A Problem with Chesterton's Fence

In general, I agree with G. K. Chesterton's principle here:

Chesterton's fence is the principle that reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is understood. The quotation is from Chesterton’s 1929 book The Thing: Why I am a Catholic, in the chapter entitled "The Drift from Domesticity": "In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

There are a couple of problems here. The first is that, over time, the reason a very useful institution was created may get lost so that no one really knows why it was created or how exactly it is useful, or it may have developed empirically over centuries or millennia to be the best way of doing things but no one ever fully articulated the reasons why. When the modernizer challenges it, the conservative isn't ready with a good explanation, and the modernizer then assumes there isn't one.

Another issue is that Chesterton's statement of his maxim assumes the conservative (i.e., "more intelligent") reformer has the power to stop the modernizer, but that's often not the case. Often in society both put their arguments out there and a bunch of fence-sitters cast the deciding votes.

As a result, some important American institutions have been torn down in part because conservatives seemed unable to adequately explain their purpose. When they tried to preserve them, they seemed tied to dead traditions, stupid, or bigoted. Decades later the negative effects of the destruction become apparent; in hindsight we can see the purposes of those institutions fairly clearly, but we can't go back in time to deliver our now-learned retort.

Some human institutions, like government, are consciously created and we have something like the Federalist Papers that explains them. However, some are not consciously created. They developed empirically, by accumulated experience, over many generations. That's what living tradition is, the accumulated experience and wisdom of a culture.

Wisdom, though, can be ineffable. Sometimes you know something is right, but you cannot intellectualize why. That is the problem in miniature: How can we tell the difference between ineffable wisdom and baloney? It's a difficult problem.


Grim said...

All Chesterton says in favor of this principle is that it is the "one plain and simple principle" that allows us to reform without deforming. He doesn't say anything about power, only that this is the right way to approach these kinds of problems.

Chesterton's Wall has an echo on the left, by the way, which you may not have heard. The story they tell is of the taboo. In this story, which really happened, a new king in Hawaii declares that all the old ways of doing things will simply stop being done. Many are concerned about the consequences of abandoning old practices that surely serve some important function, but the king holds firm in his will.

The result is... nothing. Or so the story goes. It's an example that cuts against the whole thrust of Burkean conservatism, of which Chesterton's Wall is a sort of paradigmatic principle. Maybe there's not an important thing behind so many of these institutions. Maybe they grew up for irrational reasons, or for reasons that are long gone (like the inexplicable soldier assigned to the artillery battery, who was originally there to hold the horses). Clearing them out is then a form of health.

Miss Manners, who is more of a philosopher than people realize, offers a kind of middle road. Many times it doesn't really matter what we do, as long as we have a way of doing it that everyone knows. We could switch the forks and the knives around in the place setting, for example, without actually damaging our ability to eat a meal. But there does need to be a known method of eating in polite company, so that everyone can relax and enjoy what would otherwise be a perfectly stressful experience. You have to have a way of knowing you're doing the right thing, and not making a fool of yourself. But many different ways would do, as long as we can agree to one.

That has an ancient echo in Plato's "Protagoras," where the famous sophist offers 'consensus' as a kind of model for civilization. The importance of rhetoric is that it can win agreement, and society can organize around the agreement (on values or organizations or whatever) won in that way. It doesn't really matter, he seems to suggest, what specifically people agree to do; the important thing is that they agree. Yet he leaves himself a kind of back door by claiming that he's teaching a sort of virtue; and since virtue is how we make good decisions, naturally, any decisions agreed to by people taught how to be virtuous will be good ones.

Tom said...

All Chesterton says in favor of this principle ...

Sure, and I'm not really criticizing Chesterton so much as thinking through how difficult it can be to use this principle well.

That's an interesting story about the taboo. I'd like to read more about it.

It's completely true that some institutions are there for bad reasons and are harmful. Chesterton's principle just says we should know the reasons, then we can judge them.

In the story about the Hawaiian king, assuming nothing was really lost when they dropped the old ways, it's quite possible they just got lucky.

Maybe I should read more Miss Manners.

