People can behave morally and promote morality for immoral reasons.
That is an odd claim, isn’t it?
After all, we generally think of morality as good, and we think of moral people as good people. So how could a person be moral for bad reasons? How would we even know if this was the case?
Furthermore, we might wonder why this issue even matters. For instance, are people’s reasons for acting morally that important? Does wondering about our motivations for promoting morality make a practical difference in the world?
These are important questions to answer, so let’s get down to business.
There are different ways that people promote morality for immoral reasons, but I would like to focus on one reason they might do so in the post. To do that, I will discuss the problem of tribalism.
Tribalism: The Payoff and the Problem
Humans have always formed small tribes and identity groups. In archaic times (and certainly still today sometimes), these tribes usually formed around families or geography. In the past, a person’s tribe was their extended family and near and distant blood relations, often marked off by geography. Historically tribes have also been marked by characteristics such as race, ethnicity, and religion.
Tribes make sense evolutionarily. They afford us protection, teamwork, and a better chance of securing goods we needed for survival.
Photo by Jakub Balon, courtesy of Unsplash
Tribes also serve a psychological function. They give us a sense of identity. We know who our people are. This can help us feel cared for and like we belong, and belonging is one of our greatest psychological needs.
Tribalism is not all bad. But it certainly has a dark side.
The Problem of Tribalism
While tribalism helps people meet various needs, it can also encourage various forms of superiority complexes, which lead people in certain tribes to believe that they (and the folks in their tribe) are better than people in other tribes.
In its more milder (but still negative) forms, this kind of tribalism separates us from others emotionally and intellectually and leads us to judge others, look down on them, and diminish their worth in our own minds in various ways.
As tribalism becomes stronger and more dangerous—I will call this aggressive tribalism–it causes people to become entrenched in their personal identities. People increasingly gain their sole sense of belonging, self, and stability from their tribe. Simultaneously, they become increasingly suspicious and disdainful of people outside the tribe and view them as inferior, dangerous, evil, dirty, corrupt, and a threat.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash, by Iulia Mihailov,
When our sense of identity comes primarily from our tribe, we stop viewing ourselves and other people as multi-dimensional beings. We no longer recognize that people belong to many different groups and are, therefore, multi-faceted. Instead, we view ourselves and others solely in terms of the tribe we and they belong to. This makes our conception of people one-dimensional.
When tribalism escalates to this level, people often retreat from others different from them to be more around people in their own tribe. Conversely, they also often act aggressively (physically or psychologically) towards people from other tribes in various ways. For example, we see expressions of tribalism in middle and high school when students divide themselves into various cliques. Kids in cliques with more prestige (read: “better” tribes) bully kids from other cliques with lower prestige.
Aggressive tribalism has also occurred throughout history at regular intervals. Most historical human rights violations like holocausts and genocides can be read as expressions of aggressive tribalism.
Tribalism and Violence in India—Amartya Sen
In his book Identity and Violence, economist and Harvard professor, Amartya Sen, writes of an instance of tribalism in his native India. When Sen was eleven, Indian-Muslim tensions were high in India because of the recent partitioning of part of India into Pakistan by the British government
One day a Muslim day-laborer, Kader Mia, whose family was suffering severe hunger because of food shortages, came to Sen’s neighborhood (which was predominantly Hindu) looking for food. The Muslim man was attacked and stabbed. Eleven year old Sen held the bleeding man on his lap, waiting for help. Mia later died because of his wounds.
This is Amartya Sen’s book identity and Violence. I’m reading it right now. It’s so good. You might like reading it, too.
Understandably, this experience profoundly impacted Sen. He writes in Identity and Violence, “The insistence, if only implicitly, on a choiceless singularity of human identity not only diminishes us all, it also makes the world much more flammable. . .Our shared humanity gets savagely challenged when our differences are narrowed into one devised system of uniquely powerful categorizations.”
While Sen does not use the word tribalism in this quote, he describes the mechanism of tribalism whereby people’s multifaceted identity is reduced to a system of one-dimensional categories, as well as the violence that often ensues from such a process.
Amartya Sen, Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Tribalism induces a type of intellectual blindness to all the things that we and people in other “tribes” have in common. Instead, all we see is that these other people are from a different tribe and (therefore) are our enemy.
