Bryan Caplan  

Tribalism, Misanthropy, and the Lesser Evil

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I've long attacked tribalism and misanthropy as grave evils.  Only recently, though, have I had two epiphanies:

1. Tribalism without misanthropy is fairly harmless.  If you're optimistic about the potential of the typical human, you'll see out-groups as opportunities for mutually beneficial trade.  You won't say, "He doesn't belong to our tribe, so let's get rid of him."  You'll say, "He doesn't belong to our tribe, but he can still be very useful for our tribe.  Let's welcome him."

2. Misanthropy remains extremely harmful without tribalism.  You may be less inclined to do evil to out-groups for the sake of your tribe.  But you'll feel a strong urge to do evil to everyone out of perceived self-preservation.  A tribal misanthrope, for example, would hesitate to restrict the fertility of the other members of his tribe: More people are a burden, but they're Americans. (Or whatever).  A non-tribal misanthrope would have no such scruples: Every baby is nothing more than another unwanted mouth to feed.

The upshot: If we rid the world of misanthropy, we could largely forget about tribalism.  And that's fortunate, because tribalism probably has much deeper evolutionary roots than misanthropy.

P.S. Both tribalism and misanthropy typically include both a positive and a normative component. 

Positive tribalism: People in our tribe are smarter, stronger, more skillful, and more cooperative than people in other tribes.

Normative tribalism: People in our tribe are more intrinsically valuable than people in other tribes.

Positive misanthropy: People are stupid, weak, unskilled, and uncooperative.

Normative misanthropy: People have low or negative intrinsic value.

Although these concepts are logically distinct, they're closely connected empirically.  Positive and normative tribalism go hand in hand, as do positive and normative misanthropy.  My claim is that the tribal positive/normative package is a lesser evil than the misanthropic positive/normative package.

COMMENTS (16 to date)
Matt H writes:

Is optimism about the typical human potential really the correct attitude. Isn't that just Manichean naivety,some people are stupid, weak, unskilled and uncooperative, others are smart, strong, skilled, and helpful, most people fall in the middle. Isn't a more reasonable to say, I don't know you, I will act cautiously and perhaps build trust over time.

Daublin writes:

You should consider tribalism in the context of your theory of living life in a bubble. Your tribe-members are the people in the same bubble you are in.

More broadly, tribalism is a way that the human race learn things. We try things as individuals, and we try things as tribes. Some of those things work out well, and tribalism is one way to propagate those things.

It's a good thing from the perspective of the race. There are lots and lots of things that you can't simply logic through. You have to try them, see what happens, and most importantly learn from it.

Emily writes:

I don't think normative tribalism is best described as "People in our tribe are more intrinsically valuable than people in other tribes." It's not about intrinsic valuableness, it's about obligation. As in, "we are linked to people in our tribe by ties of mutual obligation in ways that we are not linked to people outside."

For instance, your family members aren't inherently more valuable than other people, but you still owe them something that you don't owe other people.

Those ties could be justified by ideas about your tribe members being inherently more valuable, but they certainly don't have to be. They might just be justified by the idea that stuff works better if we act like we're obligated more to our families (and our larger tribes) than other people, and if other people do the same. If we thought people in our tribe were more valuable, we'd think other people should be also acting on behalf of our tribe as well. But I don't generally see people who are proponents of closed borders (as an example) saying that other countries should have open borders to take needy members of our communities in. Instead, there's the understanding that other countries will also try to protect their members, and that that's a fine thing to do.

Jeff writes:

If you concede that tribalism has deep evolutionary roots, then doesn't open borders advocacy seem downright quixotic?

johnleemk writes:


No less quixotic than trying to end other kinds of bigotry. I don't think that's really feasible, but it's something to work towards to. At minimum, I do not think government should be enforcing laws that serve primarily or only to support bigotry.

To me, a big part of the open borders movement is really just abolishing arbitrary immigration restrictions. "Because they're foreign" in of itself should not be a reason for government to treat someone like a criminal, or worse, hostile combatant. Most immigration restrictions used to be based on the "Because they're the wrong race" but now since that's politically incorrect, in most countries today immigration restrictions are implicitly justified based on the "Because they're the wrong nationality" argument. It's no less quixotic to struggle against this than it was quixotic to struggle against government-enforced racism.

Most people try to lend new immigration restrictions today the veneer of non-bigoted/-tribalist respectability by asserting that things like economic policy merit these restrictions. But most of these claims -- especially those from the most strident restrictionists -- lack any empirical grounding. The claims about immigrants' impact on the public fisc, or their impact on native employment/wages are at best blown completely out of proportion (is the best solution to a .3% annual decline in wages for low-skilled natives to ban immigration, or is it to invest in other kinds of policies to assist these people?) and more often totally unfounded (e.g. the claims that Mexican immigrants to the US are virtually all terrorists or drug smugglers). It's the modern equivalent of claiming we need to deport all the Jews in order to reduce the rate of infanticide.

I'd be happy to support (or at least tolerate) immigration restrictions where clear and present dangers are obvious and backed by sound empirics. But otherwise, they're just government-enforced bigotry. It's no more reasonable for Americans to ban Mexican immigration because they're afraid Mexicans are drug traffickers than it was for white Americans to enslave black Americans because they were afraid that black Americans would murder and rape them otherwise.

