The tradition fallacy is a logical fallacy that relies on traditions and customs to justify a point of view (rather than logic).
Traditions refer to habits that are passed down from generation to generation and are generally accepted without question. Sometimes, people refer to tradition when justifying their arguments rather than explaining the merits of their arguments.
Other names for “Tradition Fallacy” include appeal to tradition, argumentum ad antiquitatem, appeal to common practice, appeal to antiquity, proof from tradition, appeal to past practice, gadarene swine fallacy [form of], and traditional wisdom.
Each of us is, in one way or another, a member of a family, society, or community. So as members of a community, it is quite common for all of us to fall into a “tradition fallacy” in justifying our decisions, ideas, and actions. Here are 15 examples of “tradition fallacy” we come across in everyday life.
Tradition Fallacy Examples
1. Men Should Propose to Women (Not the other way around)
Scenario: A woman tells her friends that she wants to propose to her boyfriend. Her girlfriends are mortified, saying “he’s supposed to propose to you!”
It is tradition in most cultures that men should propose to women, not the other way around. Judging by the reaction of the friends in this scenario, it’s even taboo to contemplate proposing to the man!
Today, in a time when gender equality is prized, it remains mere tradition for the man to propose. It seems normal, but there isn’t much underpinning logic except to say that “that’s how it’s always been done.” Therefore, the justification for only the man proposing is likely to rely heavily on appeal to tradition.
2. Belief in God
Scenario: When the teenager asks his father if he believes in God, his father answers: “Yes, I believe in God because people have believed in God almost since humanity existed. A belief of such ancient origin, if it were wrong, would have long since disappeared”.
Belief in God, which is one of the oldest concepts and beliefs of mankind, is of course a very ancient belief. Therefore, it may seem quite natural at first to refer to the ancient origins of that belief when justifying one’s own belief.
But in terms of logic, this kind of reasoning is a typical example of tradition fallacy. The fact that a belief has existed for many years is not proof that it is true.
This is not to say that any belief in God at all falls into the tradition fallacy. Rather, it is to say that this particular argument for god relies on appeal to antiquity rather than logic.
3. Traditional Voter Bases
Scenario: A young man is dissatisfied with the government, so asks his father why he continues to vote for the ruling party. The father replies, “Because our family has voted for this party for generations. My father would roll in his grave if I voted for anyone else!”
This is another example of the appeal to tradition fallacy. The young man, dissatisfied with the ruling party’s management of the country, questions why his father, as a voter, continues to vote for the ruling party despite the country’s mismanagement.
His father, on the other hand, does not vote based on the state of the economy. Rather, according to his father, it is important to vote for this one party because his father had told him it were important to carry on the family tradition.
The fact that the family has always voted in a certain way is not necessarily proof that the family’s preferred political party is the best option this time. Thus, it’s not a logical reason to continue to vote for the party.
4. Family Feud
Scenario: A son asks his father why he continues to have a feud with his cousin. The father says that two generations ago, there were two brothers who were mortal enemies. He is the descendant of one brother, and his cousin is the descendant of the other. The son then asks why the brothers – his great grandfathers – were enemies. The father says that he does not know the exact reason, but says that he must hold up his family’s honor by continuing the feud with his cousin’s side of the family.
As the father admitted, the fact that the feud has continued for years is seen as proof that there is no other option, and that the right thing to do is to continue this feud.
This argument does not appeal to logic or reason. In fact, the father doesn’t even know why the feud continues. At this point, it is simply a case of upholding the family’s honor.
Generally, we can consider an argument to be an appeal to tradition if it relies on “because it’s been done for generations” or “family honor” are central pillars of the person’s argument.
Logically, these cousins likely should not be feuding anymore. The only reason they do it is because it’s tradition within the family to continue the feud.
Interestingly, this example is one that reveals how the appeal to tradition can be often be a selfish and damaging fallacy.
In addition, this is an appeal to emotions fallacy because the argument is more emotional than rational at this point!
5. No Country for Immigrants
Scenario: A nationalist history teacher tells his students that the country they live in belongs only to people of their own ethnicity. For this reason, immigrants in the country should never be a member of that country. For centuries, only the people of the history teacher’s own ethnicity have lived in the country. For this reason, the real and only owner of the country should be his people.
