Appeal to Tradition Fallacy | Definition & Examples

Reasoning updated on  February 16, 2024 4 min read

The appeal to tradition fallacy involves arguing that something is right solely because it has been accepted or practiced for a long time.

Tradition is treated as sufficient proof of an idea or behavior’s merit without evidence or analytical reasoning.

Appeal to tradition fallacy example
“People have been using St. John’s Wort as a remedy for depression for generations, proving that it has legitimate therapeutic effects.”

Regardless of whether St. John’s Wort has therapeutic value in treating depression, this argument commits the appeal to tradition fallacy because it expresses certainty without any discussion of objective evidence. The error lies in treating tradition alone as adequate proof of the treatment’s efficacy.

The appeal to tradition fallacy often occurs in debates about cultural practices, religious beliefs, legal and political decisions, and medical treatments.

What is the appeal to tradition fallacy?

An appeal to tradition fallacy occurs when an argument rests entirely on the fact that an idea or practice has been accepted by a group of people for a long time.

While tradition may be relevant to some arguments, using it as the sole justification for a claim renders an argument fallacious.

The argument from antiquity fallacy, or argumentum ad antiquitum, is a subtype of the appeal to tradition fallacy. It involves appealing specifically to traditions from the distant past.

The appeal to tradition fallacy is considered an informal logical fallacy because it is a flaw in the content of an inductive argument. An argument that commits this type of fallacy is considered unsound.

Appeals to tradition also belong to the category of fallacies of relevance because they rely on information that’s irrelevant to the core issues of the argument. This subset of logical fallacies includes ad hominem fallacies and straw man fallacies, among others.

Appeal to tradition fallacy examples

Examples of appeal to tradition fallacies can be found in a variety of contexts, such as education, politics, religion, business, and discussions of health and wellness.

In each of these domains, arguments that commit the appeal to tradition fallacy may lead to suboptimal decisions because they fail to account for factors like technological, cultural, and economic changes.

Appeal to tradition fallacy example in education
“Universities have always prioritized education for its own sake, emphasizing intellectual exploration and personal growth to foster critical thinking skills. Because this approach has been the foundation of higher education for centuries, it remains the best method. Any shift away from this tradition, aiming to make direct job preparation a part of the university experience, would undermine the true essence and value of a university degree.”

This argument commits the appeal to tradition fallacy by taking it as a foregone conclusion that historic educational practices are ideal and failing to offer any supporting evidence.

In business, the appeal to tradition fallacy can similarly lead to missed opportunities by failing to account for major societal and technological changes.

Appeal to tradition fallacy example in business
A retail chain resisted shifting its focus to online sales in the early 2000s, arguing, “We’ve succeeded with physical stores for decades, so there’s no need to change.”

This argument commits the appeal to tradition fallacy by assuming past success with in-person sales negates the need for online platforms, ignoring potential benefits and market reach. It also overlooks the possibility of combining online and physical sales.

The decline of Blockbuster, often attributed to its failure to adjust to digital streaming, is an example of a business whose traditional model became completely obsolete because of a failure to adapt to change

Why is the appeal to tradition fallacy a problem?

It’s important to be able to identify and guard against the appeal to tradition fallacy because relying on tradition alone creates several problems:

  • Stifles innovation and critical thinking: Relying on tradition alone for decision-making can hinder innovation, stifle creativity, and devalue analytical reasoning.
  • Overlooks changes: Failing to account for factors like technological, social, and economic shifts can lead to decisions that don’t make sense in the current context.
  • Preserves harmful practices: While many traditions are valuable, some are harmful (e.g., those rooted in prejudice or discrimination). Substituting tradition for evidence-based reasoning can obstruct positive change.

How can you respond to the appeal to tradition fallacy?

There are several constructive ways to respond to the appeal to tradition fallacy:

  • Encourage critical thinking: Prompt a critical examination of the tradition to see if it stands up to scrutiny.
  • Request evidence: Ask for specific evidence that demonstrates the practice or belief’s current effectiveness or relevance, moving the focus from tradition to evidence-based reasoning.
  • Highlight changes: Emphasize relevant changes in context, technology, societal needs, or science that might have made the traditional practice inappropriate for the present day.
  • Present alternatives: Introduce evidence or examples of alternative methods that better address current challenges.
  • Acknowledge value: If the tradition has merits, demonstrate intellectual honesty by affirming these positive aspects while also discussing the tradition’s drawbacks.
Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Idioms

Parts of speech

Fallacies

Diamond in the rough

Irregular verb

Slippery slope fallacy

Idioms

Gerund

Sunk cost fallacy

Piece of cake

Infinitive phrase

Red herring fallacy

Better late than never

Infinitive

Appeal to authority fallacy

Salt of the earth

Adverb

Circular reasoning fallacy


Frequently asked questions about appeal to tradition fallacy

Can an appeal to tradition be valid?

An argument can include an appeal to relevant traditions without committing the appeal to tradition fallacy. There is a key difference between arguments that consider traditions and arguments that commit the fallacy:

  • Appeal to tradition fallacy: Assumes that tradition alone is adequate proof; disregards contemporary contexts and evidence
  • Sound argument: Mentions relevant traditions as a factor to consider; takes into account modern contexts and evidence-based reasoning

How is the appeal to tradition fallacy different from the appeal to emotion fallacy?

Both the appeal to tradition fallacy and the appeal to emotion fallacy can leverage social pressures and sentiments, but they do so in different ways:

  • Appeal to tradition fallacy: Exploits the human tendency to conform to social norms, often leveraging emotional and social factors
  • Appeal to emotion fallacy: Manipulates by directly targeting feelings such as fear, loyalty, or sympathy

What is the opposite of the appeal to tradition fallacy?

The opposite of the appeal to tradition fallacy is the appeal to novelty fallacy, also known by its Latin name, argumentum ad novitatem.

The appeal to novelty fallacy occurs when an argument assumes that something is superior simply because it is new or modern.

Like the appeal to tradition fallacy, it relies on the timing of an idea or practice to prove its merits.

Tags

Magedah Shabo

Magedah is an author, editor, and educator who has empowered thousands of students to become better writers.

Great! You've successfully subscribed.
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.