in the truth and importance of our principles.

But here's another question: What about areas of tradition where no absolute moral principle is involved, but where it would be a great loss, culturally, if the tradition were thrown over? Here's a sort of weird example: I've always dreaded the day when the Spanish Riding School in Vienna has women riders in its regular performances. Perhaps they already do, but I think not yet. The tradition there is unique, and it is a package. It is not that women cannot be great dressage riders. They certainly can be and have been, and male teachers know this full-well. It's that the whole mystique of the Hofreitschule is a connected thing and that changing it in the name of some abstract concept of sexual equality and "justice" would be just terribly sad. In my opinion, anyway. And there must be many other examples, small and great, of similar things in the world, where no absolute natural law principle is involved but where liberal ideology goes around tearing down or would like to tear down the concrete traditions that have been built up over centuries and have become very beautiful as things in themselves. There must be a way to communicate what is wrong with that.

I agree with everything you say about the Spanish Riding School example, Lydia. Even there, though, making the case is much easier with people who already recognize that certain sex roles are ordained by nature (even though horse riding per se is not one of them). What counts as a bad consequence is itself ultimately determined in part by our rock-bottom conceptions of justice, and on classical natural law theory the feminist conception is already ruled out.

Re: whether we'd be more successful with principled arguments, in many individual cases I think we would be, particularly with people of good will who are simply confused by the prevailing Kultursmog. But on a macro level the horse may already be out of the barn. Too many people, including too many "conservatives," are too used to living like "bourgeois bohemians" to be open to giving such arguments a fair hearing. To hear an argument, the will must be open to hearing it. But sin corrupts the will, sins of the flesh most of all.

I think there is another component to conservatism that is implicitly assumed in your post. Most people in human history have held an instinctive loyalty to their own people, their land, and their general way of life. Modern man is told, though, that these lesser, meaning non-universal, loyalties are arbitrary, irrational, and intrinsically selfish. Thus, according to philosophical liberalism, what is right and good must be arrived at abstractly and cannot be held down by particulars. The inevitable consequence of this is that justice becomes overtly hostile to all particular ways of life i.e. traditions. Insofar as man is liberal, he believes that particular loyalties should be avoided. This is a somewhat roundabout way of attempting to explain why tradition is not valued in liberalism. The basic point is that the conservative's reluctance to do away with tradition, even bad tradition, stems from a loving attachment to a specific way of life that is more akin to love of family than to dedication to an abstract principle like Democracy. Liberalism simply does not share this loving devotion.

I would amplify what Edward wrote on February 20, 2009 5:57 PM. Liberals may share a devotion to certain traditions, but there is no principled place for them in their ideology. The opposite is in fact true, which is that to the extent that something is judged to be traditional, it comes under the strictest and most prejudicial scrutiny possible. Liberalism, at least the now-dominant form of it, is not merely devoid of loving devotion or even deference to traditions, but is in fact inherently hostile to any and all traditions as such other, of course, than itself.

I clicked "post" too soon. Given that liberalism is hostile to traditions as such, and given that our new lifestyle rights, most especially the sexual ones, have turned almost everyone into a liberal, and given furthermore that that segment of the population that is responsive to arguments is also the most 'educated' and therefore the most intensely catechized with liberalism, arguments about the value of tradition are beside the point and probably counterproductive. It is important to be right, but what we need to turn back the clock is better sophistry and a class for which we can articulate a class interest, not better arguments. I don't know where we get either.

This post says NOTHING AT ALL. Show me ONE change that wasn't for the better. As always, conservatives lose.

Post a comment

Bold Italic Underline Quote

Note: In order to limit duplicate comments, please submit a comment only once. A comment may take a few minutes to appear beneath the article.

Although this site does not actively hold comments for moderation, some comments are automatically held by the blog system. For best results, limit the number of links (including links in your signature line to your own website) to under 3 per comment as all comments with a large number of links will be automatically held. If your comment is held for any reason, please be patient and an author or administrator will approve it. Do not resubmit the same comment as subsequent submissions of the same comment will be held as well.