The defense of so-called “traditional values” is a cornerstone of modern conservative thought, but the term itself is so often obfuscated in a cloud of ambiguity. To respect tradition, we are often told, is to be opposed to any changes to the current system. It is to defend the values of the status quo unconditionally and, therefore, to be complicit in the purported systemic oppression of minority groups against whom the system was originally structured. The left, in the matter of tradition, essentially takes the position of John Stuart Mill. Mill—a prominent 19th-century philosopher and one of the midwives of modern liberalism—derided custom on the grounds that it stood always as a “hindrance” to human progress and advancement and was an enemy to liberty, going as far as to equate the dominance of custom and traditions in society with despotism. To follow unexamined customs and practices, for Mill, is to be unreflective and mentally stagnant: he writes in On Liberty, “The human faculties of perception, judgement, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice. He who does anything because it is a custom, makes no choice.” Ultimately, what are “traditional values,” and why do conservatives ascribe value to them?
Noteworthy is that when describing tradition, I am not speaking of arbitrary and artificial rules and conventions. I am speaking instead of the inherited solutions to enduring problems in society. This point was emphasized by one of the constitutive thinkers of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, in his magnum opus Reflections on the Revolution in France. In his writings, Burke demonstrated that reverence for customs, traditions, and settled ways is a political virtue and not, as most progressives and leftists will argue, a sign of complacency. For Burke, society depends upon relations of affection and trust, built from the bottom-up, through face-to-face interaction. It is in the family, in local clubs and organizations, and in schools and universities (what Burke called “little platoons”) that people learn to engage with one another as free beings, each taking responsibility for their actions and accounting to their neighbors. These interactions carve our senses of belonging, familiarity, and membership in the world, as the social networks with which we can root our existence in relation to others broaden and expand. Social traditions are the residue of these free interactions, arising spontaneously by an “invisible hand” from the open-ended business of society, from trial and error, from conflicts and their resolutions, and from the continuous process of negotiation and dialogue by which the impulses of force and violence are quelled and social harmony in human communities is maintained. For Edmund Burke, social traditions represent the knowledge garnered through lived experience; better still, this knowledge could accumulate over time and was transmittable through the various institutions in society. So although man’s “private stock of reason is small,” there is a “general bank and capital of nations, and of ages” from which we can reliably draw solutions to the problems that we all encounter. Burke’s metaphor, however, is in one respect misleading. Social knowledge does not accumulate as money does in a bank; rather, it exists only in and through its repeated exercise. This form of knowledge is tacit, social, practical, and can never be captured in a formula or plan. Indeed, it is for precisely this reason that Burke opposed so strongly the efforts of the French Revolutionaries who, while codifying various rights claims, paid no mind to the legal and social relations through which those rights might be practically upheld.
When conservatives support tradition, they ought to defend it, as Burke did, along epistemological grounds. Tradition represents knowledge, but a particular type of knowledge. It is not theoretical knowledge but the kind of knowledge that presents itself in the English common law, manners and social conventions, and morality. This kind of knowledge “involves the mastery of situations—knowing what to do, in order to accomplish a task successfully, where success is not measured in any exact or fore-envisaged goal, but in the harmony of the result with our human needs and interests,” as Roger Scruton formulated it in his book Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition. Tradition represents precisely the kind of insight that can be acquired only through immersion in society—what to do in company, what to say, what to feel, etc. What Edmund Burke defended as a form of “prejudice” helps us handle, without incertitude, the dilemmas and conundrums that we face in our everyday lives. (It should be noted that by “prejudice” Burke does not imply bigotry and superstition, although prejudice may sometimes degenerate into these.) Well understood, prejudice is pre-judgment, the answer supplied to an individual by the ancestral store of wisdom when they lack either the time or knowledge to arrive at a decision a priori. In Burke’s words, prejudice “is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.” In his vindication of prejudice, Burke also illustrates how those higher forms of practical knowledge—Aristotle’s virtues—are acquired and exercised. This point is perhaps the greatest contribution of conservatism to the self-understanding of the human species—the point that humans require customs and institutions that are not founded on reason if we are to use reason to good effect.
The conservative position, as I have defended it, can be summed up like this: rational solutions emerge from the bottom-up, from the spontaneous order that governs the sphere of civil life. Traditions are prevailing strategies, passed down generations, with which we can coordinate our social lives and flourish in community settings. Lastly, the tacit form of practical knowledge embodied in these traditions is lost entirely in the ether of theoretical abstraction. Traditions are epistemologically valuable, then, because to reject tradition altogether is to limit your knowledge to a particular time and a particular perspective. But as Edmund Burke forewarned, this has only lamentable applications in practice. Tradition is a corrective for our limited faculties—it is necessary “to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature.” The vast knowledge required to organize a successful human society, Burke readily recognized, could never be contained within a single head. By replacing traditions with abstract rational philosophies, while we may think of ourselves as more rational and equipped to handle the modern world, we are, in fact, less equipped, and our beliefs less justified. We are less equipped because we have only the practical knowledge we ourselves have discovered and the limited resources of individual reason to sustain us, at which point, the familiar features of the world become something of a mystery and our reason loses its substantive content. In a similar way, our beliefs are less justified because they are justified only by us, which is to say, they are judged only by our standards, perspectives, and insight in the present. Traditions, on the contrary, are justified from the outside, as it were, rather than from our own perspective. They are refined and perfected over many generations, their justification deriving in part from how long they have prevailed.
In summary, social traditions enable societies to reproduce themselves by offering time-honored strategies to each successive generation. To heedlessly repudiate traditional knowledge is, therefore, to remove the guarantee of one generation to the next, implicate future generations in an endless cycle of rediscovery, and thwart the process whereby knowledge is accumulated and dispersed over time. And it is for these reasons especially that modern progressives—whose self-righteousness and arrogance leads them to reject solutions of the past—will never offer any coherent remedies to the generational pathologies they so claim to care about (e.g. climate change, systemic racism, and so on). The paradox of progressivism is that it rests both on the assumption that contemporary problems must be liberated from past answers but that the future will have as much regard for our present as we have had for our past. In other words, those for whom progressivism guides their worldview implicitly understand that their strides and achievements are always in vain, destined inevitably for the historical dustbin.