Does tradition really help?

My exchange with my Finnish correspondent continues (previous installments are here, here, and here). This time he’s pressing the issue of the value of tradition:

Finnish Correspondent: Your reliance on tradition seems misplaced. Isn’t it just functionalism? Some social arrangements may work, although they are not right. For instance, abortion has been accepted in many non-Christian cultures, because it doesn’t damage society enough.

Jim Kalb: What works and what human tendencies are don’t tell us everything about what’s good and bad. Still, how things work and how satisfied people are with them in the long run does tell us something. There’s something to the saying “by their fruits shall ye know them.”

Also, it seems to me that today there is a tendency to work out the implications of principles in a more thorough and comprehensive way than in the past. We have more wealth, better communications, better techniques of rational central control, and better technology generally, so we are not as restrained by immediate practicalities but can follow our theories more relentlessly. That’s why the era of industrialism, bureaucracy, mass society and electronic communications brought us totalitarianism. In antiquity, in a polytheistic culture that was of necessity mostly local, rural, traditional and family-oriented, it was possible to avoid the full logical effect of the principles that say abortion is OK. I don’t think that’s possible today.

FC: Recognizing that tradition is necessary and good doesn’t teach us that the moral order is objective. It’s conceivable that the order is simply constructed by a larger community, and may be reconstructed.

JK: As a practical matter, it greatly weakens the subjectivist view. The big motive for denying objective moral order is freedom to follow one’s own will. Treating moral order as a necessary social construction denies that freedom to everyone except the most powerful (those who dominate society and therefore are able to say what moral order shall be treated as authoritative).

Eliminating for most people the main motive for denying objective moral order is a big step forward. Those who are in a position to say something about what moral order is socially authoritative (Supreme Court justices, top academics, influential media people, etc.) will still be tempted by social constructivism but they must come to agreement among themselves and then get everyone else to accept what they agree on. That may not be so easy in the long run. In any event it creates many weaknesses and points of attack. In the end it may be simpler just to think about what’s right than for elites to try to manipulate others into accepting their self-interested ideologies—which is what we’re left with if the view is that moral order is neither individual nor objective but purely social.

FC: But you can form a number of more or less consistent world views, depending on what presuppositions you start with. The ones that end up with tyranny, absurdity, nihilism and despair are easy to sort out.

JK: You are saying that there are a number of world views consistent internally and with experience that don’t run into impossible problems. In a sense I think that’s right—we’re not going to decide all philosophical questions beyond all doubt, and people who commit to different answers have different world views. I suppose the real question is whether views that survive all tests of experience, consistency, and workability differ as radically as say Christianity and Buddhism, with no good way to choose between them. I don’t see that’s so.

FC: The Left also has its tradition.

JK: Certainly any extensive effort depends on a tradition. The dependence of the Left on its own tradition creates an additional point of irrationality and therefore weakness, since the Left cannot justify that dependence. We should make use of that situation.

FC: While traditions may be seen as something that answers certain needs, as they show that they are something people have learnt to like, it may be argued that it’s only what the leading classes have liked. How do we know that the participation of the lower classes has been more than minimal and reluctant?

JK: The relationship has been more consensual than you make out. The upper classes aren’t the upper classes unless people treat them as such, and that won’t happen unless they conform to a large extent to people’s expectations. It’s hard for the upper classes (or at least it was hard before modern mass communications) to make all the folk songs and proverbs and cause words to mean what they want.

FC: Why didn’t past philosophers emphasize the continuing importance of tradition? Plato shows serious concern about the disintegration of tradition and declares it his intention to create an ersatz nomos on philosophical grounds. The ancient philosophers formulated theories about the good, the true and the beautiful which were elaborated and motivated by reason. Although these theories operated in a traditional environment, they gave direction to tradition.

JK: But today the attack on tradition is much more comprehensive and intense. We’re dealing not with ordinary doubt and corruption or even sophists in the marketplace but a sort of anti-Republic. Plato didn’t face a situation in which the domestic hearth had been replaced by a window into the tyrant’s court through which every household down to the youngest children could be amused by the tyrant’s corruptions and participate in them vicariously. Education, childcare and the design of the public religious rites are in the hands of sophists. To express loyalty to the ways of Hellas in preference to those of Scythia or the dominions of the Great King is considered the most disgusting of crimes. Plato didn’t have to deal with any of that.