And we increasingly believe, whether we know it or not, that they are not owed the same respect that people from our tribe are owed.
And this brings us back to the subject of morality.
Morality and Tribalism
Most people in contemporary society understand that it is wrong to create “us” and “them” groups based on people’s race or ethnicity. These types of thinking patterns are what led us to slavery and apartheid historically, and most of us understand these systems were unjust and immoral.
But since we have such strong needs for care and belonging, we still have a strong psychological pull towards tribalism. So, since we know in contemporary society that tribalism based on race or ethnicity is wrong, and since tribalism itself is somewhat suspect, we have developed new and more legitimate-seeming ways to separate ourselves into tribes.
One of the ways we do this is by forming tribes around promoting certain moral values.
Of course, morality itself is not the problem. Moral and ethical systems are incredibly important because they provide us principles and virtues to live by. In doing so, they help us aim at a higher good for both our self and others. Higher goods are goals like love, respect, dignity, compassion, beauty, and truth. These higher goals help us live in a way that fully actualizes all our human capacities. (You can read more about moral and ethical systems here.)
And, in fact, it is important that everyone define a clear ethical and moral system and try to live by it. Otherwise, people live solely by passion, impulse, emotion, instinct, peer pressure, or custom. While none of these influences are necessarily bad, they can easily become bad when not guided by higher principles.
Photo by Ahmad Odeh, courtesy of Unsplash
When Morality Becomes Tribalistic
So, if morality is such a good thing, how does it become tribalistic? One way to understand this is to consider that there are stages of moral development. People often think of morality has a black and white issue—either a person is moral or not.
This is not so. Rather, being a fully moral person is a process of learning good principles to live by and then learning the best way to apply them to everyday situations. Being fully moral also entails that we understand the moral principles we adopt; adopt them for the right reasons; and that we pursue morality both for our sake and the sake of others. Otherwise morality would be a purely egocentric or selfish pursuit, which (of course) is not a fully moral way to live.
Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg identifies six stages of moral development, and this might seem like an unnecessary tangent, but stay with me. It relates to tribalism and morality. I promise.
Stage 1: Punishment/Obedience Orientation: At this stage of moral development, people focus on being good to avoid punishment. They follow rules but do so not because they value morality for its own sake but because they don’t want to suffer painful consequences.
Stage 2: Instrumental Purpose Orientation: At this stage of moral development, people are still focused on consequences, but they focus on reward instead of punishment. They do the moral thing solely for the rewards and benefits it brings them, rather than for the sake of morality itself.
Stage 3: Good Boy/Nice Girl Orientation: At this stage, people begin to think about morality and their connection to others. In this stage, people behave morally because they want to be thought well of by other people. It is a stage of moral development concerned primarily with reputation.
Stage 4: Law and Order Orientation: At this stage, people begin to consider morality from the standpoint of society and everyone in it. People realize that morality helps to maintain a just and ordered society in which people can be safe and pursue their interests.
Photo by Wesley Tingey, Courtesy of Unsplash
Stage 5: Social Contract Orientation: In this stage, people begin to realize that there is a higher purpose to morality. It is to help people achieve their full capacities, such as all the possible virtues and goodness that can be expressed by people. People at this stage realize that society (and rules) are for the sake of people, rather than the other way around.
Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principal Orientation: In this stage, people value morality for its own sake. They behave morally because they recognize that respect and love (and the other good things that motivate rules and principles) are beautiful in themselves. They love goodness and seek to embody it in all areas of life. They also seek to create a society that embodies these ideals so that every human being can flourish.
(You can read more about Kohlberg’s theory of moral development here.)
How Does This Relate to Tribalism?
If you look back at stages 1-3 you may recognize that these stages of moral development encourage tribalism. If you are especially concerned with punishment, reward, and reputation, you are going to construct a clear system of morality (or buy into a clear system of morality) that punishes the bad guys, rewards the good guys, and clearly demarcates those following the system and those who are not.
And voila! You have a new tribe—the good people and the bad people. The moral and immoral people. The people with the right values and the people with the wrong ones.
And the more you become invested in punishing, rewarding, and clearly marking the good and bad people, the more wrapped up you become in looking like you are in the right tribe and supporting people who look like they are in your tribe. In addition, the more concerned you become with vilifying people from other tribes and wresting power away from them.
