Tradition and the Good
But if liberalism is inadequate as a basis for social and political life, what is the rational alternative?
The question comes down to the problem of the social and political good. To say something is good is to say it is a reasonable goal, one worth choosing after consideration of what it is and the relevant circumstances. Everyone agrees that some goals are better — more reasonable and worth choosing — than others, but they have different opinions what those are. That state of affairs leads to disputes. Liberalism hopes to keep the disputes from disturbing public life, and thus eliminate much of the need for politics and power, by eliminating the question of the good and making government a system for advancing the goals of each man equally.
Liberalism fails because the effort cannot succeed. First, to treat all goals equally is in effect to decide how good each is — each is as good as every other. A decision to favor things equally still implies a view on how far each is worth favoring. Further, it is not possible to favor everything equally, if only because goals conflict and exclude each other. A scheme of action that affects life as comprehensively as modern government can hardly avoid preferring some goals to others and judging that the ones preferred make more sense and thus are better. To claim that government should avoid taking a position on such things is either to embrace political irrationalism — the view that we should live together socially in certain ways with no idea why — or to impose the authority of certain goods while denying doing so.
Government inevitably makes decisions as to good and bad, and its decisions condition and influence private life. While public and private differ, they cannot be strictly separated. To say that a standard of what is reasonable and therefore good is a public standard is to say that it pre-empts private standards and in case of conflict suppresses them. That effect spills over into every aspect of life, even the most private. Since man is social, his connections to others touch every part of what he is and does in complex and pervasive ways. The extent to which public standards emphasize hierarchy or democracy, for example, affects the principles to which we can appeal in our dealings with others, and thus determines much of the order of private life and what goods can be realized within it.
It follows that public standards of right and wrong should be accepted only if they make sense as moral standards of general application. The effect of the attempt to avoid the question of the good is that liberalism treats the satisfaction of preferences simply as such as the ultimate good. Such a position does not make sense as a moral standard, because in an important sense it makes every consciously-chosen action equally reasonable. Simply by being consciously chosen the action brings about a preference and therefore a good. If the choice is equally a choice, the preference and good are equally a preference and good. Since it is choice itself that makes something good, we do not choose things for their goodness but simply because we choose them. Our choices thus become arbitrary, and our actions essentially non-rational. On such a view, the rational component of morality reduces to the therapeutic task of clarifying choices and the technical task of securing their satisfaction efficiently and equally. Such a result is deeply inconsistent with the way we actually deliberate about action. It is the outlook of a psychopath and not a normal human being.
But if that is so, how can a standard that is better than man-the-measure be determined? The intellectual presuppositions of liberal society make that a very difficult question. Those presuppositions lead men to consider propositions rational if they are purely formal, like mathematical truths, immediately obvious, like elementary logical principles and reports of sense perception, or verifiable in accordance with settled public procedures that have been found reliable, like the results of the natural sciences. In such cases people think they have a complete grasp of the proposition and its basis, and so feel justified in recognizing its authority. Nothing of the sort seems possible in the case of ultimate standards of evaluation. Men disagree on them, so it seems they are not immediately obvious. Further, there is no well-defined procedure for determining what they are. Standards precede judgment, so any procedure for judging has to be based on an understanding of the good already accepted, at least implicitly. We recognize ultimate goods rather than going through a procedure to determine them.
It is understandable that liberals want to avoid reliance on ultimate goods. They like to define, discuss and demonstrate, and that is very difficult in this connection. It has always been recognized that there is something elusive about ultimate goods. [fn:See the Tao Te Ching, Confucius and Plato on the Good (Analects, Bk. v, ch. 18, and the myth of the cave, Republic, Bk. vii), Paul’s “through a glass darkly” (I Corinthians 13:12).] That elusiveness is essential to what they are. To state a good fully or demonstrate it subordinates it to the thing that defines or proves it, and so shows it to be secondary. But a secondary good can always be pre-empted by some other good and cannot serve as a final measure of conduct. Ultimate goods are thus paradoxical. We need them but cannot fully know them. To choose anything over them would betray them, but to attempt to demonstrate them or define too comprehensively what they are would compromise their ultimacy.
