Friday, January 11, 2013

Cultural Origins

Other Terms and/or Related Concepts

Appeal to tradition; argument from tradition; argumentum ad antiquitatem; appeal to antiquity; appeal to customs; our way (or their way) is best.


When an advocate either promotes a "way of doing things" by citing its use in a particular culture or group, or denigrates a "way of doing things" by citing its use in a particular culture or group, he or she is making an appeal to cultural origins. An appeal to cultural origins is not in itself a valid way to resolve a contentious issue. Such an appeal is a fallacy and should always be challenged by the critical thinker.


Chuck A. Hissyfit is a member of the Land Use Planning Committee set up as an advisory group to the Jumtup Local Council. The committee is having its inaugural meeting. On the agenda is the election of office bearers. Chuck states his position:
I think that we should operate as a collective. We shouldn't have office bearers. This western way has failed. We should meet together as the so-called Plains Indians of North America did. They simply sat and talked. They talked until consensus was reached. Their cultural values were more humane than ours and we should follow their example.


Somewhere in Chuck's rhetoric there may be a point. But he is not making it. He is appealing to cultural origins to both denigrate one way of doing things and to promote an alternative way of doing things. Such an appeal has no merit.

There may be some value in simply "sitting and talking" with a view to reaching a consensus. But that procedure needs to be argued on its merits, rather than accepted because some group or other at some time in the past under certain circumstances are said to have used the method. (Claims such as Chuck's often prove to be false anyway under close examination.)

In the present example, and if the other members of the Land Use Planning Committee were both fair-minded and skeptical, they might ask Chuck to explain in more detail just how his proposed meeting style would work in practice. They would also subject his explanation to critical inquiry and would not let him "get away with" rhetorical assertions. They would examine his proposal in the light of the terms of reference of the committee and practical issues such as the time available to members to meet. They might even agree with a trial of his approach on selected occasions. However such trials would involve a proper evaluation and comparison with other modes of decision-making. This methodology is bound to yield the right result. It is an approach to an inquiry that can trace its roots back as far as the ancient Greeks.

The cultural origins fallacy tends to be subject to whims and fashions. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the transatlantic, industrial cultures were usually held up as positive examples for all of humanity. In the late 20th century, indigenous cultures were seen by many as worthy of emulation in all things. Critical thinkers, when confronted with a fashionable cultural origins fallacy can always "stir the pot" with counter-examples. Counter-examples are useful devices for challenging facile assumptions. For the sake of argument, consider the following rather simplistic example. An advocate suggests that people living in industrial societies should all adopt a personal totemic animal. Why? Because this was a common spiritual practice of many indigenous peoples. Skeptical participants in the discussion could then make a counter-suggestion to highlight the weakness in the advocate's proposition. They might suggest that within our cultural group, we should draw lots to determine who among us should be ritually murdered to propitiate the gods. Why? Because this was a common spiritual practice of many indigenous peoples.

In the context of the example given above, another member of the Land Use Planning Committee could suggest to Chuck that after they try the Plains Indians methods of consultation, they should give some other cultural methods a tryout during the life of the project. Perhaps Genghis Khan's approach to project management? Or a Viking approach to land acquisition? Or the Spanish Inquisition's approach to group cohesion and motivation?