Appeal to Tradition




Also Known as: Appeal to the Old, Old Ways are Best, Fallacious Appeal to the Past, Appeal to Age


Appeal to Tradition is a fallacy that occurs when it is assumed that something is better, correct, or true simply because it is older, traditional, or “always has been done.” This reasoning has the following form:


Premise 1: X has been done or believed for a long time or is traditional.

Conclusion: Therefore, X is correct, better, or true.


This is fallacious because doing or believing something for a long time does not automatically make it correct or better than something newer. It also does not make it true. This example shows why it is bad reasoning: “The theory that witches and demons cause disease is far older than the theory that microorganism cause diseases. Therefore, the theory about witches and demons must be true.”

This fallacy is psychologically appealing for many reasons. First, people often prefer to stick with what is older or traditional. This is a common psychological characteristic of people which may stem from the fact that people feel more comfortable about what has been around longer. The effective commercialization of nostalgia shows how appealing older things can be.

Second, sticking with things that are older or traditional is often easier than considering new things. Change can sometimes be seen as threatening, uncomfortable, or confusing.

Third, people who benefit or believe in power structures that have been in place for some time have a vested interest in maintaining certain traditions and thus have pragmatic reasons to accept what is traditional. This can motivate people to use and fall victim to this fallacy.

This fallacy is related to the Appeal to Belief and Appeal to Common Practice fallacy but differs in an essential way. In an Appeal to Belief fallacy, a claim is supposed to be accepted because most people believe that claim. In an Appeal to Tradition, a claim is supposed to be accepted because people have believed it a long time. That is, it is not the number of people who believe it but the alleged duration of the belief. In an Appeal to Common Practice, a practice is supposed to be good or acceptable because most people do it. In the Appeal to Tradition, a practice is supposed to be good or acceptable because it has been done a long time. These fallacies can certainly be combined. A person might, for example, appeal to a practice being both common and a tradition to defend it. In this case, they would be committing two fallacies.

It should not be assumed that the new must be better than the old (see Appeal to Novelty) any more than it should be assumed that the old is better than the new. The age of thing does not, in general, have any bearing on its quality or correctness (in this context). In the case of tradition, assuming that something is correct just because it is considered a tradition is poor reasoning. For example, if the belief that 1+1 = 56 were a tradition of a group of people it would hardly follow that it is true.

Obviously, age does have a bearing in some contexts. For example, if a person concluded that properly aged cheese would be better than just made cheese, they would not be committing an Appeal to Tradition. This is because, in such cases the age is relevant quality. Thus, the fallacy is committed only when the age is not, in and of itself, relevant to the claim.

One final matter is the test of time. People might assume that because something has endured it must be true or good it has passed the test of time. If it is inferred that something must be correct or true simply because it has persisted, then this would be an Appeal to Tradition. False claims and bad things can persist for a long time. After all, the practice of murder is ancient, yet this does not make it good.

If the test of time is shorthand for successfully standing up to relevant challenges and effective tests for a long time, then accepting a claim or practice on this basis would not be this fallacy. This is because the appeal is not to the age of the claim or practice, but to the weight of evidence supporting it over time. As an example, the theory that matter is made of subatomic particles has survived numerous tests and challenges over the years so there is a weight of evidence in its favor. The claim is reasonable to accept because of this evidence and not because the claim is old. Thus, a claim surviving legitimate challenges and passing valid tests for a long period of time can justify the acceptance of a claim. But mere age or persistence does not warrant accepting a claim.


Example #1:

“Sure, I believe in God. People have believed in God for thousands of years so it seems clear that God must exist. After all, why else would the belief last so long?”


Example #2:

Gunthar is the father of Connan. They live on a small island and in their culture, women are treated as property to be exchanged at will by men.


Connan: “You know father, when I was going to school in the United States I saw that American women are not treated as property. In fact, I read a book by this person named Mill in which he argued for women’s rights.”

Gunthar: “So, what is your point son?”

Connan: “Well, I think that it might be wrong to trade my sisters for cattle. They are human beings and should have a right to be masters of their own fate.”

Gunthar: “What a strange and new-fangled notion you picked up in America. That country must be even more barbaric than I imagined. Now think about this son. We have been trading women for cattle for as long as our people have lived on this island. It is a tradition that goes back into the mists of time. “

Connan: “But I still think there is something wrong with it.”

Gunthar: “Nonsense my boy. A tradition this old must be endorsed by the gods and must be right. “


Example #3:

Of course, this mode of government is the best. We have had this government for over 200 years, and no one has talked about changing it in all that time. So, it has got to be good.


Example #4:

A reporter is interviewing the head of a family that has been involved with a feud with another family.


Reporter: “Mr. Hatfield, why are you still fighting it out with the McCoys?”

Hatfield: “Well you see young man, my father feuded with the McCoys and his father feuded with them and so did my great grandfather.”

Reporter: “But why? What started all this?”

Hatfield: “I don’t rightly know. I’m sure it was the McCoys who started it all, though.”

Reporter: “If you don’t know why you’re fighting, why don’t you just stop?”

Hatfield: “Stop? What are you crazy? This feud has been going on for generations so I’m sure there is a darn good reason why it started. So, I aim to keep it going. It has got to be the right thing to do. Hand me my shooting iron boy, I see one of those McCoy skunks sneaking in the cornfield. He’s probably going to steal our Wi-fi!”


Example #5:

Tucker: “Believing that transgender is a real gender goes against all tradition. We have always just had men and women. And you do not just switch to the other team.”

Sally: “Right! It has always been that way. Same for marriage. It is between one man and one woman. That is why I am running for the senate. I will save marriage and protect the children!”

Tucker: “Exactly. And the woman obeys the husband in all things and does not disagree with him. She also does all the cooking and cleaning. And no working outside the home. She needs to be in the kitchen and taking care of the kids. As it has always been.”

Sally: “What?”

Tucker: “Get back in the kitchen where you belong.”

Originally appeared on A Philosopher’s Blog Read More