To approach the matter from another direction, recognition of the highest good is a pre-political and in a sense pre-rational act, because it is part of what constitutes politics, rationality, and even personal identity. We cannot stand aside from something so basic, grasp it from outside, and bring it in line with our preconceptions and goals. The independent liberal ego that chooses its values is a misleading fiction. The necessity of ultimate goods, and their transcendence of all our understandings, show once again that man can not be understood as the measure. The measure is something we need but cannot completely know, if only because it measures our knowledge along with everything else. That is the situation that makes humility, faith, and consciousness of sin lasting aspects of human life.
The impossibility of defining ultimate goods is in fact the most impressive argument for the liberal belief that freedom should be the goal of social order. Any goal that can be fully stated seems limiting, oppressive and mindless when treated as ultimate. We can always look beyond it to other and higher goods it would deny us. A society that believes in human dignity and rationality, and insists on defining all goals explicitly and comprehensively, is therefore likely to adopt liberalism as its governing philosophy.
It is mistaken if it does so. The attempt to make ultimate principles of government fully explicit always ends in bullying and obscurantism, because it soon becomes obvious that stated principles can conflict with what is ultimately good. Fascist and communist societies, which explicitly make some definite this-worldly thing the ultimate social measure, are obvious examples. Theocracies also become tyrannical by attempting to reduce the transcendent too much to a specific set of prescriptions applicable here and now. And in the end liberal societies become tyrannical as well, because to define freedom as the ultimate standard is still to define a final standard that is concrete, this-worldly and capable of being fully specified. A state based on a final standard with those qualities will eventually feel compelled to force the standard on everyone and silence objectors: since the standard is perfectly clear, why do otherwise? The resulting collapse into tyranny is slower than in the case of fascism or theocracy, because the goal is stated in a negative and formal way and the oppressive consequences of taking something fully articulable and therefore limited as a final standard take longer to develop. The collapse is nonetheless certain.
Liberalism, therefore, is not self-supporting. Government must recognize transcendent standards even to secure legitimate liberal goals like political and personal freedom, because without such standards government and its goals become absolutes. The natural way in which transcendent standards to become concrete and usable for us is the development of tradition. Although ultimate principles cannot be clearly stated, we can recognize them in part and in specific cases, act on them, and come to know them better through experience. The goods we recognize then become encoded in habits and attitudes that seem good to us, to which we attach ourselves, and by which we and others find it good to live. The intangible and ultimate thus becomes concrete and usable.
Traditions are of course of many kinds. Family dinner at 6 is a tradition; so are representative government and Christianity. It might also be a tradition for a family to combine the three by saying grace before dinner and then arguing politics over the meatloaf. Each tradition matters, but in a different way and to a different degree. The deeper, stronger, more widespread and durable the recognition of the goodness of some practice, attitude or belief the more settled it becomes as a tradition. The practical demands of life and conflicts among particular traditions force us to bring them, and thus the goods to which they relate, into a system that distinguishes greater and lesser and enables each to contribute to the others. The overall tradition we follow — the crystallized experience of the society to which we belong — thus comes to embody an ordered understanding of the highest good that is at the base of the common life we share.
That process will work, of course, only to the extent we have an attachment to the reasonable and good. Since discussing ethics is pointless without such an attachment, it is necessary for purposes of such discussions to assume the attachment, and reasonable to expect that it will grow up the normal way, by the accumulation of good habits through experience. A society without such an attachment will not exist for long in any event. Acceptance of tradition is a counsel of moral realism growing out of experience of life: good and evil are real, we cannot get by without knowing something about them, there is more to them than we can easily understand, others may see them more clearly than we do, and if a habit or perspective is enduringly found good it is most likely because of the truth in it.
Tradition is comprehensively intertwined with our most basic concerns. It has an intimate connection to religion because it is the natural way we come to know the transcendent and ineffable. Tradition and religion depend on each other. Tradition depends on a fundamentally religious trust in something outside us that we do not control, while religion depends on a willingness to accept what is passed down even though it is not fully comprehensible. Attempts to rationalize religion, to make it a matter of expertise, bureaucracy, formalized training and this-worldly concerns, destroy it.
Politics also have a necessary close connection to tradition. The traditions of a community form the general order of its life, and politics are the interplay between that order and public decisions backed by force. Government acceptance of social tradition, including religious and ethical tradition, is necessary for political freedom and self-government. To be capable of self-government a community must have a common mind adequate to its common life. The common mind of a community is its tradition, and to ignore that common mind is to deny self-government. Government can thus be popular only to the extent it accepts as authoritative the traditions of the people and the goods with which they are concerned.
