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Traditions – Why we need them, and when we don’t

Every nation on Earth has established traditions and customs. Great Britain has a great many also, although in the modern age, the traditions of this country are being increasingly challenged and removed from public life. Challenging and questioning traditions are not always a bad thing, but we must examine tradition in more detail to decide why the classical conservative views tradition as innately good, and why traditions ought to be preserved, but also to examine under what circumstances traditions should be removed.

Firstly, what is tradition, and what are customs? Traditions and customs (which will henceforth be referred to under the umbrella term ‘traditions’) are institutions, behaviours and widely known ideas which were passed down to the current generation by previous, ancestral generations, and which generally have survived unchanged, or only changed in minor areas, from when the tradition was first established. When traditions are first established, however, it is necessary to note that they are not traditions. Traditions can only become traditions once they have been passed through several generations without undergoing much change, i.e. they have stood the test of time. One example would be freedom of speech – the idea of freedom of speech in the UK has its roots in the establishment of parliamentary democracy after the English Civil War, with Parliament gaining the right to question and oppose the will of the monarch. By the 19th century, different classes of people were seen freely expressing themselves, such as through the Chartist movement, the socialist movement, the Young England movement and many others. It became commonly accepted that the United Kingdom stood for the right of its citizens to participate in democracy by having their opinions heard – not necessarily acted upon, but heard nonetheless. This tradition has continued up until the present day, where, as I have mentioned before it is now facing more challenges.

Ideas such as freedom of speech (which fits into the wider tradition of liberal democracy) are traditions worth keeping, because they have been shown to be traditions which allow all members of a society to contribute to the running of their country, and it has been shown by history, that in the absence of such traditions, the result is the establishment of alternative forms of government, such as dictatorship, which is regarded nearly universally in the Western world as negative, since it inhibits the freedom of individuals. One argument that is often heard in response to the idea of maintaining traditions, however, is that sometimes traditions change over time, or some traditions are not worth keeping. In some respects this can be seen as true. Traditions were established a long time ago (as we have already concluded, this is a prerequisite for a tradition to be a tradition), not always in circumstances which apply to the modern world. However, we can assume that a good tradition would in fact change with time. A prime example would be farming. Farming is a practice begun in ancient times, yet the methods and practices of farming have changed to suit the times periods in which the practice has continued. How these changes can conform to morality is something that will be covered later.

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A Parade for the Queen – An example of a British Tradition

A friend of mine recently questioned me on the topic of tradition. He postulated that, since slavery was a tradition in the United States which was abolished due to the efforts of Abraham Lincoln, and resulted in acting as a flashpoint for a civil war between the supporters and opposers of slavery in the United States, it cannot be a sound argument to propose that traditions handed down from generation to generation are always good. This is not something to be dismissed out of hand; it is in fact a very fair statement. Firstly however, I have never suggested that one ought to be closed-minded to the idea of changing or ending traditions, in fact, it would be counterproductive to do so. The conservative sees the value of tradition, but he should not be afraid to question them. Secondly, the definition of tradition has to be considered. It is debatable whether slavery in the United States can be considered a “tradition”, since it was a business venture in human lives, rather than a particularly well-established institution, by the time of the American Civil War, the country was split between pro and anti-slaver states, so some states obviously did not view slavery as a viable tradition. Let us, however, cast out all doubt and assume slavery was a tradition in the United States for hypothetical reasons. Tradition can be thrown out completely if it is considered immoral. What shall we consider immoral however? The immoral is that which encourages evil by its practice, and the enslavement of a human being is a form of exploitation, from a religious perspective, the degradation of a divine creation, and therefore a form of evil, since the slave is given no choice in his or her life, and is subjected to brutality merely by being denied the opportunity for a life with his or her fellow man. If tradition contradicts those established principles of moral government, in liberal democracy we shall consider liberty the fundamental right of all citizens, then we must consider that tradition to be morally wrong. On these grounds the tradition can be thrown out.

It is interesting to note, on a tandem, that in Great Britain, the Lord Justice Henley ruled in 1763 that “soon as a man sets foot on English ground he is free.” This would be an example of a Justice ruling that an established practice, (slavery in this case) is wrong because of previously established tradition. In the view of Justice Henley, it was a tradition of England that anyone within its jurisdiction was considered free within the law. On these grounds, that tradition carries far more authority than any other precept, and thus, it overrules concepts such as slavery.

The conservative realises that traditions were passed down to us by our ancestors for a reason. More often than not, traditions are maintained across the ages because they are seen to contribute to a good cause of some kind, and the tradition, when first established, was probably done in good faith. For these reasons, a conservative must question the opponents of tradition, and ensure that the arguments for both abolishing and keeping a tradition are heard, the fundamental question being: is the tradition morally right? If it is not, it can be removed, if it is morally right, or helps to contribute to a good society, any attempt to remove it should be viewed with great caution. Tradition can be used as a guide for mankind, since every tradition represents an experience encountered by our ancestors, and allows the present generation to judge what to do in those situations should they arise again, or whether or not those experiences are relevant to the present state of society.

This post was originally published by the author 13 May 2016  https://burkeanthinker.wordpress.com/2016/05/13/traditions-why-we-need-them-and-when-we-dont/

About Alex Illingworth

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Alex Illingworth lives in Oxford where he pursues studies in philosophy and theology, having previously studied Classics. He has written extensively on conservatism, and on British politics, and is a co-founder of the conservative blog aimed at students: The Burkean. His debut book in political philosophy "Political Justice" is a forthcoming publication with Arktos Media.

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