Against Tradition

Social Philosophy and Policy 13 (01):207- (1996)
Abstract
In recent years many people have suggested that rights come from traditions. More particularly, many people interested in American constitutional law have said that constitutional rights should be developed with close reference to American traditions. In this essay, I mean to challenge these claims. I argue that the enterprise of defining rights, including constitutional rights, should not be founded on an inquiry into tradition. Traditions should be assessed, not replicated. I also try to unpack some of the complexities in the idea that rights should be based on traditions. The topic is highly relevant to the debate over “communitarianism.” Manycommunitarians appear to be traditionalists, at least implicitly; they are concerned to defend social practices against abstract, acontextual claims about what is to be done, or about “rights.” It is important to ask why and when communitarians believethat a community's practices deserve insulation from rights–based claims. Often the best or most interesting answer has a Burkean dimension. It involves the extent to which a community—perhaps a local community resisting national efforts, perhaps a nation resisting international goals—owes its practices to long traditions that, precisely because of their longevity, might seem to make special sense. Ideas of this sort might be thought to have special strength when we think about rights in general or about constitutional rights in particular
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