A rational view of tradition

In my latest video blog I answer a listener’s question about why rationalists are more likely to abandon social norms like marriage, monogamy, standard gender roles, having children, and so on. And then I weigh in on whether that’s a rational attitude to take:

12 Responses to A rational view of tradition

  1. Bytor says:

    (cross-post from Facebook) One criticism that is commonly made of religious people is that rather than having their beliefs about what is “right” or “wrong” be informed by what the tenets of their religion say, it’s usually the other way around. They take they their already held beliefs and interpret their scriptures such that the pre-existing beliefs are supported.

    As skeptics we understand how various cognitive biases cause us to cherry pick evidence, to remember the hist and forget the misses and so on.

    The question should really be, I think, about how much we skeptics are truly able to counter our natural cognitive biases and so we abandon traditions like monogamy and gender roles because we are engaging in evidence-based introspection? Or, analogous to the religious, are we simply using skepticism to rationalize an already held (liberal) belief system so we can feel good about and justify our moral choices?

  2. Bytor says:

    Also, I’m not so sure that the simple existence of a tradition is evidence that the tradition is beneficial. Perhaps if you had qualified that by saying “beneficial for the group who had the social power to enforce it to be carried out”, then I’d agree with you. Patriarchalism is an example of a tradition that was not beneficial, except to a minority.

    Say that Marija Gimbutas’s utopian matriarchal Old Europe really had existed and that therefore at some point people had to create what became the tradition of patriarchy as we now know it. The establishment of a patriarchal tradition would only have been benficial to the men and would accrue to each man differently based on his position in the social hierarchy with the majority of the population (women, children and lower status men) losing out. We see in our modern times the reverse of this and how gender equitability benefits everybody in society.

  3. Jeffrey Soreff says:

    Particularly liked your point #3, the distinction between what is good for an
    individual vs. what is good for their genes. (I tend to have hackles raised a
    bit by viewing the results of evolution as optimal – fine if one happens to
    value inclusive genetic fitness, not so fine if one values happiness, or
    longevity, or intelligence, or half a dozen other plausible goals…)

  4. Avery Andrews says:

    I think the biggest change in circumstances that renders most traditional religious ideas about sexuality irrelevant except as sensible lifestyle choices for many people (how, for example, is somebody who can barely manage two dishes on a stove going to cope with multiple relationships?) is reasonably safe childbirth and low infant and child mortality, so that a heroic effort from half its population is no longer required to maintain the population of a society. Quite a lot follows from that.

  5. Max says:

    Proponents of alternative medicine often resort to the appeal to tradition, as in “Acupuncture has been used for centuries, so it must work.” The premise is that bad ideas can’t persist over time, but counterexamples like bloodletting and slavery abound. Still, it’s no coincidence that a traditional Chinese diet is low in dairy, and over 90% of Chinese adults are lactose intolerant.

    In organizations, it’s the “That’s how we’ve always done it” syndrome. When you investigate why, sometimes there’s a good reason, sometimes the status quo benefits only certain people who try to keep it that way, and sometimes it’s like the anecdote about cutting off the ends of a roast before cooking.

  6. Andrew T says:

    Great video! Another counterargument to natural selection is that in any sort of gradual evolution, there is a tendency to drift into local maxima, and then deviating from that system becomes very difficult without a big shakeup. That tendency is of course exacerbated by the status quo effect. But in society, unlike biology, we have the ability to try radically different arrangements – the road not taken in our cultural development.

    • Bytor says:

      Drifting into local maxima isn’t really a counterargument to natural selection, as you say. Selection pressure is still there, albeit static, which is what is preventing the change. It is, instead, an argument *for* a Gould-Eldredge punctuated equilibrium kind of natural selection. The local maxim, as created by the selection pressures, will stay that same as long as the pressures do not change. But when they inevitably do, and some times dramatically, then the maxima will change and your subjects will go through a seemingly furious round of change and adaptation to those new pressures & maxima.

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  8. Mike McKay says:

    Julia, for me your misuse of the Pruitt-Igoe example detracted from what was otherwise a great video. First of all, it was in St. Louis and Igoe is pronounced “I go”. But more importantly, I don’t think it provides evidence for the point you’re trying to make. The reality is far more complex. Director Chad Freidrichs recently made an excellent documentary about Pruitt-Igoe titled “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth”. His interest in architecture is what initially drew him to the project, but as he talked with former residents, he discovered that his initial assumption that Pruitt-Igoe failed due to poor design (such as the inclusion of communal spaces on some floors and the fact that elevators only stopped on those floors) was wrong. Both in the video, and in the Q&A after the screening I attended, former residents talked passionately about how wonderful Pruitt-Igoe was when they moved in. They talked about the community that developed, with enterprising residents establishing grocery stores in their apartments, and others who had radios or record players drawing other residents in for dance parties. But after a few years, Pruitt-Igoe started going downhill. While the federal government paid to have the buildings constructed, they did not contribute anything towards their upkeep. Maintenance was supposed to be covered through the monthly rent residents were charged. However, only families poorly equipped to pay rent were eligible to move into Pruitt-Igoe. Single mothers with children were allowed to move into Pruitt-Igoe, but families with a mother and an employed father were not. Rent money proved inadequate for proper maintenance and the local government did not step in to cover the difference. So trash piled up, hall light bulbs broke and were not replaced, and the place declined rapidly. Some people moved out, and as people left, there was even less rent money to properly maintain it. Crime increased, becoming so bad that cops wouldn’t even go to Pruitt-Igoe. Another big reason for Pruitt-Igoe’s failure was the vast miscalculation of demand. Urban planners expected the population of St. Louis to continue expanding after World War II, while it actually decreased dramatically as people moved to the suburbs. The job opportunities also moved to the suburbs, far away from Pruitt-Igoe.

    Because of these other factors, I do not think that Pruitt-Igoe provides much evidence for or against the viability of having a group of people who did not previously know each other share common spaces.

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  11. Julia, I totally agree with your logic, except on one point: your first counter-argument supporting the downplay of reliance on tradition. You say that, unlike in the natural selection sphere, social customs, even ones that are harmful, can be very sticky. I don’t understand that point. I mean, we have rationalists and irrational mavericks trying out new things all the time, bucking custom. Successful experimentation gives rise to new norms. If natural selection is an appropriate analogue at all, I reckon that social customs are not so especially sticky.

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