Sal Keane explains the importance of shared rituals, traditions and moral principles for bringing about solidarity between strangers.
“Dunbar’s Number” explains a lot about human nature. Based on anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s research on primate communities, Dunbar’s Number is the limit on the number of meaningful social relationships with which the human brain can cope. It is estimated to be between 100 and 250.
This number matters because it indicates that communities beyond a certain size can’t count on naturally occurring empathy between their members. Societies have historically overcome this limit through the power of common rules and rituals.
Socially instituted rules – to use the now unfashionable term, “moral principles”, and to avoid the hollow liberal substitute, “values” – give us confidence in our interactions with unfamiliar members of our community. Shared rituals, experiences and institutions create a sense of fellowship with those we have not met before.
For those meeting each other for the first time as freshers at university, many of the first conversations will be about shared experiences, such as their time at school, pre-university holidays, drinking stories. After a few days, or more swiftly for the keener amongst us, the shared institution of the university, or even of a shared course or accommodation, will become a source of bonding.
What is true for a group of eighteen year old freshers is true for a nation of millions. This is why societies throughout history have developed shared rituals, whether dances and feasting at the Summer Solstice or the Queen’s Speech at Christmas.
Even without Dunbar’s Number to overcome, these traditions strengthen communities. They make us psychologically secure, and make us belong to each other. But these traditions don’t just get value from connecting us to contemporaries in our communities: they get even more by connecting us to the members of our communities who’ve passed away, and who are yet to be born.
Society is a contract between the dead, the living, and the unborn. The traditions we receive from our ancestors, which have shaped our society for generations, not only help us overcome the limits of our human faculties but make us a part of something bigger, which will, if we uphold and nourish it, long outlast us. At the national level this can be a literal institution like the monarchy or the NHS, but it can also take the form of shared cultural references or sense of humour.
Along with the bonding power of shared traditions, successful societies have common rules of behaviour. Shared moral principles create confidence in a way laws alone cannot.
Far more people refrain from theft and murder because they believe that these acts are wrong than because they fear being gaoled in punishment. Similarly, a high proportion of people will speed on the motor way or drink under the age of eighteen; fewer of them will drive while drunk. While all illegal, the first two of these acts are broadly seen as socially acceptable, and the latter broadly condemned.
When we believe that, as a result of shared morals, other members of our community are less likely to do us harm, we are more willing to engage with them socially. We are more prepared to enter into deals with them, to offer them credit, to socialise with them, to ask for or offer help.
The power of shared moral principles and traditions makes them worth defending: and that’s where conservatism comes from. Despite the restrictions Dunbar’s Number would seem to dictate, a cohesive society founded on shared values allows trust and cooperation to thrive among a nation of millions.
It is these shared values which nudge us towards debate and competition, rather than acrimony and exploitation.
It is shared values which allow us to feel at ease, rather than under threat.
Folks who recognise all this – who get called “conservatives” – are only recognising the danger of a society which lacks these shared values. This is why they stand up for traditions we have in common, for instructing future generations in moral behaviour and condemning the rise of an amoral society. This does not mean that the same people who stand up for traditions won’t be capable of criticising established ways of doing things, or unimaginative about how traditions can adapt to modern technology. But when trying to build a tower higher, you do not start by pulling out its foundations.
Sal Keane is a Gap Yah hobo who hopes to study Politics this Autumn.
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