Appeal to Tradition

Fallacies of Relevance

Wedding Tradition
Wedding Tradition. for you/Moment/Getty

Fallacy Name:
Appeal to Tradition

Alternative Names:

Fallacies of Relevance > Appeals to Authority



This form of the Appeal to Authority is slightly different from the others in that it does not directly make an appeal to the authority of any particular people. Instead, it makes its appeal to the authority of the collective interests and habits of people, as expressed in tradition or culture.

The basic format which this argument takes can be summarized as:

1. This is the way we have always acted or believed. This is what our ancestors did or believed. Therefore, it is the way we should act or believe.

The basic assumption behind this fallacy is that whatever was good enough for our ancestors in the past should still be good enough for us as well. In this, it bears a strong resemblance to the Argument from Antiquity, which asserts that whatever is old must also necessarily be right or good — or at least better.


Examples and Discussion

The Appeal to Tradition is perhaps most often used when it comes to discussions about social matters — when someone wants to preserve some long-standing tradition or institution, the very fact that it is traditional is commonly cited as a reason to keep things the way they are.

It is perhaps most easily seen in arguments against extending marriage equality to same-sex couples, for example:

2. Marriage is one of humanity's oldest institutions, and it wouldn't have survived so long as an integral part of every culture if it were not for the fact that it is vital for our survival. Therefore, we shouldn't tamper with it or do anything that might harm it.

One obvious flaw in this argument is the fact that, although marriage is very old, it hasn't always taken the same shape and form.

This is a problem in almost every appeal to tradition because if you go back far enough, you will find that things were different. By starting with the marriages of antiquity and concluding with the marriages of today, the argument also commits the Fallacy of Equivocation because it ignores the many, many changes that have happened to the nature of marriage.

But even if we ignore that, we find a fallacious Appeal to Tradition: because things have always been done a certain way, they should continue to be done that way. Don't rock the boat by trying to change things. Of course, the above argument could also be made about prostitution, couldn't it? No one who uses the Appeal to Tradition actually wants to preserve every tradition that a culture or society has - they only want to preserve some of them, so pick and choose which ones they will argue for.

Where the Argument from Tradition differs from the Argument from Antiquity, however, lies in a somewhat subtle distinction. Whereas the latter reaches its conclusion of value merely from the age of the practice or object, the former asserts that a particular tradition provides particular knowledge and information.

With the above argument, for example, there is a clear appeal to age, but there is also an implicit appeal to the idea that the institution of marriage has something important to tell us about ourselves.

It isn't good simply because it is old, but also because it has played a central role in culture or experience.

Indeed, the tradition being appealed to doesn't even have to be old — every time someone has said "but that is the way we've always done it," it's an appeal to tradition, even if it is a "tradition" of just a couple of years.