Sunday, May 08, 2005


God, I love "Fiddler on the Roof." Anyway, related, but distinct from the use of "naturality" as a moral argument is the use of "tradition." I object to both on much the same grounds: The is/ought fallacy. So long as we are willing to admit the presence of evil in our world, we should be cautious of a reckless defense of what exists in the here-and-now, especially when the justification is nothing more than that we've done it that way before.

That being said, Professor Bainbridge has written a truly stellar post defending tradition. I have my quibbles with it, obviously. First, I don't believe that the "individual is foolish, but the species is wise," in fact I believe the reverse (as Agent K memorably put it in Men in Black, "A Person is smart, People are stupid, panicky and dangerous."). This is a personal view, but I think the history of lynch raids, mob violence, pogroms, and hate rallies by persons who would individually consider themselves decent, God-fearing men and women is indicative that group-think can lead to terrible consequences. Indeed, one of my favorite quotes is this one by Milan Kundera:
"She would have liked to tell them that behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison."
Or, if you prefer, this one by Rita Steinhardt Botwinick:
Pogroms, that is government or tolerated riots against Jews, were suffered by generations of Russian Jews. They illustrate how mob action can result in arson, plunder, and murder. Criminal acts seem acceptable when committed by a crowd. Even after the excitement of terrorizing defenseless victims has worn off, there is no sense of guilt, only justification. The outrages committed by the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War are a familiar example of criminality by consent. Far from viewing themselves as arsonists and murderers, Klan members wrapped themselves in the flag of Southern patriotism. [A History of the Holocaust: From Ideology to Annihilation. Third Edition, (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004), Pgs. 3-4]

I also think that Professor Bainbridge and I differ on what giving tradition the "benefit of the doubt" means. For me, it means that in absence of any compelling reason to do otherwise, we default to tradition, but where other morally significant factors come into play (and individual choice counts here), then tradition is given a moderate, but not extensive, weight (on the basis of predictability and the "law of unintended consequences"). Bainbridge would require, I suspect, a fairly substantial proof presented that the tradition leads to "wrong" outcomes before it is changed. How we can conceptualize "wrongs" outside of what the tradition teaches, when tradition is accepted as the metatheory by which we view ethics, is to me unclear. I suppose one could find inconsistencies and contradictions within the tradition, in which case the purpose of ethical inquiry is to "purge" the "impurities" which mar the tradition, but that doesn't address what we do when the superstructure itself is flawed. If a particular tradition is warlike, aggressive, and xenophobic, then a "purification" of it is not likely to result in human dignity nor actions which we'd generally label moral. At the risk of sounding overly radical, a traditionalist pursuit of morality can never critique the system itself, it can never escape to the "outside" and thus can never remedy wrongs that are ingrained in (rather than aberrations from) the metatheory.

Bainbridge's best defenses are pragmatic--tradition has the benefit of predictability, we know what the likely results are of its continuance. This is the reason I'm willing to give any weight tradition at all, but it has its own perils. I don't find predictable injustices to be particularly soothing. The problem with the "tradition" paradigm is that it justifies inaction and acts to sustain and support man's pre-existing tendency toward inertia. Tradition is almost by definition passive, all it demands of us is to do what what we've always done. What could be more natural than that? But when "what we've always done" is engage in mass oppression, giving tradition moral weight amplifies its already substantial psychological weight and makes resistance all but impossible. Think of the tradition of Christian anti-Semitism in Europe, which enabled the Holocaust even as enlightenment values of universalism and human rights were supposedly reaching their pinnacle. Even if one excuses the Germans on the basis that these values were utterly snuffed out by the omnipresence of Nazi totalitarianism (a statement I don't buy), it still does not answer the silence, passivity, and complicity of the French, Poles, Russians, Slavs, and others who willingly assisted the mass extermination of Jews even as the resisted their occupation (and do not get me started about the blind eye the non-occupied world--Britain, America, etc--turned to the Jews at the same time). This turns Bainbridge's argument on its head: staying with tradition has in itself unintended consequences (I doubt that Bainbridge intends to enable massive extermination). It is no answer to assert that this injustice is of the type that justifies a break from tradition, for it is the very rhetoric of tradition, its pragmatism and inertia, that is the cause of people looking away when they otherwise would act. The Holocaust is the ultimate refutation to the argument that society will transcend tradition when faced with the greatest of injustices. The fact that evil can be woven into our history makes me wary of linking tradition and morality together. At root, I think mankind has a pretty strong proclivity toward staying within tradition on its own. We don't need to elevate it to a moral principle.

Clearly, I disagree with Bainbridge (I doubt anybody really was expecting otherwise). But that should not detract from a must-read post on his end. Give it a whirl, and make up your own mind.

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