Tradition alone does not justify continuance in perpetuity.
Thursday, May 7, 2015
Conservative vs. Progressive Views on Tradition
Malcolm Pollack cuts to the heart of the disagreement:
In our recent discussion of the Supreme Court’s DOMA ruling, our reader Peter... made the following response to the suggestion that marriage was a tradition so ancient, and so universal, that some care might be warranted in tampering with it:
Well, I don’t suppose many people would disagree with that: tradition alone does not justify continuance in perpetuity.
A far more interesting question, though, is what tradition does justify. Conservatives and liberals will give very different answers, I think, because they think about tradition in opposite ways.
To the conservative, traditions arise naturally from the workings of human nature, as part of the ontogeny and organic development of societies. They are not the result of scientific planning or sociological theorizing — and like biological species themselves, they only come into view in retrospect. They are, in a sense, part of the “extended phenotype” of our species and its various subgroups, as languages are; and just as languages do, they naturally adapt to, and come to represent, those things that actually matter to the various human groups from which they arise. (Many have been, at least up till now, more or less universal.) In this way they contain a great deal of deeply-buried knowledge about the optimal functioning of the human social organism, often for reasons, and in ways, that themselves need not be explicitly represented in the organism’s consciousness. Because of this, disrupting them will always have unknowable consequences — and so, at least, tradition justifies respect for its embodied wisdom, and caution as regards casual tampering.
To those on the Left, traditions are artifacts. Rather than being organic outgrowths and aspects of human nature itself, they are human creations; they are social technology, whose only purpose is to control and manipulate human behavior. In this view, human “nature” hardly exists at all, and traditions are wholly external things; indeed almost everything about human behavior and human life is external to the individual. This means that to mold human beings, or human societies, into any desirable configuration is simply a matter of discarding traditions, and inventing new ones, until we obtain the correct result. Because of this, tradition justifies very little indeed.
As we see all around us, these views of the world are not particularly compatible, and cannot easily coexist, at least within any given society.
As Peter reminded us, “the times they are a-changing.” Indeed they are: and the faster the rate of change, and the greater its amplitude, the more the strain increases.