Our Moral Fate: Allen Buchanan on Escaping Tribalism

Progress in human morality can still happen, but is far from guaranteed.
Photo: Sasan Rashtipour/Unsplash
By: Philip Laughlin

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).

Allen Buchanan is the author of “Our Moral Fate: Evolution and the Escape from Tribalism.”

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.

Tribalism transforms disagreement into mutual hatred, mild condescension into utter contempt.

The term is often used to characterize the extreme political polarization. But to characterize tribalism as merely political would be an understatement. It is something much more comprehensive, reaching much deeper into our lives, as the phrase “culture wars” suggests. We see tribalism on the Left and tribalism on the Right — but not in the middle, because it’s the nature of tribalism to create an unbridgeable, uninhabitable chasm between Us and Them. The tribalistic mentality sees things in black and white, good and evil. Tribalism transforms disagreement into mutual hatred, mild condescension into utter contempt.

PL: Many people think, quite reasonably, that tribalism poses a dire threat to democracy, because it undermines the mutual respect and genuine, sincere communication among citizens that democracy requires. What do you think?

AB: Tribalism is a threat to democracy for two reasons. The first is the refusal to listen to and engage with the Other, to dismiss them as beyond the pale, not members of the community of reasonable beings. That rules out bargaining and compromise, which are essential for democracy. The second is the tendency to see all conflict as zero sum — what you gain, I lose, and vice versa — and to think that all conflicts are linked together in kind of Armageddon scenarios. In other words, the tribalistic mentality regards us as being in a supreme emergency — a deadly, no-holds-barred contest for the highest stakes imaginable. If you think that way and think the conflict is zero-sum, you will not only not try to compromise and bargain: You will go for the jugular. There will be few or no moral limits on what you are willing to do when you think everything is at stake. Consider the title of Sean Hannity’s new book: “Live Free Or Die: America (and the World) on the Brink.”

PL: Are human beings tribalistic by nature? Can we escape or combat tribalism?

AB: Groupishness is in our genes. We will always tend to divide the world into Us and Them and tend to think We are superior. But if we construct the right social environment, we can avoid tribalism in its more extreme, harmful forms.

With that said, many scientists who study human evolution think an intimate link exists between tribalism and morality. More precisely, they think that human beings are tribalistic so far as their moral nature is concerned, that the evolved moral mind, our basic moral psychology, is tribalistic. If they are right, then the prospects for successfully combating tribalism are slim to none. Science yields a counsel of despair. For if we humans are beings with a morally tribalistic nature, then any escape from tribalism we are able to achieve — any progress toward inclusive morality, morality that is not deeply biased toward one’s own group — will be only partial; and it won’t be durable, because it goes against the grain of our nature.

Yet moral progress has occurred, and in some of the most significant instances it involves a shift toward inclusion, away from tribalism. Steven Pinker has written two fine books to remind us that there has been a great deal of moral progress. In many societies, the position of women is now better, chattel slavery has been abolished and serious efforts are being made to eliminate other forms of involuntary servitude, the governments of more countries than ever before are constrained by the rule of law and constitutional principles, homicide rates almost everywhere have dropped dramatically since the late Middle Ages, there have been significant strides toward achieving equal civil and political rights for people of color and national minorities, more countries recognize the right to freedom of religion than has been the case throughout most of human history, in many places laws now curb the worst treatment of nonhuman animals, and so on.

“If you’re like me, you feel a deep, disturbing tension between Pinker’s inspiring message and the belief that humans are tribalistic, morally speaking.”

Reflecting on these positive changes, one feels proud and optimistic. Yet if you’re like me, you feel a deep, disturbing tension between Pinker’s inspiring message and the belief that humans are tribalistic, morally speaking. You don’t know what to think about the prospects for moral progress — whether hope or despair is the proper response to the current situation. And if you look to what science tells us about morality, you’re likely to conclude that the great ape species called Homo sapiens is condemned to tribalism — and that moral progress is therefore likely to be limited and fragile — because evolutionary science apparently tells us that our moral nature is tribalistic.

PL: Do you think it is?

AB: Our moral nature is not exclusively tribalistic but also includes the capacity for inclusion. At present we face serious problems that can be put under the heading of “tribalism,” but if we want to make headway in solving them, we should avoid mischaracterizing the problem as one of “overcoming our tribal nature.” That makes it sound like the problem is how to inhibit an instinct, when in fact it is largely a matter of how to dismantle or prevent a social construction and capitalize on the more constructive aspect of our dual moral nature.

