Sunday, August 15, 2010

Organic Truth.

One of the ideas that Jim Kalb puts forward to justify the epistemological validity of tradition, is because traditions are the "organic" products of society, the ideas and habits being shaped over time and modified towards a certain veracity. Ideas, practices and relationships which have stood the test of time must have something going for them if human beings have adopted them for prolonged periods. There must be some truth to them which we shouldn't ignore because these traditions aren't just "ingrained habits" rather practices which are symbiotic with the human condition and therefore true.

I think Mr Kalb is onto something here but where I think he errs is taking the existence of tradition as proof of some kind of truth.

If we take three societies, Pre-Modern Christianity, Islam, and Judaism we find that whilst all three are traditional societies, all three have different ideas on Marriage. The Christian(Catholic) tradition permits marriage but bans divorce. The Judaic, permits marriage but permits divorce and the Islamic permits multiple wives and permits divorce All three traditions have stood the test of time so I suppose that all three conceptions of marriage must be right. Or not.

Tradition here gives us no guide at all as to how to view marriage since the traditional views are competing and mutually exclusive, their only commonality being that marriage is an relationship between husband and wife. And then this comes along.

It seems tradition can't even agree to that simple proposition. Tradition then, as a sort of knowledge which is organically intertwined with the human condition seems to give conflicting views on even some of the most basic human institutions. Tradition seems to provide for multiple "truths".

One thing I do agree with Mr Kalb is that many of the traditions that have developed across the world are indeed more "human" than the modernist ideologies that wish to replace them. The fact that Islam or Hinduism have produced stable cultures that have lasted over a thousand years means that there must be something in them that doesn't rub up against human nature in such a way to assure the self destruction of these societies.

Jim Kalb got unfairly argued with in this exchange over at What's Wrong With the World. I don't think that Mr Kalb was in any way trying to defend or excuse the evils of Islam what he was trying to say that human beings have had a successful and working relationship with Islam for over a 1000 years and therefore the tradition of Islam must, at least, not be against human nature completely. I agree with Mr Kalb.

The problem is though, from a Christian perspective though, is Islam has many faults which are incompatible with Christian truth. And these faults have--like the good traditions--persisted for thousands of years. The fact that limited polygamy has existed in Islam for over a thousand years mean that polygamy is right? Or Sati?

The sad fact is that human beings can at times be a barbarous lot, barbarous for a long period of time and bad customs can become ingrained into a society. The fact that a society is able to function and thrive for a long periods of time with bad traditions does not confer onto the traditions legitimacy rather the fact is that functional societies can operate quite successfully with a certain amount of "non self-destructive evil". The fact that an evil becomes custom or tradition does not make it right. Society's do not self purify over time ,rather what seems to happen is that tend to rot in their own corruption.

Rather, what the "organic truth" model of conservatism confers is not an objecetive knowledge of right or wrong but rather a sort of moral relativism, in which right or wrong is determined relative to the customs of society: It's self-referential.

Tradition, in the end, is not about what is right or wrong, it's about what people are happy to adopt and become accustomed to, so in a sense tradition is naturally co- dependent upon a human dimension, but that human dimension is flawed in its capacity for evil. The result being that the veneration of tradition leads to the same place as modernism-- the measure is man, not right or wrong.