Bryan Caplan  

Patria, Parenti, Amici

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         Patria, parenti, amici,
Voi dunque non avete?

Country, family, friends,
Possess you none of them?

-Giuseppe Verdi, Rigoletto

I'm a staunch opponent of nationalism.  But I'm also a family man.  Isn't there a direct contradiction between the two?  If I refuse to show favoritism to my fellow Americans, how can I in good conscience buy Christmas presents for my children?  You might argue that whether you favor your countrymen or your kin, you're neglecting far more deserving strangers.

There is one obvious difference between nationalism and familial favoritism.  Familial favoritism is a deep and ineradicable part of the human psyche, thanks to many millions of years of evolution.  Nationalism - and expansive tribal identities more generally - pretends to be equally fundamental, but it's largely cheap talk.  People happily give tons of free stuff to their children.  But you need coercion to make people surrender more than a pittance to their "fellow citizens."  To ask people to stop favoring their own children goes utterly against human nature.  To ask people to stop favoring their countrymen is a modest, eminently do-able request.

There is however a less obvious, but far more important difference between nationalism and familial favoritism: Despite its mighty evolutionary basis, almost everyone recognizes moral strictures against familial favoritism.  Almost everyone knows that "It would help my son" is not a good reason to commit murder, break someone's arm, or steal.  Indeed, almost everyone knows that "It would help my son" is not a good reason for even petty offenses - like judging a Tae Kwon Do tournament unfairly because your son's a contestant.

Nationalism, in contrast, is widely seen as an acceptable excuse for horrific crimes against outgroups.  Do you plan to murder hundreds of thousands of innocent foreign civilians?  Just say, "It will save American [German/Japanese/Russian/whatever] lives" - and other members of your tribe will nod their heads.  Do you want to deprive millions of foreigners of the basic human rights to sell their labor to willing buyers, rent apartments from willing landlords, and buy groceries from willing merchants?  Just say, "It's necessary to protect American jobs" in a self-righteous tone, then bask in the admiration of your fellow citizens.

The surprising lesson: familial favoritism isn't just inevitable; it's basically benign.  People know that this fundamental emotion is no excuse for ignoring the rights of strangers.  Nationalism, in contrast, is at once phony and dangerous.  Phony, because nationalists' behavior belies their gradiose claims of loyalty and devotion to their countrymen.  Dangerous, because when people remember their nation, they forget their basic moral obligations to leave strangers alone.


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COMMENTS (20 to date)
Hume writes:

As a fellow philosophical anarchist and individualist, this post is embarrassing. Perhaps you should read closely the literature (e.g. Yael Tamir's Liberal Nationalism) or stick to economics and leave the political philosophy to the experts (maybe follow your own advice?).

John Thacker writes:

Huh, familial favoritism is basically benign? History is full of terrible things done in the name of familial favoritism. There certainly were wars and people killed over familial favoritism. It's true that as nationalism became more prominent that familial favoritism declined, but I think that has to be viewed as an evolution from a feelings towards a smaller in-group to a larger in-group. Perhaps nationalism is a way point towards feelings for all humans. (And perhaps not.)

Ryan Murphy writes:

Favoring your family is kin selection.

Xenophobia is a by-product of groupishness and reciprocal altruism. To use Singer's terminology, you just have a bigger circle of people you are trying to engage in reciprocal altruism with than the nationalist.

R. Alazar writes:

"Largely cheap talk"?

When was the last time you heard of a Marine charging a machine-gun nest for his family?

Primitive man had "nations" (tribes) and "nationalism" too, as do apes, and for that matter frogs and termites. It is, at least as much as family, a "deep and ineradicable part of the human psyche, thanks to many millions of years of evolution."

That's all irrelevant because the nations are larger? Check with the neuroscientists.

Of course, there are (somewhat elastic) customary limits on both familial and national favoritism. But if it's "a modest, eminently do-able request" "[t]o ask people to stop favoring their countrymen" by forgoing trade protectionism, why has no one ever done it successfully anywhere?

Such freedoms as we have are not found in a state of nature, or in most other states; but only in a few extraordinary polities which are protected from destruction by state machinery, armies, and, yes, nationalism. Nationalism may do some bad things also, but you wouldn't be allowed to blog if it didn't exist.

David N. Welton writes:

> familial favoritism isn't just inevitable; it's basically benign

The juxtaposition of that remark and the Italian quote is humorous. One of Italy's major problems is too much family and not enough meritocracy.

nazgulnarsil writes:

nepotism makes perfect sense if you feel that familial bonds are a stronger hold on fraudulent actions than monetary incentives.

Richard Allan writes:

R. Salazar asks when Marines charge machine-gun nests for their families. Hasn't he heard the phrase "band of brothers"? Acts of heroism in war are for the benefit of the adopted family of one's unit, not one's "country".

Vlad writes:

Seems you've identified an interesting puzzle here: How come that people give so much weight to nationalism as a justification for doing various (horrible) things and, comparatively, so little weight to family favoritism, given that family favoritism has a strong evolutionary basis, while nationalism has a much weaker evolutionary basis? How come culture wins hands down genetics in this particular instance?

