PDF version of this essay: InDefenseOfTradition
It would seem that conservatism is internally incoherent. Most conservatives acknowledge two sources of authority: natural law and tradition. Both are essential if the conservative is to fulfill his role as defender of particular cultures without falling into complete cultural relativism. However, there is a priori no reason to think that these two authorities will always be consistent. Nor is this point academic—liberals never tire of pointing out many allegedly wicked customs of past ages: enslavement of enemies, infant exposure, temple prostitution, gladiatorial combat, polygamy, foot-binding, etc.
There are two common defenses of the authority of tradition. The first argument was used by Burke and developed by Friedrich Hayek. It claims that societies have, over time, passed through a process of natural selection, and the folk ways people have ended up with are those that proved successful. Society is so complex that we may not be able to understand the function a given tradition serves, but to assume that it has no function and that institutions can be redesigned at will defies evolutionary logic. The second argument also goes back to Burke and has been advanced most recently by Roger Scruton. Prejudices and superstitions are, it concedes, irrational, but the irrational emotions they cultivate serve rationally identifiable purposes, such as solidifying group loyalty. However, the emotional manipulation can only be accomplished if its ultimate end is hidden by a veil of tradition from its participants.
There is danger in relying on these sorts of defenses. They both associate tradition with ignorance, because if people had a perfect understanding of society tradition would be either unnecessary (in the first defense) or ineffective (in the second). Such defenses of tradition might cease to apply as society’s self-knowledge improves. The standard arguments are forced to invoke ignorance because they implicitly concede that tradition must ultimately justify itself by utilitarian liberal standards to be justified at all. If we drop this requirement, we can defend our cherished customs straightaway.
In fact, most arguments for and against tradition are irrelevant because they have nothing to do with the things actually defended as traditions. Both the criticisms and the defenses imagine that a tradition is any custom which has lasted a long time and whose existence is not obviously justified on utilitarian grounds. However, nobody feels an obligation to uphold every kind of old custom. Only a special subset of a people’s customs should be called traditions in the strict sense which I will use. By this special sense of tradition, I mean a custom which 1) makes a moral claim and 2) establishes a bond among those who observe it by 3) allowing the members of the community to collectively recognize some objective good in a culturally particularized way. The good apprehended and secured through the tradition is known perfectly well by its participants. They are also entirely aware that the tradition is not universal. The very fact that a tradition is only followed by one group allows it to serve as a group marker and to intensify the bond between members. Its efficacy in no way depends on ignorance, irrationality, or obfuscation. It is the insider-participant, not the outsider-anthropologist, point of view which discloses the tradition’s essential meaning, as we shall see from looking at some of the most important examples.