The Virtues of Tradition

At her blog “Measure of Doubt,” my friend Julia, a storied and brilliant commentator on science and rationalism (and a damn fine vegan cook), offers an analysis of the value of adhering to tradition, from her perspective as a rationalist. This means ignoring distorting influences, insofar as possible, to make more accurate decisions in life.

Julia’s reader questions whether self-described rationalists erroneously prefer to subvert rather than follow tradition whenever possible, rather than whenever wise — resulting in something like the counterculture fallacy, where social groups attempting to cultivate a unique identity reflexively reject cultural norms, thus creating the very type of static, predictable identity they fled in the first place.

To answer the charge, Julia correctly notes that tradition is, by its very nature, bound up with a strong, countervailing selection pressure favoring the status quo. Thus, even though a tradition’s duration is strong evidence that it was, at some time, probably a good idea, unless updated and checked against dynamic social norms, a practice’s longevity alone is not proof of its continuing validity. If self-styled rational actors appear to avoid tradition, then, it’s only because they more forcefully “update” with new information.

This of course is something we’ve bumped up against before on this site, and something that comes up often in law, where the question of how to value tradition — if at all — functionally determines one’s approach to constitutional decisionmaking. There, reflexive trust for tradition famously ossified into the concept of constitutional “originalism,” where a legal tradition’s antiquity defines its merit, not merely because older concepts often derive from the founding generation, but because the conflation of antiquity with merit serves as an easy, objective way to decide close cases. Rarely will you see the debate broken out more clearly than in Justice Scalia’s famous colloquy with Justice Brennan in Burnham v. Superior Court, 495 U.S. 604 (1990) (analysis). Concurring in the judgment, Justice Brennan makes Julia’s very point, that “tradition is salient not in the sense that practices of the past are automatically reasonable today,” but only to the extent that they have some separate systemic value. The rational jurist will focus almost exclusively on that separate value, resulting in a fundamentally different decisionmaking style, and therefore producing an above-average number of conflicts with more tradition-bound judges.

The same process could explain why, at the personal level, rationality may appear to result in an over-correction away from tradition: deference to tradition is simply so prevalent that, once you abandon the practice, your worldview changes dramatically. But like Julia’s reader, I wonder whether over-selection of subversive cultural choices is in fact a by-product of any movement that conspicuously defines itself as different from the rest. As a matter of human nature, we sometimes prefer identities externally consistent with others to those internally consistent with ourselves (pick any show about “fitting in” to see what I mean, like, oh, I don’t know, Mean Girls or My Fair Lady). My answer — and I suspect Julia’s, too — is that those attempting to make rational life choices must first, and before all other things, be honest with themselves about what they want. That may mean adopting or buying into cultural norms that others might find outdated. But just as it’s not anti-feminist to choose to become a stay-at-home mom, it can’t be anti-rationalist to hew to other traditions (monogamy over polyamory/promiscuity?), provided either choice is made, genuinely, to make you and no-one else happy over the long-term. Sometimes, naturally, the value of a traditional practice only becomes apparent in its absence.


One comment

  1. […] indeed, as we’ve noted before, tradition serves as evidence that a certain practice probably used to work. But we’ve also noted, to answer the author’s narrow conception of when tradition […]

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