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  • Of Ingroups, Outgroups and Ideology

    Posted on August 25th, 2013 Helian No comments

    The set of innate human behavioral traits we associate  with morality did not evolve in order to eventually promote and uphold ideological utopias.  However, they did evolve to promote a dual system of moral behavior, in which one set of rules applies to the ingroup and another to the outgroup.  Murder, for example, which is usually severely punished if the victim belongs to the ingroup, has on occasion been treated with indifference and even encouraged if he belongs to an outgroup.  Knowledge of the distinguishing traits of ingroups and outgroups are acquired by experience and culture.  Such traits often include ideologies, of both the religious and secular types.  Thus, to cite a familiar example, while support or contempt for the dictatorship of the proletariat and the other shibboleths of Marxism played no role in the evolution of moral behavior, they are quite capable of serving as ingroup/outgroup markers.

    For example, as I write this, the liberal/conservative divide in the US is a major variant of ingroup/outgroup identification.  That’s why one runs across terms like “polarization” in the news so often.  Read the comment section of any political blog, and you’ll quickly see that liberals and conservatives often don’t see their opponents as fellow citizens who happen to disagree with them, but as enemies, members of an outgroup complete with all the negative qualities commonly associated with outgroups.  They are not only wrong, but morally evil.

    Mankind has often paid a heavy price for failing to understand this fundamental aspect of our moral nature.  Communism and Nazism were both highly successful ideological ingroups, in essence, secular religions, and both were also highly moralistic.  Both fought against “evil,” in the form of an outgroup.  For the Communists, the outgroup was the bourgeoisie, and for the Nazis, the Jews.  In the course of a few decades, these two powerful and charismatic secular religions had murdered tens of millions of men, women and children in the name of ridding the world of the “evil” supposedly embodied in these two groups.  The process continues today.  Old outgroups are exchanged for new ones, often strikingly similar to the ones they replaced.  For example, instead of bourgeoisie, we now have “the one percent.”  Instead of Jews, we now have “Zionists.”  The only difference in that respect between this century and the last is that the 21st century hasn’t yet spawned a new, charismatic ideology anywhere near as “successful” as Nazism and Communism to fill the vacuum left by their demise.  Unless we learn to understand and control this aspect of our moral nature, the appearance of new ones is just a matter of time.

    The outgroup have ye always with you.  It represents a fundamental human need.  If one doesn’t happen to be handy, it will be invented. Hence the chimerical nature of schemes to unite all mankind into one big ingroup, a gigantic mutual admiration society.  As E. O. Wilson put it referring to a different ideology, “Great theory, wrong species.”

    Morality, we are now told, must be put on a secular, “scientific” basis, in order to serve the transcendental “good” of “human flourishing.”  This new scheme of harnessing moral emotions in the name of “human flourishing” is not only palpably absurd, but dangerous.  Moral behavior evolved.  It has no purpose.  The reasons it evolved have to do with the survival of individual genes, and have nothing whatsoever to do with “human flourishing.”  “Human flourishing” itself will inevitably mean different things to different people, and these differences will spawn ingroups and outgroups as before.  There is nothing wrong with human beings uniting to consider rational means of achieving mutually agreed upon goals.  However, attempts to “tame” morality, and make it conform to “science” in pursuit of those goals is a prescription for disaster.  Human moral emotions cannot be manipulated at will.

    Morality will not disappear, nor will our moral behavior undergo any fundamental change simply by virtue of our understanding it.  We will not all suddenly become “moral relativists,” nor will we all begin applying mathematical equations instead of moral emotions to regulate our day-to-day interactions.  We may, however, become wise enough to cease and desist from attempts to “tame” those emotions in the interest of promoting this or that ideological or political system.  Unless we are to understand that the mayhem and senseless mutual slaughter we have been engaged in since the dawn of recorded time represents “human flourishing,” one must hope so.

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