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Tribalism and Moral Hypocrisy

Ville Kokko

Posted on June 14, 2018 14:22

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We have a drive to favor "us" over "them," but we also a need to appeal to universal moral standards. Unrecognized, the clash of their contradictory forces leads to the rationalization of hypocrisy and double standards.

Psychological studies have shown that humans have an unconscious tendency to favor people seen as being in their own group over those seen as outsiders. There is a likely evolutionary explanation for this in tribalism: we've evolved instincts to help us survive as small, competing groups, back in the days when things were very different. Helping your own tribe was helpful for survival, giving away resources wasn't.

On the other hand, we also have a tendency and need to appeal to impartial, universal moral standards. An innate tendency towards fairness also has an evolutionary explanation. However, I believe that this is only a reflection of the inherent nature of morality. Morality must be impartial because part of what it is is akin to a contract that must be acceptable to everyone.

The impartiality of morality means that people must be treated based on their choices, actions, and needs – never just on who they are.

So we favor our own group over others, but the nature of morality that is ubiquitous in our thinking and rhetoric resists our openly thinking and saying that. How is this conflict resolved?

It could be resolved by openly prioritizing either one. The obvious choice is to prioritize morality over tribalist bias. Tribalism is just a largely nasty psychological fact, whereas morality is the only thing that can even partly prevent an endless war of all against all and even against themselves.

But what if you're not even aware of the conflict? Morality needs both reason and emotion to work, but in practice, it's common for emotion to throw in a quick verdict of right or wrong and "reason" to merely rationalize it after the fact. This can apply whether the moral conclusion is sensible or not. You don't need to stop to think to see that keeping children in cages is wrong, but if you don't feel that way, I doubt you arrived to that conclusion by impartial consideration of moral principles, either.

And thus, it seems that this is what usually happens when a person's moral judgements are determined by their tribal instinct: First, the person's biased thinking throws up a conclusion based heavily on who's being judged. If you've got racist inclinations, even unconscious, you'll judge a black person differently from a white person doing exactly the same thing. If you've internalized sexist stereotypes,you'll judge a man and a woman differently. Or if it's someone from your party or the opposing one...

And then your brain makes up an explanation, which you likely believe no matter how ridiculous, as to why objective moral considerations led to your judgement. Obama went golfing X times, and that's bad because X is objectively such a big number (not because it's Obama), even though you won't bat an eyelid if Trump does it more. Or, if your government keeps children in cages (and really those aren't even cages because it's your side doing it), well, they deserve it because their parents crossed the border illegally.

Ville Kokko

Posted on June 14, 2018 14:22

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