Appealing to Tradition is Still a Fallacy

By on February 18, 2012

If you take an introductory logic class or even a class on composition, you’ll encounter some basic fallacies. One of these is the appeal to tradition. This fallacy is to appeal to the past as a guide for the present or future. For example, Americans wouldn’t point to slavery as an example of how we ought to construct our society today.

Like all informal fallacies, the appeal to tradition doesn’t automatically falsify your conclusion. It means the appeal does not necessarily support your conclusion. You cannot show a necessary connection from has been to should be. You’ll need independent reasons to make that jump.

So why does this basic fallacy matter? I bring it up because it seems to be the cornerstone of a popular defense of religious privilege, like cases dealing with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. You’ll see many of these discussions turning into a debate over the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers, religious legislation in the past, court precedent, etc. In the case of Jessica Ahlquist, the debate focused on the history of the school and its banner. Yet, all of this is ironically built on the assumption that an argument committing one of the most basic fallacies will be a reliable guide to truth.

Here is what I propose instead. Notice the problem: we are trying to get to a decision about what should be the case from what has been the case. Why not just skip straight to discussing how things ought to be? The history of religion in this country seems largely irrelevant to me. What I want to know is whether we, as a society, should promote the continued default privilege in favor of Christians. Give me reasons for or against this privilege as a continued practice, rather than an attempted history lesson (especially one that is often embellished).

If independent reasons cannot be given beyond tradition, then the claims should be ignored.

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