Politics and religion thus have an essential connection. The dream of a rationalized politics purified of all particular traditions and goods is chimerical. Man, social life and government are so entangled that it is difficult to think of any human good the actions of government do not affect. Both government and religion deal with fundamental human concerns in far-reaching ways, and each must take into account the goods for which the other is chiefly responsible. The traditions government must heed thus include religious traditions. Institutional separation of Church and State is possible and often beneficial, but a “wall of separation” between government and religion is not, any more than between government and physics or government and morality. Where one is claimed it should be recognized as a screen for the imposition of a scheme of attitudes, loyalties and beliefs functioning as a religion that those in power are reluctant to defend explicitly.
Respect for tradition does not, of course, require government to pursue directly all the goods to which tradition points. The functions of the organized force that is government are limited, and there are many goods that it cannot do much directly to promote. Nonetheless, in its actions government should take into account all available sources of understanding. Government acceptance of religious tradition, when religious concerns are relevant to its activities — as, for example, in connection with education and standards of public order and morality — does not oppress people spiritually any more than acceptance of a particular understanding of economics oppresses them financially. Issues relevant to action must be settled somehow, and the alternative to accepting tradition is accepting some other source of guidance. What other source of guidance in spiritual matters is so much less oppressive than tradition? Neutral expertise, on a subject regarding which expertise as conceived today can decide very little? The pretense of an impossible neutrality that finds itself forced to smuggle in, without discussion, answers to ultimate questions?
Tradition, in fact, is a decentralizing and anti-tyrannical principle. It demands substantial local and individual freedom, and recognizes that not everything can be decided explicitly or controlled hierarchically. It tells officials to look to something other than personal and party views. And in any case tradition is at least as able as other sources of guidance to value human dignity and take into account prudential restrictions on government power. Indeed, how is institutional prudence possible without the accumulated experience and sense of things that are difficult to articulate that is socially available only through tradition?
A common objection to accepting the authority of tradition is that traditions are sometimes wrong. That of course is so, but the same is true of other possible authorities, including personal judgment and expert consensus. Another is that assertions of traditional authority often mask self-interest. That objection applies equally to any assertion of authority, or for that matter of freedom and equal rights. Tradition no doubt favors traditional elites, but other possible social authorities — money, government regulators, revolutionary vanguards, TV personalities, therapists, diversity consultants, the sovereign consumer — also favor particular persons and classes and present their own dangers of abuse. And compared with other authorities tradition has obvious advantages, especially with regard to the risk of tyranny, corruption and general mindlessness. It is independent of particular persons. It exists through the enduring tacit consent of those involved. And it takes into account all considerations people feel to be relevant, even those difficult or impossible to articulate. It may not be perfect, but it has peculiar strengths that make it rightfully indispensable and authoritative.
A consequence of our need for tradition to make goods that exceed our full understanding available to us is a need for particularity. Because tradition has to do with what cannot be stated it is concrete and therefore particular. It grows up and is passed on mostly through personal contacts. For that reason our moral life has a necessary element of loyalty to the particular society of which we are part, and to our own section of that society and connections within it. It is normally in the first instance through accepting the traditions and institutions of our time and place that we go beyond self-centered desires, learn to be social, and participate in the common goods that make us what we are. Our loyalty to such things rightfully becomes part of what we understand ourselves to be.
Such loyalties are not fully universalizable. We know what we are in part by contrast with what we are not. While we owe something to all men simply because we are human, pure generalized solidarity is too vague in its demands to establish moral order. A “universal nation” could exist if liberal universalism were an adequate social philosophy, or if there were a Shari’ah that could adequately capture the transcendent. Neither condition holds. Nor are particularistic loyalties absolute. The universal element in them cannot be fully grasped, but must somehow in the end take precedence. When our loyalty to Brooklyn conflicts with our loyalty to truth or the human race it is the former that on the whole should give way, even though when and how it should do so cannot be stated categorically but must be left to tradition and a judgment of the particular situation.
