I have previously defended a view I called anti-traditionalism, which states that something being a tradition is not a reason by itself to continue to act in accordance with it. It must be admitted, however, that traditions play a function for many (perhaps most) people. They convey some sort of “information” about how people are likely to act. In other words, tradition provides implicit, or unspoken, rules or expectations. There are, for instance, many implicit rules surrounding marriage (although to different degrees in different societies). When you enter a marriage there are things people expect you to do, all the way from the engagement party to divorce or widowhood. Usually, the spouses don’t have to verbally articulate these expectations to each other, because they are, again, implicit without one’s tradition.
Other examples of the same sort could be raised when it comes to friendships, work relations, or even behavior in restaurants. Tradition often tells us how to behave, and we expect others to follow these traditional rules. And when old “cultural” or religious traditions are questioned or abandoned (partially or wholly), there are often other “traditions” that take their place. Nowadays we get some rules from popular culture, which to some degree become implicit as well. In my country, Sweden, for instance, some peoples lives are now heavily shaped by notions received from American television shows, and some of these notions have evolved to the point of being implicit in our culture. It should go without saying, however, that such implicit rules are equally improper by themselves as “old” traditional rules for determining the shape of our lives.
But some rules and expectations we need to have if we are to live together in a society, and in personal and professional relationships. But – and this is my main point – if we can’t rely on implicit rules and expectation, we must more and more try to rely on explicit rules and expectations. In other words, one must learn to explicitly formulate one’s own wishes as to the shape of one’s life. I say “one’s own”, because it is important that this should be a completely individual affair – no one should attempt to prescribe how others should live (apart from fulfilling some basic societal and moral duties). When starting up a friendship, for instance, it should be somewhat clear what the people involved expect from a friendship; and since we can’t rely on implicit traditions regarding this, these expectations must be explicitly stated. Otherwise there is a great risk that people may misunderstand each other in emotionally shattering ways.
But living in that sort of “explicit society” is not something we are used to, and it probably would feel awkward for most people to attempt to apply it in their lives. For instance, it would probably feel awkward and “un-romantic” to, during the early stages of a romantic relationship, discuss details about how one conceives one’s future life together, including questions about child rearing, household chores, or even the acceptability of extramarital affairs. having implicit cultural rules about these things allows us to escape the awkwardness of having to discuss them, but on the other hand we might run into problems later on when we find out that these implicit rules were never really accepted by all participants in the relationship (and that’s the sort of thing that might lead to divorce).
Of course, desiring to live in a more explicit society requires a belief that people in general are able to handle such “freedom”. The typically conservative disposition claims that people can’t handle it, and that’s why most of us need traditions with their implicit rules; and when people fail to follow them there should be strong societal sanctions in place. A conservative utilitarian would have to claim that although such sanctions sacrifice some people’s happiness for the sake of others’ happiness, the total level of happiness would still be higher than under anti-traditionalist freedom. The “rationalistic” utilitarian would, presumably, claim the opposite: the happiness of those who require strict implicit rules for their emotional and mental well-being will to some degree be sacrificed for the sake of those who want more “experiments in living”, as John Stuart Mill put it.
Personally, I fall more on the anti-traditionalist than the conservative side. But sometimes I feel that I may be utopian in my thinking. It may be the case that social life will just be too hard to navigate without all the implicit rules we have grown to rely on. And it should, of course, be added that the existence of social rules that are largely beneficial for almost everyone is not precluded by the anti-traditionalist view. The point is that such rules should be accepted only insofar as they are demonstrably beneficial, not simply because they are the received tradition.