One fallacious way to argue that something is true or good is to make this inference by appealing to tradition. When the debate over same-sex marriage was at its peak, this sort of poor reasoning was commonly deployed in an effort to defend “traditional” marriage. While that debate is largely settled, the appeal to tradition is still employed to defend what some people see as traditions worth defending, such as “traditional” gender roles and “traditional” religious values. The obvious problem with this approach is that it involves a fallacy—a bad argument in which the premise(s) fail to logically support the conclusion. As to why people would use a fallacy, some reasons include not realizing it is a fallacy, not having any good arguments to use, or knowing that a fallacy can be far more persuasive than a logically good argument.
Rather than engage in the endless task of addressing the multitude of specific fallacious appeals to tradition, I will focus on the fallacy itself in the hopes that it will provide people with the tools needed to recognize and defend against such appeals. I will go beyond merely describing the fallacy and will do something of a deep dive. To begin, we should consider two relatives of the appeal to tradition, the appeal to belief and the appeal to common practice.
The appeal to belief fallacy occurs when a person infers that a claim is true simply because all or most people believe the claim. It has the following pattern:
Premise 1: All (or most) people believe that claim X is true.
Conclusion: Therefore, X is true.
This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because the fact that many people believe a claim does not, in general, serve as evidence that the claim is true.
There are, however, some cases when the fact that many people accept a claim as true is an indication that it is true. Avoiding the fallacy in such cases does require including this as a premise. For example, while you are visiting Maine, you are told by several residents you see fishing that they believe that people older than 16 need to buy a fishing license to fish. Barring reasons to doubt these people, you have good reason to believe their claim because they most likely know the law and are probably not lying to you.
There are also cases in which what people believe determines the truth of a claim. Avoiding the fallacy in such cases does require including this as a premise. For example, the truth of claims about manners depend on what people believe to be good manners. The meaning of words also seems to rest on belief: words, in a practical sense, mean what most people believe they mean. Some philosophers argue that ethical and aesthetic claims fall into this category. Those who embrace moral relativism argue that what is good and bad is determined by the beliefs of a culture. Those who embrace aesthetic relativism contend that beauty is determined in the same way. These theories cannot be simply assumed without committing another fallacy, that of begging the question. Now to the appeal to common practice.
While the appeal to belief involves what people believe, the appeal to common practice involves what people do. It occurs when someone concludes that an action is correct or right simply because it is (alleged to be) commonly done. It has the following form:
Premise 1: X is a common action.
Conclusion: Therefore, X is correct/moral/justified/reasonable, etc.
It is a fallacy because the mere fact that most people do something does not make it correct, moral, justified, or reasonable.
As with appeal to belief there are philosophers who argue that there can be arguments from common practice that are not fallacious. For example, moral relativism is the theory that morality is relative to the practices of a culture. If what is moral is determined by what is commonly practiced, then a non-fallacious argument could be constructed using that as a premise.
People sometimes mistake an appeal for fair play to be an appeal to common practice. For example, a woman working in an office might say “the men who do the same amount and quality of work I do get paid more than I do, so it would be right for me to get paid the same as them.” The argument does not rest on the practice being a common one; rather it is an appeal to the principle of relevant difference. On this principle two people, A and B, can only be treated differently if and only if there is a relevant difference between them. For example, it would be morally acceptable to pay people differently for work of different quality; but it would not be acceptable to pay people differently for the same quality and quantity of work simply because one person is a male and the other female. As would be suspected, there is considerable debate about what differences are relevant.
You might be wondering what the appeal to belief and the appeal to common practice have to do with the appeal to tradition. Roughly put, the appeal to tradition fallacy involves arguing that something is true or right because it has been believed or done for a long time (or both). As such, the fallacy occurs when it is assumed that something is better or correct simply because it is older, traditional, or “always has been done/believed.”
This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:
Premise 1: X is old or traditional (believed or done a long time)
Conclusion: Therefore, X is correct or better than the new/non-traditional.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because the age of something does not automatically make it correct or better than something newer. This is made quite obvious by the following example: the theory that witches or demons cause disease is far older than the theory that microorganism cause diseases. Therefore, the theory about witches and demons must be true.
While one should avoid falling for the appeal to tradition, it is equally important to avoid falling for the appeal to novelty. This fallacy occurs when one infers that something is correct or better simply because it is new or non-traditional. This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:
Premise 1: X is new (or non-traditional).
Conclusion: Therefore, X is correct or better than the old/traditional.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because the novelty or newness of something does not automatically make it correct or better than something older. To use a silly example, if someone just created the “earthworm diet” that involves eating only earthworms, it obviously does not follow that this is better than more traditional diets. As a general rule, the age or traditionality of something provide no evidence for or against its truth or goodness. In the next essay I will get into some deeper philosophical analysis of the appeal to tradition and why it is defective.