I think, therefore, that when people say "but we have always done things another way" that they are actually trying to say something different, but before we get to that, let's think about this argument. It strikes me that it is based in a semi-traditionalist way of looking at the world: if it ain't broke, don't fix it; the devil we know, etc. There is actually much to recommend this way of thinking. As anyone who has read this blog knows, I am no fan of change for its own sake. But, this argument becomes problematic on a number of grounds.
First, and most evidently, just because something has been done a certain way in the past does not mean that it should continue to be done that way in the present or future. Just because something has, in fact, been done a certain way in the past does not mean that it was done right. The weight of history can be important, but it is not a guarantee that the course of action people followed in the past was the right course of action. We can think, I am sure, of a number of important public policy issues where this type of argument has been used. The one that springs to my head is same-sex marriage. Those people who opposed same-sex marriage (or, more accurately, equality in marriage) often used an argument from tradition. "Discrimination is the way things have always been done in Canada." OK, they did not use those words. You got me. They used words more like "tradition," "historically," "in the past." The effect, however, was the same: why should we change the way we have been doing things because it worked well and reflected our values.
It turns out that things did not necessarily work well at all. It depended who you asked. There were a bunch of people -- particularly in the GLBT community -- for whom things were not working well at all. The reason to make a different decision lay precisely in this: to escape the past. Moreover, it placed Canada in an odd position: a nation that supposedly committed itself to equality and individual rights and freedom of conscience was in a position of denying these to a defined section of the national community and, as it turned out, a whole bunch of non-GLBT Canadians felt very odd about this. Thus, the argument, "this is the way things have been done" disguised the fact that the way things have been done was not right. In the case ... why would you stick to something that is not right or, in other circumstances, not working.
Imagine a different scenario. The French government felt it was a good idea to keep its troops in their brightly coloured uniforms when World War I began. That was, after all, the way things had always been done. But, it turned out that that was a very bad idea indeed.
Second, the statement "that is the way things have always been done" is, in fact, almost always inaccurate. Let's look at the same-sex marriage argument again as an example. People who opposed same-sex marriage often said something like "I defend the traditional family. It is the way things have always been done." But, it wasn't. The traditional family time of Canadian history did indeed legally prohibit same-sex marriage, but it prohibited other things, legally and by social stigma as well, that no one in their right mind (not the most determined defender of the so-called "traditional family") would defend. Stigma prohibited marriage across ethnic and religious groups. Law permitted husbands to beat their wives; it allowed husbands to rape their wives; it deprived women of property. No one defending the traditional family was defending these things. That is not my point. My point is that their traditional family was an imagined traditional family. It existed as an ideal type. No one was arguing for the legalization of rape but that was, in fact, permitted under law.
The problem is a lack of historical knowledge. If we knew more about the way things had been done, we would be less likely to defend that way. When people talk about the way things have been done, what they are actually doing is talking about institutions, ideals, values, etc., that have already changed. Thus, the defenders of the so-called "traditional family" accepted some changes to it (they accepted the idea that married women could own property, that husbands should not beat their wives, that husbands should not rape their wives, and that people should be allowed to marry across ethnocultural or religious groups. In other words, they did not accept "the way things have been done" at all, but they embraced change. And, rightly so, those changes were good. But, to admit this would undercut their arguments by making them proponents of change as opposed to tradition. The point I am making is this: the problem with this argument (things have always been done this way) is that the people making it often don't know how things have been done in the past. They might be dealing with a modern institution -- the family, say -- that has benefited from embracing change and might further benefit from continuing to embrace change; not a static institution.
Third, the way thing have been done fails as a necessarily solid basis on which to make decisions because it assumes that contexts don't change. Let us allow, for instance, that there has been some institution, club, organization, etc., that has been relatively static and that worked well in the past. But, we don't live in the past. A friend of mine likes to say we live in the moment because the rest has either disappeared or has not happened so we can't live there. I'll say we live in the present and need to make plans for the future. Part of living in the modern world means that things change. We don't live in a static society and we need to respond to that change. Now, part of our response can be to say "look, this is a change I don't like and so I'm going to minimize it in my life." That would be fair enough. But, that needs to be a decision based on an understanding of context and it is different if we are making that decision (to not change) for ourselves versus decision that affect others.
I'll give you an example. The way things are done at my church is different now than they were when I went to church as a kid. The sermon has powerpoint accompanying it, there are handouts, "homework", the music is different, its governance structure is different. Our pastor has a blog, there is a Facebook page, some sermons are recorded so they can be downloaded and listened to. Some people don't like these changes. They like the old hymn books, for instance. Fair enough. The people who ran my church, however, decided that we cannot stand pat. We cannot pass up something that is potentially useful just because it is new. We need to respond to our context. The people who don't like this say "we have always done things another way." Others said, perhaps but that is not a good reason to ignore the world around us and to take a pass on useful adaptions.
Finally, there is a bit of a more ethical argument. I'll phrase it as a question. Should the fact that one does -- or has done -- things a certain way become a legitimate justification for hurting another person? I'll give you an example. Years ago I was a member of an amateur soccer organization. It was fun and I got to feel good about contributing to minor sport in my community. One night, we were meeting to discuss the budget and I noticed that the rep teams were having an unusually large amount of money spent on them. They got new uniforms -- and snazzy ones -- each year while the house league kids (of which there were many more) had to make do with the same old moth eaten uniforms year after year. When I asked why was this because it did not seem fair. The house league kids were paying the same fees as the rep league kids, the answer I was given was "it has always been done this way." I said, to the shock of one father whose son played rep, "that is not a good enough reason to keep doing it that way." The kids getting the least out of this association -- less playing time, lower certification coaches, fewer tournaments and trips away, shorter season -- are subsidizing the kids getting the most out of it."
The association did eventually change and introduce new rules that stopped this type of thing but you see the point. The way things had been done was causing an economic transfer from those deriving the least benefit to those deriving the most. Does it make sense to keep doing something that way if it is not fair or is causing some level of harm? We could pick more serious examples, I suppose, but the point would remain the same. Is the weight of tradition suffice to sustain an injustice? I can't answer that easily for other people. For me, it is not. I prefer to address the injustice and make the changes to tradition in the same way that Canadians over time modified the traditional family to try to take the violence, prejudice in injustice of out of it so as to preserve what was valuable in it.
As always there is more to say and I'll have more in the future. In the meantime ... feel free to chime in.