The particularity of tradition gives concrete form to the principle that tradition is binding but not in general absolute. To give substance to a final orientation toward something beyond our society our loyalty to society must have an element of contingency and choice. The social order should reflect the absolute, but not be mistaken for it. Our grasp of the good and true is social and traditional, but also rational and personal. The need for an element of voluntary personal commitment to something partly arbitrary is the enduring element of truth in such notions as religious freedom and the social contract. It is also the reason tradition must be complex. To avoid national self-worship a national tradition must have local and class variations and rivalries. Similarly, a religious tradition should not have the appearance of something altogether complete, self-contained and universal. It should have local cults, rites and devotions and a choice of personal observances, and a history of development, to make it evident that there is no single form that fully captures the reality toward which it points.
Traditionalism — the recognition that tradition has its own authority and is not just a set of suggestions to be judged rationally on other grounds — thus has a somewhat incomplete and pluralistic aspect. It is more concerned with truth, however attained and however expressed, than with formal justification, and so gives up on the modern dream of a purified scientific procedure applicable to everything and giving rise to universal formulae for all knowable truth. It accepts that knowledge is possible with regard to things that do not lend themselves to the methods of the natural sciences, if not through orderly observation and deduction then through Pascal’s esprit de finesse and Newman’s illative sense, through the coming into focus of intangible realities through the concurrence of innumerable considerations that cannot be individually picked out and may be known directly only to those who came before us.
Both tradition and reason are necessary authorities in any activity that is at all complex and comprehensive. Neither is adequate by itself to human life. Nor can either be subordinated to the other, if only because they help constitute each other. Reason requires the aid of concepts, connections and judgments provided by tradition, while the development and comprehension of tradition make use of rational ordering and insight. A rational traditionalist therefore accepts both tradition and reason as basic to what he is, knows and does. What distinguishes his position from that of the irrationalist or anti-traditionalist is that he is willing to criticize and adjust his beliefs, loyalties and way of life as necessary so his acceptance of both makes sense. An intelligent commitment to a life ordered by reference to what is good, reasonable and true demands that willingness. The commitment of a liberal modernist to human will and formal reason as sole authorities, for example, makes it impossible for him consistently to accept the authority of tradition. Nonetheless, even to be a liberal or a modernist he must accept certain traditions as authoritative. If he sees the conflict and wants to make his outlook more coherent he will reorient himself toward an understanding of reason broad enough to justify reliance on tradition. He will, in short, become a traditionalist.
It may help explain rational traditionalism to discuss the most obvious alternatives: simple rationalism, simple conservatism, and postmodern irony.
1. Simple rationalism is the view that tradition is extrinsic to our grasp of the good and the true because those things, to the extent they can be known at all, can be known by purely rational means. The simple rationalist therefore believes it possible, at least in principle, to dispense with tradition. The traditionalist objection, of course, is that human reason is not a self-contained system. Reason must be traditionalist to be reasonable, or indeed to say much of anything. More specifically, reason depends on tradition for the concepts it applies and its connection to indispensable truths that cannot be demonstrated or even articulated. It cannot stand by itself.
2. The intellectual failure of simple rationalism has become widely recognized in recent years, so that today it is less a theory than a widespread habitual attitude. The simple conservative response to its failure is to accept whatever practices and attitudes have grown up and become authoritative in one’s environment. Simple conservatism thus rejects reason as a standard in favor of pure social fact — of tradition treated as something self-contained and absolute.
While rational traditionalists of course join in the preference for what has grown up and become accepted, they believe that tradition and reason must come into mutual relations and so supplement and limit each other. In particular, they reject traditions that are radically incoherent or at odds with observable truth and the permanent needs of human life. The difference is illustrated by attitudes toward liberalism. Once liberalism has become socially authoritative simple conservatism cannot help but accept it, simply because it is established, while rational traditionalism continues to reject it, because it is incoherent and at odds with the needs of human life.
3. The postmodern ironist realizes — like the conservative — that we must rely on tradition, but hangs on to the rationalist view that total certainty and transparency are necessary for knowledge. He therefore rejects tradition as a road to truth, because it is contingent and bound up in particular perspectives. At bottom he believes that none of our beliefs are justifiable, and attempts to hold his own beliefs “ironically” — that is to say, at arm’s length.
While traditionalists agree that absolute explicit proof is not available to us, they nonetheless accept that we necessarily believe that our beliefs are true, and find it pointless to deny we are justified in doing so. They therefore try to understand how what we necessarily understand as justified and true can rationally be seen as such in spite of its dependence on particular tradition. All traditions, like all languages, have a great deal in common, but they do differ. What distinguishes the rational traditionalist is the effort to understand what it is to do what he necessarily does — accept his own tradition and views.