Friday, 22 June 2012

Empty Appeals to Emptier Traditions

The appeal to tradition is probably one of my favourite fallacies in debating, mostly because of how completely ridiculous it is. It's one of those arguments which should be absurd regardless of what side of the debate you're on, but people still insist on using it. I don't intend to change much with what is really quite a narrow base of readers, but I still feel a need to expose idiocy where I can. 

Anyway, the argument usually comes in forms like this:
"Things have always been like this, so that's how it should be." Basically, if you do something for long enough it becomes acceptable. If you're the type which isn't inclined to thinking, then this argument might be something slightly convincing, but anyone else is unlikely to be fooled.

Traditions which have been held for a long time can be wrong and they can contradict each other. Let's take the creation stories as told in Genesis and measure it up with Taoist creation stories. The Bible (or one popular and long-standing 'interpretation' of it, anyway) tells us that the world was created in six days in pretty much the same state it is in now. We can debate exactly why elsewhere if you want, but that is false on a number of different levels. This also contradicts the story told in Taoist traditions, which state something along the lines of everything in the universe being incubated in an egg. It eventually hatched, giving birth to yin, yang and the giant Pangu, who divided the heaven and earth by his sheer size. When he died, his body was transformed in ways that would shape our world; his breath became wind, etc. These two stories contradict each other, so at least one of them must be at least partially wrong despite both being ideas which have stood the test of time. 

Duration just isn't a relevant factor when it comes to the continuation of beliefs and practices. One could make the argument that Slavery is absolutely fine, because people have kept slaves throughout history, but Slavery is now almost universally reviled as evil, despite that 'tradition' would suggest that it's a good idea. This is not to say that all old ideas are bad; humans have also built houses for shelter throughout history. This is not a particularly bad idea.

The reason why the appeal to tradition might work is because it suggests that there is a reason the tradition has stuck around like some kind of persistent barnacle. This is certainly the case for humanity building shelter, considering we'd probably die without it. The odd thing is that tradition doesn't really factor into the argument here: the whole dying aspect stands as justification to continue building houses on its own, without a need to appeal to some obscure traditions. The longevity excuse only really comes into play when the tradition being defended doesn't really have a valid reason to support it.

In fact, just as often as there are good reasons for traditions to be sustained, there are also terrible reasons. An inaccurate belief may have been kept around because people just didn't have enough knowledge of the world around them to come to a correct conclusion. Those in power may have propagated a practice or institution because it served them well in terms of controlling others.

No prizes to guessing what I'm referring to here.

The point is that longevity is more a consequence of the good or bad reasons to keep a tradition alive. If they're substantial enough, these reasons stand independently and there should be no point in making such an invalid appeal.

With that in mind, here comes my LGBT agenda:
Are there any actual reasons to keep marriage as something exclusive to heterosexual couples? No; nothing that doesn't rely on people mistaking their opinion for a good reason, anyway. It doesn't pose a threat to anyone, neither does it obstruct anyone's rights. Indeed, it promises equal rights, at least as far as marriage is concerned! It doesn't constitute harm either, unless we're counting the gay couple who will be sent to hell. I don't on account of hell not being real, or not a provable concern at least.

Equal marriage is an example of a really unusual use of the appeal to tradition. It usually comes down to something like "Marriage has been between a man and a woman for thousands of years. Why should we throw all of that out now?" Marriage has only been that way for so long because people found the tradition appealing. In a sense, the appeal to tradition is actually to the continuation of a tradition rather than the tradition itself; and these constant appeals become cyclic in nature. Again, if there were reason other than the appeal, they would stand on their own; but in this case, they just don't. In that sense, the appeal to tradition isn't an argument at all, more a sneaky way of admitting you don't have one.

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