“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” – GK Chesterton.
Chestertons Fence is a bad argument..even in the opinion of those who occasionally use it. You can tell, because no one uses it when there is any better argument available. After all it doesn’t give a reason why some X was wrong or right;. Instead, it just suggests that there was a reason and a function and purpose for it at some point in time… because no one ever does anything without good reason, right?…and that the function persists…because, circumstances never change, right?
It is very hard to imagine someone conceding to a Chestertons’s Fence that affects them, personally.
“Stop doing that”. “Why?” “For a reason which has long been forgotten”
I encountered the Chesterton Fence, although not under that name, in an article by Melanie Phillips. Her topic was homosexuality. After noting that some of her best friends…yes, really…argued that homosexuality must be bad, because that is the teaching of the ancients. In true CF fashion, nothing specifically wrong about it is mentioned. Would she stop doing something, or change her lifestyle, if someone told her “X is wrong. I can’t say how, but it’s that’s what the traditional teachings hold”, Actually, that is not idle speculation. I don’t usually go in for ad hominem , but this one is relevant. Phillips is a childless career woman. According to some traditional teachings, that’s a no-no. She’s on the wrong side of a fence a few inches from the one that she’s on the right side of.
It perhaps isn’t impossible to be a consistent, non hypocritical user of Chestertons Fence…but you would need be a very serious and consistent reactionary…well to the right of Ms Phillips.
“Christian, n.: one who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor.” – Ambrose Bierce, the Devils Dictionary.