“Living there for many years already”, which is a justification method used by nationalists when they see only people of their own ethnicity as the sole and unchangeable owner of the country they live in, is again an example of “tradition fallacy”.
Living in a place for a long time does not make anyone the sole and unchangeable owner of it. Just as it is impossible for a tenant who has lived in a house for 50 years to finally say “I am the owner of this house”.
Furthermore, a critical theorist is likely to argue that race and ethnicity are socially constructed concepts, further muddying this argument!
6. Being Catholic
Scenario: The son of a Catholic father asks his father why they are Catholic rather than Orthodox. His father says they have been Catholic for generations and it carries on a family tradition.
The fact that a belief is transmitted between generations without any change does not mean that that belief is true. The fact that a future member of a family that has maintained “Catholic” Christianity for generations chooses “Orthodoxy” does not necessitate the conclusion that that prospective member will make the wrong choice.
For this reason, when a tradition continues for years and it is concluded that that tradition is the only “true”, a “tradition fallacy” is at work.
7. Natural Birth
Scenario: A mother tells a pregnant woman that she should give birth to her child by natural birth because all the women in the family have natural births, not cesarean sections.
Although some scientists say that natural childbirth is beneficial, the fact that women in a family have given birth to their children by natural birth for generations cannot prove that this is the only correct method.
Because some women are afraid of natural birth, they may want to give birth to their children by cesarean section. Therefore, the fact that women of a family have preferred natural birth for generations does not necessarily indicate that future female members of the family should also prefer it.
A better argument would be to bring data to the pregnant woman, showing her with true logic why it is a better choice.
8. We are Hindu
Scenario: A young Hindu man travels overseas and sees people eating cow meat for the first time. When he returns home, he asks his mother why they don’t eat cow meat. His mother tells him that in their tradition, cow meat is not eaten, and that’s that.
This time we are faced with an example of a tradition fallacy in which the fallacy does not relate to the substance of the topic but the failure to explain that substance sufficiently. The discussion is shut down by the mother.
The mother shut down the discussion with a simple comment: cow meat is not eaten by Hindus, and that’s it.
A better explanation would involve not just appeal to tradition, but an in-depth explanation of the reasoning. At least in part, the mother should explain that the cow is a sacred animal and its meat should not be eaten for this reason.
The young man’s mother in our example, however, justifies why the young man should not eat cow’s meat, referring only to tradition and not to reason.
9. An Amish Youth
Scenario: An Amish teenager wants to buy a mobile phone. However, his father states that the culture they have been in for years prohibits this and therefore this request of the young person is not legitimate.
Most Amish people refuse to use modern technologies due to the corrupting influence of technology on society.
In our example, the father tells his son that in his culture and tradition that cell phones are prohibited. He doesn’t give a sufficient reason, however. He just says “it’s our culture and therefore the right decision for young people is to oppose these products” and not use them.
Here is another example of tradition fallacy because the father has failed to explain the true reasoning behind the prohibition (it would, one would think, have to do with the corrupting power of technology). By shutting down the debate and not truly explaining the reasoning, the father has fallen into a tradition fallacy.
10. Gender Stereotypes
Scenario: A young member of the family, who has been raised as a housewife for generations, says that she does not want to be a housewife. She also says that she wants to go to college and become a doctor. Her mother tells the young girl that there is no such choice in her tradition. The right thing for the young girl is to choose to be a housewife.
Unfortunately, gender stereotypes often rely upon appeals to tradition to maintain their legitimacy. People carry-on gender norms because “it’s tradition” or “it feels normal” and not for reason of logic.
In this scenario, we are faced with a concrete example of gender stereotypes being part of tradition. The fact that the women of the family have been housewives for generations does not make it the right choice for future members of the family.
Therefore, the mother’s response to the daughter is a tradition fallacy and doesn’t rely on sound logic.
11. Caste Systems
Scenario: Young lovers want to get married but their parents and even the local church refuse to solemnize the marriage. They explain that the lovers are from different social castes, so their union is prohibited.
