Appealing to Tradition Fallacy

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  • Fallacy Name: Appeal to Age
  • Alternative Names:
    • argumentum ad antiquitatem
    • Appeal to Tradition
    • Appeal to Custom
    • Appeal to Common Practice
  • Category: Appeals to Emotion and Desire

Explanation of the Appeal to Age Fallacy

The Appeal to Age fallacy goes in the opposite direction from the Appeal to Novelty fallacy by arguing that when something is old, then this somehow enhances the value or truth of the proposition in question. The Latin for Appeal to Age is argumentum ad antiquitatem, and the most common form is:

1. It is old or long-used, so it must better than this new-fangled stuff.

People have a strong tendency towards conservatism; that is to say, people have a tendency to preserve practices and habits which seem to work rather than replace them with new ideas. Sometimes this may be due to laziness, and sometimes it may simply be a matter of efficiency. In general, though, it's probably a product of evolutionary success because habits which allowed for survival in the past won't be abandoned too quickly or easily in the present.

Sticking with something that works isn't a problem; insisting on a certain way of doing things simply because it's traditional or old is a problem and, in a logical argument, it is a fallacy.

Examples of the Appeal to Age Fallacy

One common use of an Appeal to Age fallacy is when trying to justify something which can't be defended on actual merits, like, for example, discrimination or bigotry:

2. It's standard practice to pay men more than women so we'll continue adhering to the same standards this company has always followed.
3. Dog fighting is a sport that's been around for hundreds if not thousands of years. Our ancestors enjoyed it and it has become part of our heritage.
4. My mother always put sage in the turkey stuffing so I do it too.

While it's true that the practices in question have been around for a long time, no reason for continuing these practices are given; instead, it's simply assumed that old, traditional practices should be continued. There isn't even any attempt to explain and defend why these practices existed in the first place, and that's important because it might reveal that the circumstances which originally produced these practices have changed enough to warrant dropping those practices.

There are quite a few people out there who are under the mistaken impression that the age of an item, and that alone, is indicative of its value and usefulness. Such an attitude is not entirely without warrant. Just as it is true that a new product can provide new benefits, it is also true that something older may have value because it has worked for a long time.

It isn't true that we can assume, without further question, that an old object or practice is valuable simply because it is old. Perhaps it has been used a lot because no one has ever known or tried any better. Perhaps new and better replacements are absent because people have accepted a fallacious Appeal to Age. If there are sound, valid arguments in defense of some traditional practice, then they should be offered, and it should be demonstrated that it is, in fact, superior to newer alternatives.

Appeal to Age and Religion

It's also easy to find fallacious appeals to age in the context of religion. Indeed, it would probably be hard to find a religion which doesn't use the fallacy at least some of the time because it's rare to find a religion which doesn't rely heavily on tradition as part of how it enforces various doctrines.

Pope Paul VI wrote in 1976 in "Response to the Letter of His Grace the Most Reverend Dr. F.D. Coggan, Archbishop of Canterbury, concerning the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood":

5. [The Catholic Church] holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood for very fundamental reasons. These reasons include: the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God's plan for his Church.

Three arguments are offered by Pope Paul VI in defense of keeping women out of the priesthood. The first appeals to the Bible and isn't an Appeal to Age fallacy. The second and third are so explicit as fallacies that they could be cited in textbooks: we should keep doing this because it's how the church has constantly done it and because what church authority has consistently decreed.

Put more formally, his argument is:

Premise 1: The constant practice of the Church has been to choose only men as priests.
Premise 2: The teaching authority of the Church has consistently held that women should be excluded from the priesthood.
Conclusion: Therefore, it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood.

The argument may not use the words "age" or "tradition," but the use of "constant practice" and "consistently" create the same fallacy.

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Your Citation
Cline, Austin. "Appealing to Tradition Fallacy." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, Cline, Austin. (2021, December 6). Appealing to Tradition Fallacy. Retrieved from Cline, Austin. "Appealing to Tradition Fallacy." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).