Of Ingroups, Outgroups and Ideology

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.

Of Ingroups and Outgroups and Niall Ferguson

I’ve mentioned the work of historian Niall Ferguson in the context of what used to be called the Amity/Enmity Complex before.  Simply put, the term was used to describe that ubiquitous tendency of our species to perceive the rest of mankind in terms of ingroups, to which we belong and with which we associate Good, and outgroups, to which “others” belong, and with which we associate Evil.  Ferguson just did something that was guaranteed to land him in an outgroup.  He started rattling and prying at one of the boards of which the ideological box that a particular ingroup lives in was built.  He accomplished this feat by publishing an article in Newsweek critical of Barack Obama, who happens to be the human icon of the Good for the ingroup in question, consisting of a substantial faction of the ideological left.

Ferguson doesn’t exactly have a history of ingratiating himself with the left.  He was an advisor to McCain in 2008, has been critical of Obamacare and government fiscal policy, and is certainly an outlier to the right among his fellow Harvard professors.  Perhaps the furious response to his latest piece reflects the fact that it appeared in Newsweek, which doesn’t exactly have the reputation of being an organ of the right.  If he’d published the same piece in, say, National Review, I doubt that the bees would have come swarming out of their hive in quite such massive numbers.  In any case, here are some of the responses to his latest, beginning with Alex Pareene at Salon;

Niall Ferguson is an intellectual fraud whose job, for years, has been to impress dumb rich Americans with his accent and flatter them with his writings. It’s a pretty easy con, honestly, if you’re born shameless and British (or French).

Maybe it’s a rich people thing, but I never thought Ferguson was particularly flattering towards Americans.  For example, in his War of the World, we come in for some harsh criticism touching such matters as our pervasive habit of shooting enemy prisoners of war, our bombing of civilians in World War II, our less than generous response to the European persecution of Jews and other minorities before the war, and any number of other real or perceived shortcomings.  Moving right along, here’s another take by Noah Smith:

I have been known to tease a fellow blogger or two, but there is really only one writer who makes me truly mad, and that is British historian Niall Ferguson. I will explain exactly why he makes me so mad at the end of this post. First, though, I want to say a few words about Mr. Ferguson’s cover story in Newsweek magazine, entitled “Hit the Road, Barack”. I should note that it imposes a heavy psychic cost for me to do so, since it requires that I actually read Niall Ferguson. But the public duty to expose BS and promote truth and intellectual honesty overrides such selfish concerns.

and another by James Fallows:

Yes, I know, you could imagine many sentences that would follow that headline (As a Harvard Alum, I Apologize). But here is what I have in mind right now:  A tenured professor of history at my undergraduate alma mater has written a cover story for Daily Beast/Newsweek that is so careless and unconvincing that I wonder how he will presume to sit in judgment of the next set of student papers he has to grade.

I won’t presume to judge between Ferguson and his detractors on matters of fact.  As usual in such cases, the main differences between them depend, not on the facts themselves, but on how they are spun.  For example, most of the broadsides against Ferguson I’ve seen so far take issue with the following quote from Newsweek:

Certainly, the stock market is well up (by 74 percent) relative to the close on Inauguration Day 2009. But the total number of private-sector jobs is still 4.3 million below the January 2008 peak.

It is cited as one of Ferguson’s “lies,” even though it is factually correct, because it doesn’t have the right spin.  For example, Matthew O’Brien writes,

Ferguson’s fact is deliberately misleading. A better way to make the argument he says he wants to make would be something like, “Private sector payrolls have added 427,000 jobs since Obama took office, but we are nowhere near out of our deep hole — despite this growth, private sector payrolls are still 4.18 million jobs below their January 2008 peak.”

Ferguson counters with some spin of his own,

Both these statements are true. I picked the high point of January 2008 because it seems to me reasonable to ask how much of the ground lost in the crisis have we actually made up under Obama. The answer is not much. You may not like that, but it’s a fact.

Which version you prefer is probably a pretty good indication of which of the contending ingroups you inhabit.  You be the judge, dear reader.  While you’re at it, maybe you can tell me who was really guilty of starting World War I as well.  I merely offer Ferguson’s article and the furious response thereto as another data point for students of the group behavior of our species.