... since virtue is how we make good decisions, naturally, any decisions agreed to by people taught how to be virtuous will be good ones.

This seems to be held to a degree by both Islam and Christianity, or at least some branches of them. In both, there is the idea that the whole body of believers can't all go wrong, so if something is adopted by the vast majority of the laity for an extended period of time, it should be accepted by the leadership.

Grim said...

Yes, Muhammad is supposed to have said, "My people will never agree on an error." There is a Christian parallel, as you note, although within the Catholic Church the Pope is supposed to pronounce upon long-held, commonly-agreed traditions (like the Assumption of Mary).

J Melcher said...

I strongly endorse the recommendation of Miss Manners.

Pertinent to this discussion, the purpose of a social convention may be completely misinterpreted given the background of the person doing the interpreting. Miss Manners tells of a Western host who picks up, drinks from, the finger bowl in order to make his Eastern guest, who had just done the same, feel comfortable rather than gauche. Then she tells again of the Eastern host who plunges his fingers into his bowl of scented tea for washing, because his Western guest had just done the same to wash his own fingers.

SO no confidence that the new generation will CORRECTLY explain the point of the bowl, or the fence, that they plan to remove from the social system.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

It's called "Virtue Ethics" and it has a pretty good history. I lean that way myself - but it has a huge disadvantage of entire segments of society thinking they are training themselves in virtue but actually "following some dead economist."

raven said...

Peace and prosperity bring a lot of slack. no consequences in other words. We can bicker about table manners all we want, with no need to worry about the guy next to us stabbing a fork in our eye.

The problem we face as a society is we cannot identify anymore between meaningless bullshit, nice to have but not essential, and existentially necessary. Thus I go to the Davis Monthan AF website and see this under commentaries-in order.


Women’s History Month
Who is Martin Luther King Jr?
National American Indian Heritage Month 2016
National Disability Employment Awareness Month
Fire Prevention

Makes me want to invent a time machine just to drop the enlightened idiots onto the Forrestal circa 1967 for training about what constitutes "essential".

It is not just that we are tearing down fences willy nilly, they are also being put up, chaotically and needlessly, turned at 90 degrees to block the freeway instead of keep the cattle from wandering onto the roadway. The Crazy Years indeed.

Grim said...

All those "* History Month" things get huge attention from military public affairs. You would think they would not be interested in playing up divisions within the force, but I think those divisions (though still real enough, and genuinely at times the cause of resentments) are less consequential in the military context. The PC "celebrate diversity" line does less damage given the commonality of values and culture that the military inculcates.

At least in terms of cultural/ethnic diversity, that seems to hold. I'm not sure it does in terms of integration of men and women.

raven said...

The problem with men and women serving together is not integration.
Normal men, and women, desire to be completely and thoroughly "integrated." :>)

It is trying to keep them from being "integrated" that is the problem.

Eric Blair said...

@Raven. It should be over Schweinfurt in 1943.

Grim said...

It is trying to keep them from being "integrated" that is the problem.

Ha! Yes, that seems to be the real issue.

raven said...

Eric- yeah, one of my old employee's father was a B17 pilot- I think he was on one of those missions- maybe Regansburg? Anyway, he came back from the war and spent the rest of his working career as a janitor in the local school system. The responsibility for 9 men's lives must be an unbelievable burden to bear. I heard the 8th air force had about a 33% casualty rate for aircrew. Just as bad odds as a Marine on Iwo. So he must have figured his days of drama were done, and found some peace and quiet in a sleepy town in Iowa.

Grim said...

The Mighty 8th Army Air Force had higher casualty rates than the 8th Army. Their museum is here in Georgia, just outside of Savannah.

Texan99 said...

"It is trying to keep them from being "integrated" that is the problem."

As I argued above: it's a boundaries issue. Probably we'd all agree that purdah is an understandable but excessive response to the inherent problem of letting men and women interact outside the context of marriage and close family. Many proposals for keeping men and women separate in this or that special context might well be viewed as stops along the purdah spectrum. Some of them may make sense, but they ought to be justified by more than a general sense that things are always easier if there aren't any women allowed.