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Sun Feb 28, 2021, 12:10 PM

Our moral fate: Allen Buchanan on escaping tribalism

Our moral fate: Allen Buchanan on escaping tribalism
As human politics becomes increasingly polarized, a philosopher explains how to escape the gyre of tribalism

FEBRUARY 28, 2021 3:00PM

(Salon) Looked at in one way, human history can be viewed as a depressing litany of inhumane events: war, slavery, genocide, and political persecution. Looked at in another way, one can clearly see the outlines of moral progress that has been made. In fact, two great expansions of the "moral circle" have occurred in just the past couple of centuries. The first was the shift from "tribal rights" to universal human rights. The second is the ongoing expansion of moral rights to non-human entities: animals, plants, the environment, perhaps even robots and AI entities (though this last issue is still very much up for debate).

Was the expansion of moral rights to ever more people and beings inevitable? Or was it merely a historical contingency? One that could just as easily have developed differently? Or perhaps even reverse? These questions get at the heart of what it means to be human. Are we hardwired to evolve into increasingly moral beings? Or is our apparent improvement only subject to social and historical factors? Take those factors away, and perhaps regression is inevitable. (As it often felt like during Trump'​s tenure in the White House.)

Allen Buchanan, a professor of philosophy at the University of Arizona and the author of more than a dozen books, has spent his career trying to understand how the appearance of human morality appeared within the context of biological evolution. His latest book, "Our Moral Fate: Evolution and the Escape from Tribalism," is a meditation on this question. His unsettling conclusion, explored in the conversation that follows: Progress in human morality can still happen, but is far from guaranteed.

* * *

Philip Laughlin: Can you define Tribalism? How does it differ from mere disagreement, even deep disagreement?

Allen Buchanan: Tribalism is much worse than disagreement, even deep disagreement. If I disagree with you, I may still treat you with respect, listen to what you have to say, and try to bargain and compromise to meet in the middle. With tribalism, you regard those you disagree with as not just wrong but as either incorrigibly stupid and misinformed or irredeemably corrupt, insincere, and even evil. You disregard the content of the person's views because you dismiss the person as not worthy of being listened to or engaged with. At the extreme, this amounts to dehumanizing the Other; because we think that humans are reasonable and can be reasoned with. When you exclude someone from the community of reasonable beings, you dehumanize them.


Admonishing each other to "be civil" won't solve the problem. We have to think hard about the features of social environments that either trigger tribalism or encourage more inclusive attitudes toward those we disagree with. To a large extent this means tweaking institutions so that they give us incentives to listen, to bargain, to compromise to meet in the middle. A few changes that might help: having more than two parties; changing to a proportional representation electoral system; and requiring a supermajority vote (two-thirds or more) for important legislation. All three of these mechanisms encourage cooperation across party lines and give people incentives to bargain and compromise. ..........(more)


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