The Burkean Paradox
Edmund Burke was a big defender of the worth of received institutions and prejudices. If I understand his argument correctly it goes something like this:
Society has lots of traditions, practices, and prejudices that are difficult to justify with clearly stated rationales. Sometimes we do something just because that is the way it has always been done. The fact that we don’t have a clear idea about why we have a particular practice does not mean, however, that we should feel free to change it and rationalize it at will. The fact that something has survived from time immemorial means that it may well be the incarnation of collective wisdom that exceeds our rational understanding. After all, reason is limited and we might be wrong. Accordingly, we ought to afford tradition great respect, tampering with it in favor of rational redesign only when absolutely forced.
I find this line of reasoning — call it the Burkean Argument — paradoxically powerful and utterly unpersuasive. It seems powerful to me because the two central premises of the argument seem to me to be quite clearly true. Reason is a necessarily limited instrument, and there is no denying that our deepest convictions about things could be wrong. Likewise, it seems to me that the importance of social institutions quite frequently exceeds our conscious or common-sense understanding of them. Indeed, most social science is premised on the notion that the proper understanding of human institutions exceeds our common-sense understanding of them. If this was not the case, then social science would have nothing to tell us that we didn’t already know.
The problem with the Burkean Argument is that it also strikes me as equally true that some social institutions and practices are just old. We do them because that is the way that we have done them, but they are ultimately meaningless and stupid. The problem with the Burkean Argument is that it provides us with no way of telling which institutions represent the accumulated wisdom of the ages and which institutions are just old. From the point of view of the Burkean Argument the fact that we can’t see a reason for something is not evidence that it is just old. The accumulated wisdom of the ages necessarily exceeds our attempts at argument and theorization. At the same time, the absence of a clear reason for a practice is also not evidence that it represents the accumulated wisdom of the ages. It may just be old. I don’t really see any way out of this paradox. Hence, I think that the Burkean Argument is both valid and useless.
Accordingly, it seems that we are justified in either ignoring all appeals to the Burkean Argument and blithely going forward based on our own understanding. Alternatively, we can adopt a curmudgeonly conservatism, standing athwart the path of History shouting “Stop!” Down one path lies Robbespiere, and down the other lies the defense of rotten boroughs and segregation. Take your pick.