Bryan Caplan  

Desert versus Identity

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When moderns read the Old Testament, they're often horrified by the gruesome collective punishments.  Mankind falls into wickedness, so God sends a flood to drown every man, women, and child on earth?*  Before the book is over, though, the prophets start singing a radically different tune:
[T]he son will not be made responsible for the evil-doing of the father, or the father for the evil-doing of the son; the righteousness of the upright will be on himself, and the evil-doing of the evil-doer on himself.
                                             -Ezekiel 18:20
You can't judge a person for the actions of his father, sisters, neighbors, or people who share his hair color.  Instead, you must judge him for what he has personally done.  What moral truth could be more self-evident? 

Yet in practice, human beings' adherence to this moral truth remains iffy.  The main reason is clear: group identity.  When people judge members of their own groups, they accept an endless list of lame excuses.  When people judge members of other groups, they accept an endless list of ludicrous condemnations.

War crimes are a stark example.  Suppose a soldier from group X plainly murdered ten innocent civilians from group Y.  What do the people of X say?  "It was war."  "He just lost his buddy a month earlier."  "If you've never been in that situation, you can't judge."  "He was just following orders."  "His officer should have seen it coming." 

This absurd leniency reverses, of course, when members of group X judge some enemy Y's during wartime.  Although the individual Y's plainly never hurt a fly, they deserve to die!  "They started the war; we're just finishing it."  "They leave us no choice."  "They would have done far worse to us."  "What about the innocent X's the Y's killed?"  Never mind if the specific Y's on the chopping block are powerless peons, hapless conscripts, or defenseless children.  They brought their deaths on themselves by belonging to a team they are metaphysically unable to quit.
 
We see the same farce when people decide whether someone deserves his poverty.  If the pauper belongs to group X, members of group X loathe to blame him.  The pauper is routinely drunk?  Well, that's an understandable response to an unjust society, bad upbringing, or despair.  The pauper spends half his money on cable?  Well, in our society cable's a necessity.  He got fired because he could barely read or add?  Our public schools failed him - even if his teachers reliably showed up and did their jobs - and the student was smoking in the boys' room.

If the pauper belongs to an out-group, in contrast, members of group X will fault him for the most absurd reasons.  The best job he can get pays $1 a day?  He should have gotten himself a better education.  The government's teachers rarely even show up to class?  That's what you get when you elect a government with crummy economic policies.  His government is a dictatorship?  That's what happens when you forget that vigilance is liberty's eternal price.  What about the obvious fact that all of these problems - unlike alcohol and cable consumption - are largely or entirely outside the control of one impoverished individual?  Blank-out.

Human beings evolved in small bands.  Group identity - and group identity's tendency to corrupt our sense of justice -  is in our DNA.  Once you learn this harsh truth, though, you can, should, and must compensate for your immoral urges.  Review your judgments of out-group members for draconian harshness.  Review your judgments of in-group members - yourself included - for maudlin absolution.  You won't make a lot of friends, but you will be a better person.

* Noah's family excepted, of course.



COMMENTS (13 to date)
Maniel writes:

Timely: "On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, clearing the way for the U.S. military to relocate and intern Japanese-Americans during World War II." [Today in history]

Pajser writes:

Bryan Caplan: "What about the obvious fact that all of these problems (dictatorship, poor education ...) unlike alcohol and cable consumption - are largely or entirely outside the control of one impoverished individual?"

I'm pleasantly surprised that libertarians see the problem. You shouldn't stop short of redistribution on this place.

Mike W writes:

"You won't make a lot of friends, but you will be a better person."

What's the point in being a better person if you are alone?

Ron Crossland writes:

In a very general sense, Joshua Green approaches this in-group/out-group thinking problem along the same lines of evolutionary argument. He suggests a process similar to the guidelines Caplan suggests as a way to resolve or surmount this inherent bias.

To achieve this level of thinking, however, I suggest is difficult. Also, good practitioners have difficulty gaining adherents due to the fact that the thinking itself is nonpartisan. In fact, I would suggest, that if such a person were in a position of significant political power, their proposals and efforts might have more chance of long term success, if given the time to operate, and they as individuals would be among the least admired during their lifetimes.

RPLong writes:

[Comment removed for clarifications. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Eric Falkenstein writes:

I've come around to the idea that there's not one instinct in humans, but two, and the latter augments traditional utility function with a sense of what's good for the long-run success of the tribe, and this is often called instinctual morality. Most don't think stealing or murder is good even if no one was watching, because a tribe where this was common would probably not be as strong as the neighboring tribe. Selection occurs at the individual and tribal level. The downside is that for every ingroup there's an outgroup.

Mike W writes:

"...you can, should, and must compensate for your immoral urges."

"Immoral" seems a bit harsh...maybe just self-serving? And anyway, the behavior is "in our DNA", can we really just "compensate" (especially if we don't live in a bubble)?

NZ writes:
Human beings evolved in small bands. Group identity - and group identity's tendency to corrupt our sense of justice - is in our DNA. Once you learn this harsh truth, though, you can, should, and must compensate for your immoral urges.
The above statement contains the assumption that evolution was something we finished doing long ago.

In essence, evolution is what happens when an environmental change coincides with the shuffling of characteristics. What remains (i.e. an "evolutionary success") is what allows one to survive long enough to instill those characteristics in the next generation. So, why should we compensate against evolutionary success?

Kevin V writes:

For what it's worth, Bryan, not everyone agrees that Noah's flood was global.

MingoV writes:
When people judge members of other groups, they accept an endless list of ludicrous condemnations.
People are fallible, ignorant, and, when wronged, vengeful. They kill groups. However, an omniscient, omnipotent god should be able to separate the sheep from the wolves and kill only the latter. The god of the Old Testament takes vengeful human killings and increases them by orders of magnitude.

That same slaughtering god doesn't say that people deserve their poverty, he says that poverty is a goal and that the wealthy will be punished. Sounds like a left-wing solution for destroying income inequality.

Scott Scheule writes:

I'm skeptical of Bryan's exegesis. Was the flood a collective punishment, i.e., were innocent individuals killed for collective guilt?

Or was every one of those individuals, save the Noachian bunch, guilty?

"Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually."

Every intent? Sounds like they all had it coming. Indeed, according to God (he should know), "all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth."

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

Eric Falkenstein is correct. There is a natural arrangement for humans that looks for long-term survival and flourishing of the group. And this arrangement is called laws and customs and stories of the group.


This arrangement naturally gives rise to the notion of in-group and out-group. This is called the political nature of man. And the arrangement itself develops into the State, which is the entity that is charged with long-term survival and flourishing of the human group which is the nation.

roystgnr writes:

A clear division of enemies into legitimate and illegitimate targets might work, so long as you also have a clearly-defined easily-avoided division of war activities into "legal war" and "perfidy", along with a way to punish perfidy. Note that "punishment" implies "worse consequences than would have otherwise occurred"; i.e. not only do you have to hurt the perfidious worse than they were already expecting as legitimate targets of war, but you have to have enough of a margin to counter the effectiveness of perfidy to avoid punishment.

If you have the clear definition of illegitimate targets but you lack the rest, then you might as well outright announce "the best way to make war against us is to use innocents as hostages, human shields, and camouflage", and this may not be an improvement for the innocents.

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