Sunday, December 15, 2013

'Tradition' doesn't constitute an argument in ethical conflicts

This weekend's column in the Kingston Whig-Standard.

I don’t know whether you had a chance to watch the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye, the main character of the musical, tries to explain tradition in the opening song. And so it goes, “You may ask: How did this tradition get started? I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition. And because of our traditions everyone of us knows who he is, and what God expects him to do.”

Traditions -- we come across them all the time, those time-honoured arguments for continuing along a well-worn path. Catholic bishops in the United States tell us that euthanasia is wrong, because, among other reasons, it violates medical tradition. Even the Canadian Medical Association, in a booklet published on the issue in 1993 traces some beliefs that are held strongly by some medical doctors on euthanasia back to tradition. It doesn’t take opponents of assisted dying very long to hark back to the unfortunate Hippocratic Oath that most medical school graduates are forced to take in grand ceremonies in some form or shape. These ceremonies are really quasi-religious activities where senior doctors (typically the medical schools’ professors) demonstrate their faith in their students’ ability to carry on the medical tradition. In turn, and because it is tradition, the students make wild and quite frankly oftentimes silly public promises including not to participate in what we would describe today as surgery.

Not a big surprise really, considering that this Oath got started some 2,500 years ago, likely by a Pythagorean cult. Since then the oath has been issued in revised and modernised versions by various medical associations and other interested groups. Some of the original content of the oath survived though, namely content including prohibitions on abortion and euthanasia. As it is with such documents, no reason for this is given, beyond the exhortation on doctors not to provide such services to patients.

Of course, the oath really was a reflection of particular values held by a smallish cult in Greece a very long time ago. Why in today’s day and age medical doctors who are not Pythagorean (i.e. pretty much all of them) should abide by such values is unclear. This is particularly true for Christian students, if the history of battles between Christians and Pythagoreans is true, where reportedly Christians eventually burned the Pythagorean temple to the ground and destroyed the cult for good. It is also unclear why students who wish to practice medicine should have to take any such oaths to begin with.

A colleague of mine who teaches in a medical school introduced to his students a whole range of competing ethics codes for medical graduates and then asked them to pick the one they would be most comfortable taking their oath on. Not unexpectedly the whole gamut of ethical convictions unfolded. The students in that particular medical school hailed from all corners of the world, and so were the choice of oath they picked. At least they believed that there is value in taking such oaths to begin with. It’s probably a traditional thing. Today these oaths are frequently used by medical doctors to pick and choose ‘traditions’ they like and traditions they dislike. Surgery they might do, abortion – not so much, you get the drift. The randomness of it all is reason for concern, because their decisions are not actually derived from their traditional oath, but from other value systems that are then projected into the bits and pieces of the oath that are wheeled out to ‘justify’ this, such as the stance on abortion, euthanasia, IVF and any number of other ethically controversial medical issues. It turns out tradition isn’t even a justification for anything.

Exactly the same phenomenon crops up in debates on marriage equality. There is even a Facebook group ‘1,000,000 for traditional marriage’ which garnered support from less than 50,000 people worldwide. Traditionally marriage was a one-man-one-woman thing, ergo, so goes the argument, this is how it should be like today. Well, it doesn’t take much to realise that there is no ergo justifiable here either. Nothing follows at all from the fact that we do certain things today, or from the fact that we did certain things in certain ways in the past, for how we should do things from today onward. The point I am making here is that arguments from tradition have zero substance as arguments. They are non-arguments. Each time someone tells you that you should do a certain thing because of tradition, it’s best to tell them to go away and get a life. They merely describe what we have always done or what we have done over extensive periods of our history. If that was sufficient, we could justify slavery. After all, if we bought and sold other people for such a long time, surely it’s a tradition of sorts. The fact that there was such a tradition doesn’t provide us with any moral guidance with regard to what we should do in the future.

Now, to be fair, conservative thinkers like Edmund Burke pointed out why traditions might be valuable. He claimed that traditions provide societal stability and security. Clearly there is some usefulness in societal stability and security. That argument then isn’t any longer about whether there is a good reason to keep some tradition going. That argument simply warns us of ominous consequences if we don’t keep traditions going. The truth is, of course, that even conservatives need societal progress to occur, lest their societies would otherwise be frozen in time, eventually losing out to more agile competitors on the global stage. So they are back to square one so to speak. Even they need reasons to justify particular traditions if someone clamours for particular changes to how society goes about doing business, or how doctors go about doing medicine, etc. Unless there is a good reason beyond the fact that something is a tradition we should probably be prepared to abandon traditions more frequently if we are given good reasons for doing so.

Udo Schuklenk teaches ethics at Queen’s University, he tweets @schuklenk

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