It’s crucial to understand that our moral nature isn’t tribalistic; it is highly flexible, capable of both tribalism and inclusion. That flexibility makes durable moral progress possible. Some social environments stimulate the tribalistic potential of our moral nature; others stimulate the potential for inclusion. Human beings are capable of producing both sorts of social environments. Furthermore, it’s not just a matter of tribalism versus inclusion; variations in social environments produce moralities that contrast in other ways.

The point is that the character of morality isn’t fixed; it all depends on the social environment, and social environments change. Whether you are able to be the best sort of person that human beings are capable of being depends not just on your strength of character, the depth of your commitment to being moral, and on whether your parents inculcated moral values in you. It also depends on whether you have the good moral luck to develop as a moral agent in a society that provides the right conditions for realizing your best moral potential.

PL: You write in your book that for the vast majority of us, other people — a tiny minority that wields the most influence and power — shape those conditions. Can you explain what you mean?

Once you understand that the character of a society’s pervasive morality and of its moral agents depends on specific circumstances, and also see that control over the nature of those circumstances is unevenly distributed among human beings, you’ll have an additional reason to worry about the growing inequality we are witnessing today. Extreme inequality in wealth isn’t just a defect from the standpoint of distributive justice or equal opportunity or because it undermines political equality. Those are all serious moral costs of extreme inequality. But another cost has gone unnoticed. Inequality arbitrarily gives some people control over something much more fundamental: what sort of morality will flourish in our society and whether we, as individuals, will be morally progressive beings or morally stunted.

Because humans so far haven’t realized how much their moral fate depends on the character of their environment, they haven’t tried to shape that environment accordingly. Instead, changes in the social environment have resulted from the morally blind processes of natural and cultural selection and the deliberate actions of individuals and groups who were aiming at other goals, not taking into account the effects their actions might have on the moral possibilities.

When changes in the social environment fostered moral progress, it was a matter of sheer luck, not scientifically informed, intentional action. In spite of these grim tidings, I offer in the book hope, not despair, and try to show that what sort of morality we have, and what sorts of moral agents we are, is up to us, not a given that we have to accept, but rather something we can learn to shape.

I know, by the way, that whenever I use the phrase “moral progress,” it’s bound to raise hackles in some quarters. The term can be a trigger for people who think that the notion of moral progress is a weapon of Western cultural imperialism, or at least that it has been so tainted by colonialism that there should be a ban on uttering it. Or they think that “moral progress” means universal moral improvement and worry that such a notion is incompatible with recognizing that more than one valid or reasonable morality may exist. They think the very idea of moral progress is at odds with respect for moral diversity. So I’ll say here that the examples of moral progress I discuss in the book are widely accepted as improvements, across a variety of moral perspectives — not just the standpoint of Western values.

PL: What can we do to avoid the worst forms of tribalism?

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.

Of course, there is a chicken and egg problem here: If we are so pervasively tribalistic, how can we get the political cooperation needed to make these sorts of changes or any changes that would give people incentives to listen to each other, to engage, to bargain and compromise? I don’t know the answer to that question. One thing individuals could do would be to resist the temptation to occupy belief silos — to interact only with people who share their political views. Studies show that when people do that, their views become more extreme. We may also have to rethink our understanding of the boundaries of free speech. If we have sound scientific knowledge that certain phrases or images mimic the threat cues that prompted our remote ancestors to react tribalistically, then perhaps media platforms should restrict their use.

If humans learn enough about the moral mind and the interactions between it and specific environmental features, we can in principle take charge of our moral fate: We can exert significant influence on what sorts of moralities are predominant in our societies and what sorts of moral agents we are. Doing so would be perhaps the highest form of human autonomy. It would also be the most profound kind of creativity: the creation of the moral self in a species for whom the moral self lies at the core of our being.


Allen Buchanan is Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Freedom Center at the University of Arizona and Distinguished Research Fellow at Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford. He is the author of more than a dozen books, most recently “Our Moral Fate: Evolution and the Escape from Tribalism.”

Philip Laughlin acquires books for the MIT Press in the fields of Cognitive Science, Philosophy, Linguistics, and Bioethics.

Posted on