The Future of Tradition door Lee HARRIS in Policy Review june/july 2005
Each of these wars has its own particular antagonists, each its own weapons of combat, each its own battlefield. But the essential nature of a culture war is invariant: A set of traditional values comes under attack by those who, like the Greek Sophist, the French philosophe, and the American intellectual, make their living by their superior proficiency in handling abstract ideas, and promote a radically new and revolutionary set of values. This is precisely what one would expect from those who excel in dispute and argumentation.
In every culture war the existing customs and traditions of a society are called to the bar of reason and ruthlessly interrogated and cross-examined by an intellectual elite asking whether they can be rationally justified or are simply the products of superstition and thus unworthy of being taken seriously by enlightened men and women.
Indeed, there could be no better example of this disdainful attitude toward inherited tradition than that displayed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada in discussing her court’s legalization of gay marriage, clearly expressed by her summary dismissal of any opposition to the high court’s decision as arising from nothing more than “residual personal prejudice.” Against such opposition, it is no wonder that many conservatives — including many of those who call themselves neoconservatives — have attempted to combat the opponents of tradition with their opponents’ own weapon of enlightened rationality.
But is it possible to defend tradition with the help of reason? Can a particular tradition be justified by reason? And what if our traditional belief conflicts with reason — can we rationally justify keeping it? Suppose we have been raised in the belief that we must wash our hands before every meal in order to appease a local deity in our pantheon, say, the god of the harvest; and suppose again that we have come to learn of the hygienic benefits of washing our hands before every meal. Must we keep the absurd tradition once we have grasped its scientific rationale? In either case, whether tradition and reason conflict, or tradition is revealed to be reason disguised, reason wins and tradition loses.
Where reason shines forth, then, tradition is no longer necessary. Hence the question before us: In a world that is being more and more rationalized, does tradition have a future? Or will we one day look upon it as we now look upon the myths of the ancient world — quaint and amusing, but of no real relevance to our lives?
The quandary of cultural relativism
Perhaps the earliest, and certainly one of the most distinguished, attempts to rationalize a tradition was made by the twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides as he contemplated the laws regulating dietary customs presented in Leviticus. Should these regulations be obeyed simply because we are commanded to obey them, as a strict traditionalist will insist; or should they be obeyed because they represent prudent counsel concerning what foods are healthy for us, as Maimonides, himself a physician, asserts?
In order to appreciate the revolutionary nature of Maimonides’s defense of inherited custom, we must recall that the question could not even be asked in most tradition-bound societies. In the kind of primitive and compact society that Walter Bagehot described as cemented in a cake of custom — totally absorbed within a particular traditional ethos — such a dilemma cannot be articulated. People who have followed the same routine for centuries find it inconceivable that other human beings might do things differently; certainly no one within their traditional ethos challenges the ethical obviousness of their tradition. So taken for granted is the ethos that no one can imagine an alternative; any suggestion of change, if it did miraculously happen to occur to someone within that society, would be received by the rest of the society with disbelief and/or revulsion.
But the ethical obviousness of a tradition vanishes once members of a society become aware that others live by different traditions, since they are thereby forced to imagine different ways of doing things and ask the irresistible question, “Why do they do things differently from us?” The Greek philosopher Xenophanes, reflecting on his culture’s experience of the diversity of other cultures, noticed that each created gods in its own image, thus raising the issue that would come down to our time as the question of cultural relativism. If a culture created gods suitable to it, might the same also be true of the traditional ethos each culture created? If so, there is no point in trying to compare the traditional ethos of one culture with that of another: Each is suitable for its own culture, and that’s all you can say.
This conclusion might appear satisfactory for a moment; but on further reflection, a difficulty arises. What about traditions that are ghastly, like the cruel sacrifice of innocent children to Moloch? If we insist on abiding by our original conclusion, that each tradition is suitable to those who follow it, then we are prohibited from condemning even the most bloodthirsty traditions of another culture, as it may always be argued that they must suit the needs of the culture in which they arose. If they seem unspeakable to us, that is simply because they violate our own deeply instilled traditional ethos.
Too often, cultural relativists cannot get beyond drawing this one conclusion, which they use as ammunition against traditionalists: “The traditions you think of as having an absolute claim on the human race are merely those that happened to have come down to us, and which we have blindly accepted.” While this objection does follow logically from the cultural relativists’ premise, so too — and just as logically — does this conclusion: If we cannot use our traditional ethos to attack another’s, it is equally illegitimate for him to use his to attack ours. If our cultural relativists must forgive those who sacrifice their infants to Moloch, they must also forgive members of their own society who wish to abide by their own traditions. The cultural relativist’s position, practiced consistently, collapses into reactionary obscurantism: All cultures, including his own, are incommensurable, so it is impossible to judge any of them by higher standards than those offered by the cultures themselves. The appeal to enlightened reason rings hollow, for if enlightened reason can guide us to condemn characteristics of our own culture by offering us a higher standard by which to judge them, the same standard may also be used to judge other cultures as well. The cultural relativist must make up his mind: Either there is a higher standard or there isn’t. If there isn’t, it is impossible to judge among competing traditions, as the cultural relativist argues; if there is, it is possible to judge tradition A to be superior to tradition B, provided A meets the higher standard and B does not.
The higher standard offered by enlightened reason is incompatible with a belief in the strong formulation of cultural relativism; unfortunately, however, it is also incompatible with the traditionalist’s defense of tradition. For, granting the existence of a higher standard, the first question that we must ask about a cultural tradition is, “Is it conformable to our standard?” If it is, the tradition may be retained; but what if it isn’t?
There are only two alternatives: Either you abandon the standard or you abandon the tradition that clashes with it. This leaves us with something of a paradox. Those defending a tradition at all costs must adopt the relativist view that there is no higher standard by which to judge one tradition against another, as this is the only way to make sure that tradition may not be overthrown by the confrontation with such a standard. On the other hand, those who wish to defend a tradition by showing it to conform to a higher standard reduce the tradition to the status of means to an end.
This was precisely the problem encountered by Maimonides when he chose to defend the inherited Hebrew dietary code by relying on his expert knowledge of food and nutrition to demonstrate the code’s rational soundness. If the code was meant to provide the Hebrew people with useful information concerning the dangers of certain foods and the nutritional value of others, a clearly written, up-to-date, scientific manual on proper dietary habits would make the original text superfluous.
Defended this way, tradition becomes merely a primitive method for doing what empirical science does better. Here we have one horn of the dilemma: If a tradition is reason in a somewhat garbled code, decipher the code and throw away the tradition through which it was transmitted. If pork should be avoided because of the dangers of trichinosis, simply state this as a fact, and those who can appreciate the value of scientific information and who can heed maxims of prudence will be able to make the proper judgments about the dangers and benefits of eating pork.
This was the solution favored by all anti-traditional rationalists, some of whom, like August Comte, were willing to admit that tradition might have served an educational purpose during mankind’s mythological phase of development, as revelation had earlier been seen to have a purely progressive pedagogical function by the eighteenth-century German thinker Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Yet no matter how you might dress up this thesis, it invariably ended the same way. Once mankind had grown up and was capable of thinking for itself, these superceded and defective modes of knowledge would no longer serve a purpose.
Against this view of tradition as serving a purely transitional function, there have been three efforts to defend it as valuable in and of itself. All have had distinguished proponents, and all, as I hope to show, have failed miserably.
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