Friday, September 19, 2014

"Cautious out of prudence"

Federal Appeals Judge Richard Posner responded to some of the argument in favor of Wisconsin's law prohibiting same-sex marriage by saying "Can tradition be a reason for anything?" That inspired this response at Ricochet:
.... Tradition is the foundation of rational conduct, and the means through which mankind passes on the social capital which has accumulated through the experience of thousands of generations that have already confronted the vicissitudes of life. As T.S. Eliot noted in the context of poetry: “he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely present, but the present moment of the past… not of what is dead, but what is already living.” (emphasis added). ....

There can be no doubt that the loss of essential legal traditions would destroy the courts. The doctrine of stare decisis, for example, requires courts to abide by prior decisions and the rulings of higher courts. The doctrine emerged from centuries of common law jurisprudence, a legal framework steeped in respect for tradition.

It’s nearly impossible to define tradition in rationalist language. Burke explained that traditions — though he used the word “prejudice” synonymously — are “cherished because they are prejudices and the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they prevail, the more we cherish them.”

Why? Because:
We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason: because we suspect that the stock in each man is small, and that individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.
Critics of tradition insist, of course, that those who adhere to past wisdom are cranky old know-nothings. In a sense they’re right. A traditionalist will agree that he knows only a little: that is his greatest virtue. Traditionalists are pessimistic by nature, and cautious out of prudence. Adam Smith said “it is acquired wisdom and experience that teach incredulity, and they very seldom teach it enough.” For this reason, a traditionalist is humble because he knows that unrestrained novelty invites disaster. .... [more]
G.K. Chesterton:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. (The Thing)

Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. (Orthodoxy)