Pandaemoni writes:

While I agree with the basic point, I also disagree that familial favoritism is basically benign.

At the every least, I am sure that I must be exposed to its less benign side than you are. The financial services industry in New York (which is my area) is replete with people attained privileged positions not because they are the best and the brightest, but because they grew up privileged and used familial connections to maintain a relatively undeserved status. There are certainly those who either rose solely because of ability and many who did grow up privileged who nevertheless seem deserving of what they have attained, but then there are those who just don't.

If you simply means that buying Christmas gifts for your kids and not others is benign, that's okay. But in that case your point boils down almost to "benign forms of favoritism are benign."

I also agree with others here that our social instincts also are evolved traits. You cannot use evolution as a defense of familial favoritism without something more.

It is true that it seems like people are less willing to sacrifice for fellow citizens, but that's not universal. Americans may well give more to charities to help victims of a disaster in America (say Hurricane Katrina) than they would is the same sort of calamity had struck China.

Even if both instincts are evolved, though, that doesn't really address the moral point of whether the favoritism is justified.

d writes:

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Mark writes:

Verdi wrote the (sublime) music. Words are by F.M. Piave.

Mick Heins writes:

How then to marshal the defense against other nations caught in the throes of nationalism?

Alex writes:

@R Alazar

Of all the veterans I've talked to, they always say that they might enlist for nationalist/patriotic reasons but they commit heroic acts to protect their friends and comrades in arms. Marines don't charge machine gun nests thinking of how much they love their country, but probably from a combination of training and looking after their friends.

Mercer writes:

So the family favoritism in North Korea is benign?

joeftansey writes:

Familial favoritism is justified because your family shares your genetics. Your brothers, children, and parents are half "you".

Nepotism can be defined in terms of egoism. Nationalism cannot.

vidyohs writes:

It is disingenuous to even suggest that Caplan was talking about nationalism in any other sense than the nation state definition. Caplan's intent is crystal clear.

I too despise the nationalism that has pre-K kids memorizing a pledge of allegiance to a nation they know nothing of, and the majority of what they learn about that nation state will be intentional indoctrination in obedience to the state.

But, our corporate state, THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, does not act any different than any nation state since the beginning of nation states. Tis time though that the people wake up to what is being done and learn to throw off that indoctrination/enculturation and think for themselves.

Evan writes:

@Mich Heins

How then to marshal the defense against other nations caught in the throes of nationalism?
One way a universalist might accomplish this is by pointing out that those nationalists are violating some universal human right and rallying people to defend that.

In fact, we already do that. During the Afganistan campaign much was made of the fact that the Taliban violate the rights of women. In WWII propaganda videos showed all sorts of vicious rights violations the Axis committed against other foreigners (I recently watched one that emphasized Mussolini's attack on Ethopia).

@Vlad

Seems you've identified an interesting puzzle here: How come that people give so much weight to nationalism as a justification for doing various (horrible) things and, comparatively, so little weight to family favoritism, given that family favoritism has a strong evolutionary basis, while nationalism has a much weaker evolutionary basis? How come culture wins hands down genetics in this particular instance?
I think it's because we usually engage in family favoritism on a local level and national favoritism on a (obviously) national level. Because family favoritism is usually on a local level we often actually meet the people it hurts, which means it has a strong effect on our conscience. The victims of our national favoritism, by contrast, are usually thousands of miles away. We don't have to look them in the eye.

It's very similar to the way people who are polite face-to-face are trolls on the Internet. They don't see the people they're hurting, so there's a disconnect that turns their conscience off.

@joeftansey

Familial favoritism is justified because your family shares your genetics. Your brothers, children, and parents are half "you".

How many times must I repeat this? Humans are adaptation executors, not fitness maximizers. No human on the face of the Earth desires to advance their genetic interest. Evolution didn't program us to do that. It was more subtle than that. It programmed us to engage in a set of behaviors that, in the Stone Age, happened to coincide with our genetic interest.

However, we engage in these behaviors for their own sake, not because they advance our genetic interest. We eat cake because it's yummy, not because sugar has nutrients. We help our family because we love them, not because they have half our genes. The reasons we evolved taste and love are not necessarily (or even often) good reasons to engage in those behaviors.

Simple introspection should be enough to prove this to you. If you were motivated by genetic interest you would care much less about your female relatives as soon as they hit menopause. And if one of your male relatives suffered an accident that sterilized him you wouldn't care about him any less, would you? And I believe adopted siblings generally love each other much more than strangers do.

joeftansey writes:

@Evan,

"It was more subtle than that. It programmed us to engage in a set of behaviors that, in the Stone Age, happened to coincide with our genetic interest. "

It also programmed us to be able to figure ourselves out and inform or otherwise modify our own preferences.

But that's cool. I wasn't talking about evolution, I was talking about egoism. You clearly have a bad case of projection. Thanks for the red herring though.

"The reasons we evolved taste and love are not necessarily (or even often) good reasons to engage in those behaviors."

K.

"If you were motivated by genetic interest you would care much less about your female relatives as soon as they hit menopause."

