What is "Traditional Morality"?

Notes from the Rim

From time to time I hear people talking about "traditional morality" or "traditional values" as though it were a single thing, set in stone. They usually turn out to be talking about whatever morality or values they, themselves, accept. Calling your own values "traditional" gives them a certain weight and authority—if whoever you're talking to doesn't have a critical mind.

But the fact is that there are a great many moral and value traditions in the world, and so it makes sense to ask just what tradition we're speaking of.

I find cilantro severely disgusting to this day, yet I have never had a judgmental thought about those who like it.

This is where things can get really interesting.

The liberal tradition, for instance, tends to have a morality based on fairness and caring for others.

The conservative tradition tends to accept these liberal values, but add other values based on ingroup loyalty, respect for role authority, and a collection of arbitrary purity rules. (They are arbitrary in the sense that this kind of value varies greatly from culture to culture, and largely depends on historical accident—you have one set of purity rules if you are Muslim, another if you are an orthodox Jew, another if you are a southern Baptist, etc.) In the conservative tradition, these other values are allowed to overrule fairness and caring.

There are other ways we could slice the tradition pie. My favorite is to distinguish between the wisdom model and the legal model, partly because both go back as far as we have records, and have existed side by side since early civilization.

The liberal tradition is much closer to the wisdom model, which basically sees moral terms like "ought", or "should" as questions about what benefits oneself or others in a given situation. The golden rule, for example, rests within the wisdom tradition. You can tell when this model is being used because it rarely involves threats, tends to shy away from absolutes, and often advances advice with an explanation of the benefits.

Jesus often speaks this way in the gospels, giving reasons why one should sit at the foot of the table, or give generously. The early Christian Church came down strongly on the side of wisdom when it rejected the law. The apostle Paul went so far as to say that it was the law that caused sin.

The legal model sees "oughts" and "shoulds" as laws, to be obeyed, simply because they are the law.

Most people who invoke tradition so loudly and clearly are working from the legal model. There's good reason for this. If you accept the wisdom model, you expect there to be solid, rational reasons for behaviors, rooted in natural human desires. If you accept the legal model, the final reason for any value is that it is so decreed. But here's the problem—how do you determine what is decreed and what is not?

The answer is usually to cite whatever cultural tradition you happen to find yourself in—Christian, Bhuddist, Islamic, Jewish—it's all relative in the end, and rather arbitrary, again.

The odd thing is that even if we agree that "tradition" is somehow a justification for a particular moral view, we have these two different traditional models in human civilization, which both go back a very long way. And if you insist that the older a tradition is, the more reliable it is, then I'm afraid you'll have to become a liberal.

Because, while we know that both the legal and wisdom traditions go far back in civilized societies—agriculturally based societies, with a hierarchy based on force, laws, and an organized state religion—it's also obvious that we didn't have a morality modeled on the idea of law, before there was any law. So there's a fairly recent limit, in terms of the history of humanity, on the legal model.

In fact, much of the content of the current legal model of morality in the United States goes back to actual laws, enforced by stoning to death or other penalties, in earlier nations: particularly in the small nation of ancient Israel. That's what the ten commandments and all of the clarifying case law are in the Hebrew scriptures—actual laws, enforced by violence, and getting their authority from the state and the state religion, complete with a king—even though, according to another passage (rooted in the wisdom model) their god had explicitly warned them not to have a king.

On the other hand, the evidence we have about the nature of hunter-gatherer societies is that they tend to be egalitarian rather than authoritarian, so at least one characteristic of the wisdom model was in place prior to civilization for much of humankind.

The fairness and caring foundations are instinctive, and natural to humanity, so they were certainly present as well, and they are essential parts of the wisdom model.

Loyalty to one's own hunter-gatherer band was almost certainly present in those times, and also instinctive, but without an authoritarian social structure or a legal model of morality, it would remain just that—loyalty to ones own group, and suspicion of strangers, who one saw much less frequently, and who might be hostile. This is certainly part of the wisdom model: not betraying those you live and work with, being savvy about who you trust. It takes the legal model to turn that into the idea that people outside of my own group are bad in some way. (After all, they break the moral law by following different customs or finding different things disgusting.)

There also would have been varying customs as to what was disgusting, from group to group—but, without a legal model, what one finds disgusting and what one finds immoral are two different issues. When I found the idea of eating sushi disgusting it never occurred to me to think that people who did it were bad. I find cilantro severely disgusting to this day, yet I have never had a judgmental thought about those who like it.

Almost certainly, people still offered their children, and each other, rules of thumb for living successfully—which is what the wisdom model is all about.

In all likelihood, something very similar to the wisdom tradition was the natural moral model of humanity.

The legal model has, at most, about twelve thousand years of "tradition" behind it. The wisdom model developed over the two million years of human experience before that, and has continued during the last twelve thousand.

So the question is, which has a better claim to be called "traditional"? And which, in the longer perspective, should be thought of as a newfangled, artificial—and possibly untrustworthy—innovation?


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The first free resource I'm offering is an infographic explaining the difference between the various traditions and their overlap--the common spirituality of all humans.

You can get your free copy by clicking here, and signing up for my free resource list.