In caste-based societies (19th Century India being the prime example), people are restricted to marrying only within their caste and only to take professions that are traditionally conducted by their caste group.
Caste systems rely heavily upon the appeal to tradition fallacy. The idea that someone should only get a certain profession due to their parents’ profession, or they can only marry other people whose families are of a certain ethnicity, have very little logic to them. They rely primarily upon arguments of tradition or a desire for social hierarchies that oppress certain ethnic groups.
12. Carrying on the Family Business
Scenario: A father raises his son to become the manager of the family business. When the son asks why he has to run the business, the father says it’s because it is a proud seven-generation tradition.
In this example, carrying on the family business is not justified through explanations like “it is a great opportunity to make a living for you”, “the family has worked hard to build this asset for you and we want you to have it”, or “we would like you to look after our legacy”.
Simply, the father’s explanation is, to paraphrase, “that’s how it’s done in this family”.
Suppose the son wishes to become a philosopher. In this case, the father would likely oppose the son’s choice to be a philosopher not because it’s a bad idea, but because this would be a wrong choice because it goes against the family tradition.
13. Marriage Story
Scenario: A young Christian girl who was accepted to a university in America for her doctorate, wants to marry a Hindu boy she met there. However, the girl’s family objected to the young girl, claiming that it is not their tradition to marry someone who is not of their own religion.
As traditions occupy every part of daily life, they also appear frequently in marriage issues. In many cultures, marriages with people from another culture are not welcomed. Here, we see an example of cultural bias.
In this example, the young girl’s family, again as an example of the tradition fallacy, gives a negative response to the young girl’s request, simply arguing that according to their tradition, a young girl should marry a man from her own culture.
The mother may, for example, carry on by saying “no one in our family has ever married outside of our religion. This is an embarrassing taboo. My cousins will be mortified!”
14. You Can’t Leave your Family
Scenario: Having been accepted from the philosophy doctorate program of a university in America, the young man begins to prepare for going abroad. However, his father opposes this decision by stating that it is not customary for the son of the family to go to a place far from the family.
Although it is said that the world has become a global village, many feudal cultures do not respect the decisions individuals make regarding their own lives because family ties are very strong.
In our example, the father who opposes the young person’s choice to go abroad argues that there is no such thing in their tradition. Sons should stay with their fathers (perhaps, in a sense, this is also a self-serving bias).
Clearly, this argument ignores the arguments of logic. Perhaps, there is an ill family member who may die while he is away, or the family needs someone to make money for the family. But these appeals to logic are ignored, and instead, the father calls upon tradition to make his argument.
15. Hand kissing
Scenario: The young man, who is a member of a Turkish family, states that he does not want to kiss the hands of people older than him, especially on holidays, on the grounds that it is not hygienic. However, the parents of the young people say that this tradition has been going on for centuries and that the young should kiss the hand of the elders.
Although we usually do not stray from the culture we were born into in our lifetime, many cultures have many traditions that seem rather strange to us. For example, according to the “hand-kissing” custom, which is quite common among Turks, the hands of the elderly should be kissed, especially on feast days.
In this scenario, for the young person who says he doesn’t want to “kiss the hand” of the elderly for hygienic reasons, his father sets a good example of tradition fallacy by suggesting that it is traditional practice and that it would be right for him to do so.
More Logical Fallacies
- Begging the Question Fallacy
- Ad Hominem Fallacy
- False Analogy Fallacy
- False Dilemma Fallacy
- Gambler’s Fallacy
Traditions play a great role in the life of each individual and there is nothing wrong with following tradition. It can give us meaning and help us feel connected to our family and culture. Wherever we go in the world, we will encounter communities with a tradition.
But it is also by reference to these “traditions” that we find arguments that lack logic and reason. No matter how ancient an action may be, its truth cannot be justified by reference to tradition alone. Therefore, in order to avoid this kind of fallacy, we need to know what “tradition fallacy” is and formulate arguments that have greater depth.
At the same time, if you find value in tradition for you personally, I don’t see anything wrong with following a personal tradition, so long as it’s not imposed on others.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.