Can We Live Without Tradition? Part One

Every civilizational form assumes some role for tradition. No cultural moment emerges from a vacuum, for every generation responds in some way to the tradition it has inherited. Without an appreciation for the role of tradition and the inheritance of moral wisdom, the achievement of civilization becomes dubious if not dead.

In the current issue of Policy Review, a periodical published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, author Lee Harris considers these questions in “The Future of Tradition,” an essay that serves as a catalyst for considering the role of tradition in a society and its worldview.

Harris, author of Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History, suggests that America’s current culture war is but the most current representation of a continuing battle that has afflicted humanity throughout its history. A culture war occurs when cultural elites–given to a preoccupation with abstract thinking–begin to question and subvert a set of traditional values. “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,” Harris explains.

He quickly moves to point to a recent statement made by the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. In explaining why her court decided to legalize gay marriage, the justice simply asserted that any opposition to same-sex marriage can come only from “residual personal prejudice.” Thus, all enlightened persons are called to put aside such residue of personal prejudice and embrace the new morality put forth by the elites.

Harris argues that conservatives are often tempted to respond to such attacks on traditional values by turning to reason and rationality. Nevertheless, he doubts that such an effort can be fully successful. Pointing to the 12th-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, Harris questions the persuasiveness of those who would attempt to defend tradition by reason.

Instead, he suggests that an acceptance of traditional morality requires what he calls the “ethical obviousness” of the tradition. As he explains, “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 in that society, would be received by the rest of the society with disbelief and/or revulsion.”

Of course, something like the opposite pattern appears to be emerging in our society. Most recently, the cultural elites have been largely successful in painting traditional values themselves as the beliefs that should be met with revulsion.

At this point, Harris argues that cultural relativism is an untenable worldview. As he understands, “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.” But, if the liberal relativist undermines tradition by asserting its relativity, some conservatives can fall into a similar error by asserting the authority of a tradition as if it is beyond moral interrogation.

In truth, few persons give much conscious attention to the question of tradition and its function in society. Tradition functions, in the main, as a background belief system that frames reality and shapes the worldview. Embodied in a set of principles and practices–something like what Alexis de Tocqueville called “the habits of the heart”–the tradition functions communally as a set of shared beliefs and moral instincts.

Harris then turns to consider several defenses that have been offered in support of tradition. Some have argued that tradition functions as a “useful fiction” that operates in a functional manner, enabling the masses to trust what they have been taught. Another defense is deeply rooted in skepticism, arguing that tradition is necessary because even the most enlightened of citizens cannot be trusted to operate by the most lofty of moral instincts. Thus, tradition operates as a basic defense against revolution and dissipation. Harris also considers and critiques the defense of tradition offered by Austrian philosopher and economist Friedrich Hayek. What Hayek called his “empiricist evolutionary model” suggests that tradition is necessary in order to protect the successful evolution of a society–with right conduct understood as serving the civilization’s perpetuation and wrong conduct seen as weakening a society’s chances of survival.

Turning to his own proposal, Harris suggested that traditions should be seen more as recipes. In his view, a tradition serves a society “by providing the recipe for making the kind of human beings who will viscerally feel and respond to the same habits of the heart as the community to which they belong.” He seeks to create a middle way between cultural relativism and a reactionary defense of an unquestioned tradition. As he sees it, recipes are not subject to questions of truth and falsity, but are more likely to be understood as matters of preference and taste.

This is an odd and rather superficial defense of tradition, and it hardly serves to defend the robust role for tradition that Harris apparently desires to construct. He is certainly right to avoid cultural relativism, and a simple declaration of the rightness of tradition is morally inadequate. But a description of tradition as a “recipe” for society must finally collapse into the very relativism Harris wants to avoid.

What is missing from his analysis is an understanding of a transcendent standard of judgment that stands outside the tradition itself. Such a transcendent standard of truth would judge traditions and would serve as a template for cultural analysis and moral consideration. Lacking any transcendent authority or point of reference, cultural relativism or a reactionary defense of tradition appear to be the only two alternatives.

In the end, Harris’ explicitly secular defense of tradition needs to be corrected by a Christian assertion of a transcendent truth, made accessible to us by revelation, that judges all traditions, civilizations, and societies. This is the revelatory truth claim that stands at the heart of the Christian faith, without which Christianity has no basis for offering any cultural critique or moral wisdom.

Tomorrow: What Happens When Tradition is Dishonored and Abandoned