The more you do this, the more your morality devolves, and the more you start supporting immoral practices and people in the name of supporting your tribe. This negatively affects your friendships, your family relationships, your politics, and your religious practice.
For example, if you turn a blind eye to the actions of someone in your friend group, family, religion, or political group, when you would rail at these same actions done by someone in another group, that likely means that you are practicing tribalism instead of morality.
Is it Possible to Escape our Tribalistic Tendencies?
Of course, I am writing this post because I am really concerned about tribalistic tendencies I see in contemporary culture. To that end, I want to make several suggestions for how you and I can avoid aggressive tribalism, especially in regards to our morality.
One: Recognize that no one is immune to tendencies of aggressive tribalism. Not me. Not you. Regularly take time to reflect on your actions and consider whether you are creating and reinforcing tribal distinctions in the way you discuss and practice your moral values. Be especially aware that tribalism is not going to seem like tribalism to you. You and I make up convincing excuses for why we engage in tribalistic behavior.
Two: Remember that being a moral person is not ultimately about punishment, rewards, or reputation. Being a moral person is ultimately about respecting ourselves and others and creating a loving society that helps everyone flourish—not just people like us. So, if you are more concerned about who is moral and immoral than you are about loving and respecting people, please realize that you may be using morality to create tribes.
Most people have this tendency at one point or another, but if left unchecked, it will undermine your ability to be moral, as well as your ability to be loving and respectful to other people. Aggressive tribalism promotes egocentrism and enmity, rather than connection and care, which are the foundations of morality.
Three: Recognize that people have multiple identities. People are not just Christian, non-Christian, Republican, Democrat, conservative, or liberal. People are also mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, teachers, friends, librarians, post office and construction workers, grandmas and grandpas, painters, readers, gardeners, pet owners, cooks, and lovers.
The next time you find yourself reducing people to a single identity like Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative, force yourself to consider three other identities this person possesses. This will remind you that you are looking at a person like you, rather than a member from another tribe.
Photo by Tom Barrett, Courtesy of Unsplash
Four: Recognize when you have morality-based feelings of superiority and check them. You and I are capable of doing both horrible things and noble things (everyone is). We are more likely to do the latter and avoid the former when we consistently practice self-reflection, love, respect, kindness, and compassion.
Feelings of superiority prevent us from practicing these virtues.
Almost everyone feels like they are better than other people in some way at some point. It is a human phenomenon. But it is important to recognize the tendency towards feelings of superiority in yourself, and to replace them with the virtues I have mentioned above. You can read more how to do this here, here, and here.
Five: Seek out people from other tribes. The best thing you can do to decrease tendencies towards tribalism is to seek out people from other tribes. You can do this by reading books or watching movies written by or featuring people from other tribes. Or you can frequent places where you are likely to form relationships with them. And if you feel really uncomfortable spending time around other people who are different from you, especially those with different religions, politics, or moral standards, please read number three again.
At the end of Identity and Violence, Sen writes, “As an eleven year old boy, I could not do much for Kader Mia as he lay bleeding with his head on my lap. But I can imagine another universe, not beyond our reach, in which he and I can jointly affirm our many common identities.”
One of the best ways we affirm our common identities is to recognize that we are all human beings trying to reach our full human potential. There are many ways we can better enable ourselves to reach our full human potential, but one of the primary ways we do it is by grounding our moral values in love and respect for other people. We do this practically by refusing to place people outside the tribe of “people who deserve to be treated with dignity” and by making the respectful treatment of others the foundation of our moral, religious, and political lives.
If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it on social media.
You might also enjoy this post which is a post I wrote about how people behave immorally while protesting abortion. I did not use the term tribalism in this post, but I wrote it because I am concerned about the way in which some people weaponize the abortion debate, which is one way people promote morality in tribalistic ways.
 Amartya Sen. Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. W.W Norton Company, Inc. 1986. (See excerpt on book jacket.)
 Ibid, pg. 17
 If you really care about morality, you will hold immoral or amoral people in your own groups accountable. If you care primarily about your tribe, you will make excuses for the bad behavior of people in your tribe.
 One of the most interesting things to me about Jesus’ life in the New Testament is how he continually called out the tribalistic culture of the pharisees and even his own disciples and called people to a life of love.
 Amartya Sen. Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. W.W Norton Company, Inc. 1986., pg. 186