You can be motivated by more than one thing. Its just that most people care about themselves, so its also reasonable to care about people who are "half you" (really whether or not they are capable of procreating).

"And I believe adopted siblings generally love each other much more than strangers do."

Human instinct can be co-opted?!? This is news!

Even though evolution is totally irrelevant to my observation about egoism, I'll point out that very useful parts of human development are the result of hijacking existing mechanisms and making them do something else. For example, moral revulsion activates the same part of the brain that rotting food does. This successfully gets you to really dislike what other people do.

So co-opting something that has evolved and using it in a new context is often itself a form of evolution. Therefore this is not a potent counterargument. Believers in evolutionary morality can consistently accept the possibility that their machinery is being used in non-routine ways.

Evan writes:
You can be motivated by more than one thing. Its just that most people care about themselves, so its also reasonable to care about people who are "half you" (really whether or not they are capable of procreating).
Your genes aren't "you." Your brain, memories, and body are "you." Genes are just a blueprint that assembled those things. If an identical twin dies people aren't less sad because another person who (genetically speaking) "is them" is still alive. If I found out I was a chimera I wouldn't start regarding myself as two people and start referring to myself as "we." If I met a race of friendly intelligent space aliens I'd care about them just as much as I would care about the average human, even though they're less genetically similar to me than a blade of grass.

Also, technically everyone is far more than "half you." In fact, all vertebrates are more than "half you." All humans are more than 99% genetically identical. When biologists talk about someone having half your genes what they really mean is that half of that teeny tiny percentage of genes that aren't identical in all humans are identical to yours. So if people really cared about others due to genetic similarity they'd only care about 0.05% more about their relatives than they did about strangers.

I suppose that it is possible that hearing the claim that someone is genetically "half you" might coopt some emotion related to caring about family in someone. But I think its far more likely that it's just a reason people give because it's the first reason to come to mind. Our brains work like search engines when we're explaining our behavior to others, so a lot of times when asked to give a reason for our behavior we give the first reason to behave that way that comes to mind, rather than our "real" reason.

Now, just to be clear, I do believe that the human moral conscience is evolved. But I don't think that that means that abstract facts about evolutionary biology are necessarily useful in informing human ethics. Humans behave ethically as an end in itself, not because we have a deep understanding of why evolution programmed us with ethics.

joeftansey writes:

"Your genes aren't "you." Your brain, memories, and body are "you." Genes are just a blueprint that assembled those things."

They're part of me. There's genetic components to all sorts of things.

But this is a red herring. Even if I grant that genetics are insignificant, your siblings and family share the same environment AND a similar gene pool, which makes them more likely to be like you than any other human being on earth.

"If an identical twin dies people aren't less sad because another person who (genetically speaking) "is them" is still alive. "

Great. More pseudo-anecdotes. See these aren't even true. They're just you trying to pass off your self serving intuitions to validate your arguments. I can turn right around and just say "well I actually think the other way", and then we'll be at a stalemate.

And in this case, I actually do think the other way and I can justify it. See if you had to kill a unique person or a twin, you would pick the twin. That way you get more genetic diversity. You "lose less" when the twin dies. No one cares when storm troopers die.

"If I met a race of friendly intelligent space aliens I'd care about them just as much as I would care about the average human, even though they're less genetically similar to me than a blade of grass. "

Derp. More pseudo-anecdotes. They're also circular because you're just using your instinct to validate the conclusion, which automatically shuts out all non-instinctual answers. Except instinct isn't categorically correct...

At any rate, no. Human beings would probably not value the lives of intelligent aliens as much as human's, at least for a generation or so. And even then it would only be because we could co-opt existing intuitions... which really only proves that human beings can be tricked. Wow so profound.

"Also, technically everyone is far more than "half you." In fact, all vertebrates are more than "half you." All humans are more than 99% genetically identical."

It is PAINFULLY obvious that I mean 50% to refer to the genetic differences that matter between humans.

"When biologists talk about someone having half your genes what they really mean is that half of that teeny tiny percentage of genes that aren't identical in all humans are identical to yours."

See! You knew what I meant all along but chose to misinterpret me. How myopic.

"I suppose that it is possible that hearing the claim that someone is genetically "half you" might coopt some emotion related to caring about family in someone. "

Here's a pseudo anecdote for you. If I heard that someone shared a substantial amount of my genetic material (read: the genetic material that makes significant differences), I'd care about them a lot more than a random person.

"But I think its far more likely that it's just a reason people give because it's the first reason to come to mind. Our brains work like search engines when we're explaining our behavior to others, so a lot of times when asked to give a reason for our behavior we give the first reason to behave that way that comes to mind, rather than our "real" reason."

There is no real reason. The universe has no explanation.

"But I don't think that that means that abstract facts about evolutionary biology are necessarily useful in informing human ethics."

That's good because I never tried to justify anything on an evolutionary basis. This ENTIRE rant is just you projecting on to me.

Maybe next time you could address my main thesis, instead of just addressing one snippet of my text, blowing it out of proportion, and making absolutely zero reference to your original (non)-argument.

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