Friday, January 25, 2008

E2.0: Michael Shermer: Tribalism and the Free Market

This is the 12th in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

Our next speaker is Michael Shermer, founding publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Skeptic magazine.

The problem that Michael Shermer is concerned with is not ‘religion’. Shermer is concerned with ‘tribalism’. He takes the position, discussed at the previous conference, that humans (like other primates) tend to form tribes. They tend to treat those within the tribe fairly well, but tend to be exceptionally brutal to those who are outside the tribe.

The ‘atheist/theist’ conflict is only one example of tribalism. Another example that Shermer mentioned were ‘the bloods vs. the crypts’ – a rivalry that has nothing to do with religion, but which (at times) is no less violent. We can support Shermer’s claims about tribalism by mentioning ‘the Hatfields vs. the McCoys’ or ‘the North vs the South’ or ‘the Ayrians vs the Jews’ or even the problem of soccer hooligans at European soccer matches a few years ago where fans of different teams got into violent brawls on a regular basis.

If we focus only on religion, and we ignore the broader problem of tribalism, then we are at risk of failing to make the world a better place, as we simply move the sight of the conflict from one set of claims to another.

Religion is certainly a source of tribalism, but it is one source among many.

Shermer is the founding editor of Skeptic magazine, which concerns itself with debunking all sorts of bizarre claims from Bigfoot to astrology to tarot card reading. He holds that, even though the circulation for Skeptic magazine is growing, there will never be a time when the bulk of the population is not captured by some form of magical thinking. Given that we will always be contaminated with widespread irrational belief, the trick is to come up with a system where people can believe what they want, without being a threat to others.

Shermer argued that this is accomplished through open trade. He builds a case for the maxim that, “Where trade crosses borders, armies do not.” In other words, where groups have learned to trade with each other, they develop a natural alliance and sense of trust, which is the best remedy to hostility.

This is the philosophy that has brought China into the World Trade Organization in spite of its history of civil rights abuses. China is becoming a powerful country. It has a population that is 4 to 5 times that of the United States. As such, its economic potential is enormous. The best way to keep China from becoming a belligerent threat to others, it is argued, is by opening up trade. As powerful economic interests in China become dependent on maintaining peace with the United States (as a partner in trade), they will put more and more pressure on the government to maintain that peace.

So the theory goes.

This is not a ‘law of nature’ that two tribes that are in a trade relationship with each other will never go to war. We can find several examples in which this is not the case. The American Civil War broke out between two tribes that had no trade barriers between them. The Shiite vs. Sunni conflict in Iraq, the Darfur conflict, the Balkans conflict, north Ireland, and World War II, all broke out among nations where there were no barriers restricting trade between the groups.

So, the claim is not that trade guarantees peace. The claim is that trade helps to promote peace. The situation in Europe, with its open borders and common currency, is now enjoying an era of peace, which is in stark contrast to nearly 2000 years of constant warfare. The United States of America, at this point in history, shows no sign of disintegrating into yet another civil war.

Insofar as we are disposed towards in-group loyalty and out-group hostility, we would be wise to pick the right in-groups and the right out-groups. Murderers, rapists, thieves, liars, and sophists make perfectly useful groups of ‘them’ for ‘us’ to target. Indeed, anybody who exhibits desires that tend to thwart the desires of others can be put into the out group. This is what should qualify a person for membership.

The moral trick is to make sure that we keep our thinking within these bounds. The fact that a particular theist is a liar does not warrant shifting the ‘out group’ from liars to theists, any more than the fact that an embezzler is Jewish justifies shifting the ‘out group’ from embezzlers to Jews. We may be biologically disposed to in-group loyalty and out-group hostility, but it would take further argument to show that we must continue to be stupid when it comes to determining the nature of our in-groups and out-groups.


Anonymous said...


I must admit I was surprised and disappointed by your conclusion to this piece. “Insofar as we are disposed towards in-group loyalty and out-group hostility, we would be wise to pick the right in-groups and the right out-groups.”

Since tribalism is fundamentally a justification for immorality, this is like saying, “well since we’re going to be immoral, here is the moral way to do it.”

In all such self-contradictory situations you end up with nonsense. What is the value of creating an “out group” of people who fail to meet our moral standards? Does it allow us to lump together the serial killer with the soldier? The embezzler with the man taking a loaf of bread for his starving family? The mother who lies to protect her child, with the con man?

How about it giving us an excuse to throw these undesirables into an unheated prison in filthy conditions because they deserve it?

Or best of all, can we give ourselves a pass on our own questionable behavior, because, after all we’re not like “them?”

I see no good reason to divide the world into those with good moral character and those with bad, when in reality, few of us are “without sin” and short of psychotics and sociopaths, few are pure evil.

My personal response to this proposition is that we should recognize tribalism as something in our nature likely to lead us in immoral directions, and something we should fight against by recognizing each individual and case as unique, and extending just treatment to everyone outside as well as inside our tribe.

Joshua Zucker said...

I think you meant Crips, not crypts.

Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
Um... if the school system so bad that this needs to be said? Last I checked all wars are between different groups. If a single group fights amoung itself it breaks up into sides. This isn't news.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Samuel Skinner

The news, of course, is not that fighting takes place within groups, but the types of groups they take place between.

It is not just religious groups - such that, if you eliminate religion, you eliminate conflict.

In fact, you can eliminate religion, and not even reduce conflict because people will simply form non-religioius groups and keep fighting.

Instead of looking to the reduction of religion as a means of reducing inter-group conflict, Shermer looks to trade.

Forget about all of this anti-religious stuff, and focus your energy instead on anti-trade-barrier stuff.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Atheist Observer

You read more into my comment than I meant to put in there. First, I was not thinking about making one single out group of all wrongdoers, but different outgroups for each type. Second, I did not see the proposal as actually offering a change over the current system, where we put rapists in one group called 'rapists', thieves in another group called 'thieves', murderers in a third group called 'murderers'.

My intended point was merely that we should narrowly focus on those people who do actual harm, and curtail this practice of overgeneralizing harm-doers.

Anonymous said...


My key point is that the trait of dividing people into them and us, and having one set of rules for them and another for us is fundamentally immoral. It violates the principle of fairness, and perpetrates injustice.
Every lie is not like every other lie, and to say everyone who has ever lied is now a liar and cares nothing for truth is simply wrong. Tribalism is merely hypocrisy by groups. No matter what rules you use to consign people to groups, once you do it, you start the process of dehumanization which leads to the worst in human behavior, not the best.