The Tribal Mind: Moral Reasoning and Public Discourse


[In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan] Haidt writes:

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.

It is interesting to compare this perspective with what one finds in Liars and Outliers, a recent book by Bruce Schneier on the social problem of trust and security. Schneier, a security consultant, views our lives from the perspective of game theory. Every day, we must decide whether to cooperate or to defect. Do I try to arrive at work on time, or do I show up late? Do I drive safely or aggressively? Do I support the goals of my department, or do I work for myself? Does my department support the goals of the larger organization, or does it pursue its own interests? Does the larger organization work to support the goals of the society to which it belongs, or does it pursue its own goals?

He says that there are four “societal pressures” that induce cooperation: Moral pressures (internalized desires to cooperate); the value of reputation; institutional and legal incentives; and security systems. He points out that in small groups (think of a band of hunter-gatherers) the pressure from morals and maintaining reputation are often sufficient. Larger societies need institutional and legal incentives. Security systems are in some sense a last resort.

Schneier’s concept of “social pressures” seems to have much in common with Haidt’s concept of “moral systems.” As individuals, we are, like chimpanzees, prone to defect rather than to cooperate with one another. However, unlike chimpanzees, we have communication skills that have enabled us to develop societal pressures that punish defection and reward cooperation in sophisticated, highly tuned ways. These moral systems facilitate, particularly in the sphere of production and trade, the emergence of highly complex, interdependent human interactions involving hundreds of millions of people.

Within this framework, tribalism plays an ambivalent role. On the one hand, Haidt would argue that tribalism is the basis for our bee instincts. We have a willingness to sacrifice, but that willingness is strongest relative to the 150 or so people that we know well.

However, the bee instinct is much weaker with respect to people outside of that circle. Indeed, tribal instincts tend to make it difficult for large groups of people to cooperate.

In Schneier’s terminology, we are unlikely to defect from our immediate circle. As he points out, this can have a down side. Loyalty to a criminal gang, or simply the unwillingness to question a dubious practice within a corporate entity, represents cooperation at a local level but defection from the standpoint of the larger society.

Tribalism tends to foster economic exchange within groups, because people trust other members of their tribe. The “social pressures” within a tribe are strong. In economic history, there are a number of well-known examples of minority groups that were important commercially. They were able to sustain trust in the process of trading among themselves because of strong within-group enforcement of ethical norms. The challenge is to go beyond within-group trade to broader commercial activity.

Schneier points out that Quakers played a role in the development of capitalism in the West because they developed a reputation for fair dealing. I would argue that one unusual feature of Quakerism is the importance of the belief that “there is that of God in everyone.” This means that Quakers would expect one another to obey their strongest moral codes even when dealing with non-Quakers. An extended capitalist order requires that individuals treat outsiders as moral equals in the context of economic transactions.

However, for the most part, the scaling up of cooperation beyond small groups requires legal incentives and institutions. In a large, complex society, in the absence of laws and enforcement mechanisms, individuals or groups would be too prone to defect.

Categories: Articles, Book Reviews, Liars and Outliers

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.