I’d add that that the Laws are less rationalist than the Republic, and I think Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics still less so. I’d agree though that in cosmopolitan times some sort of authoritative rational articulation of the good, beautiful and true is necessary. My main point is that tradition is also indispensible, and that there are good reasons for us today to emphasize the need more than the ancients did.

FC: Traditionalist conservatives often talk about aristocracy. What should we do in order to convert the new class into an aristocracy? Confer knighthood on every university professor or TV anchorman? What could an aristocracy look like today?

JK: The new class cannot be an aristocracy without changing beyond recognition. Aristocracy is primarily a quality of families rather than individuals and it’s informal before it’s formalized. Also, it doesn’t consider career the consideration that trumps all others. All that puts it at odds with the new class.

What’s needed for something that functions as an aristocracy is families with a tradition of public service and some degree of cushioning from immediate economic necessity. There’s a lot of wealth at present, a great many people have some degree of independent wealth, so the latter point doesn’t seem to me the crucial one.

It’s more a matter of social ideals. The attitude toward “equality of opportunity,” which necessarily becomes a strong presumption in favor of equality of results, would have to change. Also the view that money and comfort are the natural goals of life. I think the latter is inevitable in an egalitarian society because such a society is able to take seriously only concerns like bodily well-being that are shared by everyone.

There’s always some sort of hierarchy. Get rid of aristocracy and there’s money, get rid of money and there’s the nomenclatura. The contribution some sort of aristocracy could make is that it would make concrete a principle of social value other than money and formal bureaucratic position. It would make society more complex and human. The point, by the way, is not that inequality is a supreme good but that overemphasizing equality makes it impossible to maintain values that not everyone can understand and participate in equally.

FC: “Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence” is one of Kirk’s conservative canons. Yet “diversity” is also a liberal slogan. And how much cultural cohesion is needed to maintain a society? In some nations several cultures have existed side by side in harmony. America as a melting pot seems to come closer to an ideal of uniformity though.

JK: America the melting pot is indeed an ideal of uniformity.

It’s possible for several cultures to exist side by side in harmony, but there’s no guaranteed way to bring that about. It depends on the situation, history and particular cultures. Also, for it to happen there must be devolution of public functions, so that less takes place nationally and more takes place locally, communally, and privately.

Liberalism tries to establish a guaranteed way for every possible combination of cultures to exist together with equal status for all, equal results for the members of each, and as much as possible taking place nationally. The only possible way to bring all that about is to suppress culture as a principle of social organization, and to replace it with money, state bureaucracy, and claims of neutral expertise.

“Diversity” as a liberal slogan means that every possible legitimate way of being must be equal, which means that no legitimate way of being can make a difference, which means that legitimate ways of being must be absolutely uniform in all respects that matter. It turns out that “celebration of diversity” is the same as imposition of uniformity.

FC: Today, enforcement of values has become part of the liberal agenda, while conservatives resist it. But this hasn’t always been so. To me, resistance against state coercion seems to be more tactical than an inherent trait in conservatism.

JK: I agree that libertarianism is not conservative. Conservatism recognizes that man is a social animal and moral institutions matter to each of us.

Still, a considerable degree of personal responsibility and local and institutional autonomy is needed for tradition and traditional morality to exist. After all, tradition can accumulate the experience of the people as a whole only if the people can make some choices, draw some conclusions, and imitate what seems to work. And the point of much of traditional morality is to develop integrity and a type of character that can be relied on, which wouldn’t matter and in fact would cause problems if everything were run from the top.

FC: Isolationism has once more become embraced by American conservatives. Other conservative traditions have had other inclinations. A worldview with a substantial content might be expected to have something to tell foreign countries and, at times, teach them by force. So, what’s so bad about taking up the white man’s burden?

JK: We can tell the world things without direct rule. We can even do so forcefully (intervening for one purpose or another) without continuing rule. A problem with empire is that the metropolitan people becomes just another subject people. The government doesn’t govern in their interests but in the interests of the empire as a whole. Why is that something to choose?

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