Rutroh writes:

Ug, by your definition I am absolutely a misanthropist. Most people are idiots.

Eric Falkenstein writes:

Ever since hoplites used the phalanx to defeat the Persians, teams outcompete individuals. Coalitions are precarious, and have inefficiencies of scale at some point, but still, tribalism seems an optimal strategy in many scenarios.

Barbara Ehrenreich highlighted this when she tried to get a job w/o connections for one of her books (she's the muck-raker who wrote Nickel and Dimed). She's a smart woman, a best-selling author for the NYT, but she couldn't get a job. You need connections, and they form your in-group, your tribe. Once there, you can then tell yourself that it's all about objective merit.

NZ writes:
If we rid the world of misanthropy, we could largely forget about tribalism.
Ridding the world of misanthropy would be tough, simply because most people are indeed stupid, weak, unskilled, uncooperative, etc. Even the stupid/weak/unskilled/uncooperative people tend to notice this. In fact, it might require a basic amount of cleverness/resolve/deftness/cooperativeness to want to deny such a plain observation.

Anyway, tribalism certainly, and misanthropy likely, are traits ingrained in us by evolution. To rid ourselves of these would require the same two criteria, presented simultaneously, needed for any other evolutionary adaptation:

1) a new set of in-born traits
2) a change in the environment

If it is advantageous at that time to not be tribal or misanthropic, those mutants born without intrinsic predispositions to tribalism or misanthropy will fare better and reproduce more.

For people in 2013, it seems it is still advantageous to be born a tribal misanthrope.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

I will never be in the tribe of football fans. Yet I am very happy they exist, because their fandom pays a large part of my paycheck!

Finch writes:

Whoa! Why would we want to give up tribalism? It seems like the human tendency to spontaneously form teams (with obligations and rewards) whenever individuals have anything in common is a good thing and a significant advantage for the species.

You make it sound like it's all about hating the out-group (Red Sox fandom, for example), when it's often more about a mutually beneficial relationship with the in-group (nationhood, for example).

Philo writes:

“If you're optimistic about the potential of the typical human, you'll see out-groups as opportunities for mutually beneficial trade.” But how optimistic should one be? True, out-groups are potential trading partners, but they're also potential aggressors. The justification for tribalism is not so much one's views about outgroups' stupidity, weakness, and lack of skill; it is one's fear of their uncooperativeness (= aggression). How rational such a fear is, in any given case, will depend on the circumstances.

Brian writes:

"He doesn't belong to our tribe, but he can still be very useful for our tribe. Let's welcome him."

Now that you've had your epiphany, perhaps you'll start accepting what I've been saying all along. Instead of arguing for open borders based on the rights of not-yet-immigrants (i.e., trying to convert people from misanthropy), argue instead for the benefits that immigrants can bring to US (i.e., using tribalism to make your point). It's a much easier argument to make since you're working WITH people's biases and not against them, but (as you now acknowledge) it does little harm.

After all, tribalism exists becasue it provides a mechanism for social cooperation. In other words, it is a basic good. It turns bad when the opportunity costs of only acting within the tribe become too large. Argue for the benefits of immigration to the tribe and you're much more likely to make a convincing case.

The same argument can be extended to the individual case as well, which is why I said any good libertarian should insist on arguments that emphasize personal advantage, and not on doing things for the benefit of others.

NZ writes:

By the way, Bryan's post seems to be structured around seeing tribalism as "me & my tribe" while seeing outsiders as individuals.

But, more often than not, outsiders (to the US) are even more tribalist than we are!

The dynamics between tribe and individual outsider are different than between tribe and tribe.

Aaron Zierman writes:

Caplan - this is your best discussion of the topic of misanthropy thus far. I feel like I have much greater insight into your view than I had previously.

One problem: When we combine "Only my sort of people have rights" and "Foreigners can be useful," we might end up with slavery. OTOH, that's better than genocide.

Hansjörg Walther writes:

But how much of a problem is pure misanthropy anyway?

Try to name pure misanthropes who have made an impact (i.e. people who hate _all_ human beings). My list is rather short: Ted Kaczynski and perhaps a few other deep ecologists and people who have run amok.

To have an impact as someone who hates others you will have to cooperate and align with some other people. However, from that point on you have to make a distinction between the in-group who are okay, and the out-group you hate. And that's then just tribalism by another name. And it is no longer misanthropy if the word means to hate human beings per se.

And no, the examples you would like to give are not counterexamples: the Nazis were not misanthropic, but only hated certain groups of "them".

And population bombers are not a counterexample either. True, the founders of the ideology had a streak of misanthropy. However, what made the impact was a concern that too much population of "them" will have a negative impact on "us". To cast it as a general principle makes it more palatable to an egalitarian Zeitgeist. But all concrete measures were and are: let's reduce "them" (both on a world scale and in the Indian context).

You are right that tribalism in and of itself does not imply hatred for out-groups (not even that there are any because your tribe might be humankind), but then that's the distinction. Calling hatred for out-groups "misanthropy" is a strange use of the word.

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