Libertarians and Others Talking about Traditionalism

By Russell Arben Fox for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

The libertarian website Cato Unbound asked me to write an essay on traditionalism for their January issue; what I ended up producing was a little longer, and little more philosophical, and a little less political than I think it needed to be, but they edited it down nicely, and the resulting argument in favor of respecting traditions should produce some interesting debates as the month goes by. (Alert readers will notice that one of the scheduled respondents to my lead essay, John Fea, is a one-time Front Porch Republic contributor.) My basic argument is that many critics of traditions rest content in demonstrating that the knowledge and virtue which many (including, I trust, most FPRers) believe traditions to impart to them is arbitrary, the result of random and ad hoc historical construction. Here is a taste of what I’m responding to:

One of the assertions [of traditionalism’s opponents] is that what appears to adherents of various traditions as morally worthy is really only a subjective perception of such. Tradition is constructed out of nostalgia and is the result of paying undue attention to isolated moments that can be prettified in our memories. Those who don’t live in a fully reactionary environment find themselves put on the spot: if their lives are in any way characterized by pluralism, then they must acknowledge that there is an element of willful construction involved in how a traditional belief or practice comes to include (and exclude) whatever it does. And that, supposedly, undermines the theoretical force of the moral claim made on behalf of traditions. How, the argument runs, could a subjectively experienced and consciously elaborated-upon moment from out of the whole historical sweep of events be construed as truly serving normative personal or public ends? There is no reason to think that the resulting practice or belief is anything but somewhat arbitrary.

To see how I respond to that, read my lead essay–or, perhaps, if you’re a glutton for punishment, read the longer, even more philosophical version here. Either way, follow it along, if the topic intrigues you; John’s and others’ comments are bound to be worth your time.

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