Universal Life Church

About the Appeal to Tradition

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One of the most fundamental logical fallacies, and one that is frequently repeated in the political and religious arenas, is the argumentum ad antiquitatem or Appeal to Tradition. This fallacy states that because something is old or traditional it is inherently correct or better than other, perhaps more modern, alternatives. This "something" can be a tradition, i.e. "clubbing seals in Northern Europe and Canada is acceptable because hunters have done so for thousands of years," or a belief, i.e. "democracy is the best form of government for America because that is what we've done for over 200 years."

The Appeal to Tradition fallacy is based on two false assumptions that are made every time someone commits it.

The first assumption reasons that because the way of thinking or tradition was common in the past it must have been correct in order for it to have become popular in the first place. The logical failure of this assumption is readily apparent; the thing in question may have been incorrect to begin with and became popular due to misconceptions or bad information.

The second assumption says that the tradition or way of thinking is equally valid now as it was in the past; "it's fine to carry on this long-standing tradition because the world has not changed such that it is now obsolete." The world is constantly changing so this argument is rarely, if ever, true.

"New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common." John Locke, English philosopher

How This Fallacy Pertains to ULC Ministers

You will encounter the Appeal to Tradition from time to time and you should make an effort to fight against it as it comes around. Poor thinking affects both the poor thinker and those whom they have any measure of influence over; it is thus important to nip the Appeal to Tradition in the bud as soon as possible when you hear it! You should also counter this fallacy when you are acting as a ULC minister, as your religious background may lend extra weight to your argument and help the misinformed see their logical errors.

The following examples of the Appeal to Tradition, and reasons why they are logically fallacious, should give you an idea of how to identify and then fight against it.

Alternative medicine

The fallacy: "This medicine has been used by aboriginal peoples since ancient history and is thus an effective way to treat diseases."

Why this thinking is incorrect: The aboriginal people who discovered the "medicine," who presumably did not use the scientific method in its discovery and proliferation, may have been mistaken about its properties millennia ago and the medicine might thus be less effective than it is currently thought to be. Also, the traditional medicine may be significantly inferior to modern medicine and should thus not be implicitly trusted over other treatments.

Family traditions

The fallacy: "My great-grandfather, grandfather and father were all lawyers and so I need to become a lawyer, too."

Why this thinking is incorrect: This line of thinking only makes sense if you have the ability to become a talented lawyer or are interested in becoming one. To use a term from economics, if your utility-maximizing option is not the path mandated by the family tradition, do not take it. Remember: "Just like it takes people to start traditions, it takes people to end them."

Gay marriage

The fallacy: "Marriage has always been between a man and a woman and thus same sex marriage is wrong."

Why this thinking is incorrect: Just because gay marriage was not prevalent in the past does not mean it cannot exist now; times and social mores have changed so the feasibility of gay marriage can reasonably be said to have changed as well. Also, it is impossible to know for sure that gay marriage did not exist in the past as no one has a complete understanding of history.

"Conventional people are roused to fury by departure from convention, largely because they regard such departures as criticism of themselves." Bertrand Russell, British philosopher

Why the ULC Ministries Wrote This Post

This article is not meant to be a tirade against conservative thinking nor is it supposed to challenge conventional wisdom on any subject. The ULC Ministries staff is also not trying to influence your thinking; in our opinion, one of the worst things we could do as a church would be to tell you how to think!

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Instead, this post is merely propounding the value of critical thinking, something that the Appeal to Tradition frequently stands in the way of. The best minds the world has to offer do not take things for granted; they challenge conventional wisdom, stress test traditions and look for new and better ways of doing things all for the sake of improving human civilization. This does not mean that these great minds will always destroy traditions and conventional wisdom in order to make improvements, of course; their ultimate objective is to determine whether or not the practices and ways of thinking we assume to be true are in fact the best ways of doing and/or thinking about things. If a tradition maximizes society's utility in a particular area, these minds will undoubtedly be in favor of keeping it.

Let's consider an example mentioned above: hunters clubbing seals to death in Canada and Northern Europe, a practice that has been in place for thousands of years. The ULC Ministries staff believes that using clubs to hunt young seals is exceedingly brutal and should be suspended forthwith. However, a northern Canadian whose income is partially dependent upon the annual seal hunt would disagree with us. Such a hunter would probably point out that the club used to kill the baby seals (the hakapik) is designed to smash into their thin skulls in such a way that the seal dies quickly and with minimal damage to their pelt (a benefit that rifles and other hunting methods do not share). Using these facts (and not the argument "it's been done this way for millennia"), this hunter could thus reasonably argue that using hakapiks to hunt baby seals is still the best way to carry out the practice and he would thus not commit the Appeal to Tradition fallacy.

As far as the ULC Ministries is concerned, any tradition that someone continues because they can support its continuation with facts, even if the facts only really apply to that person or to a group they belong to, is entirely acceptable. However, to carry out and defend a tradition using the primary argument of "it's how we've done it in the past" is to commit a major logical fallacy and thus undermine your own position. On this note, we implore our online ordained ministers to think for yourselves and think critically; it will do both you and society a world of good!

Category: ULC Topics

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