Universal versus Tribal Psychology | psychology today

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Are we obligated to treat all human beings with the same respect, fairness and sympathy, or do we owe loyalty and support primarily to our group members, family and those with whom we have established relationships on a friendly and reciprocal basis? based? A tension within world religions, including Christianity and Buddhism, and within Western secular morality since the Enlightenment, leans in the first direction and has been referred to as “moral universalism” by some psychologists and scientists. social. The moral systems that people acquire from their families, communities, ethnic groups, and nations generally lean the other way and have been referred to as tribal, communal, clan, or family morality. Difference has become a key lens through which to view some of the most serious tests of our time, including the current war in Ukraine and the crisis of democracy in the United States and other countries.

Universal versus relational morality

In his 2020 book, The weirdest people in the worldanthropologist Joseph Henrich offers a compelling discussion of the difference between the two mindsets, using several striking examples.

First, it discusses decision experiments designed to identify differences in the value placed on truth in different cultures. A subject arrives in the lab room, receives a cup containing a standard six-sided die, and is asked to enter a cubicle or private booth, roll the die once, and write on a sheet of paper the number that appears . . The experimenter will pay her a sum of money proportional to the number unless it is a six, in which case she will not receive any money.

No one observes the die roll, so the experimenter cannot distinguish between a truthful report and a false report, and the subject has no incentive to report honestly unless he values ​​truthfulness as a good in itself or that he considers it useful to the person. experimenter. The experimenter can only study behavior at the level of the population, not the individual.

In cultures where a strong obligation of truthfulness extends even to strangers, each number is reported with roughly the same frequency. In those where these obligations are absent or weak, there are significantly higher proportions of fives and almost no ratio of sixes. (Slight feelings of guilt sometimes lead to higher odds of throwing a four, as it pays more money than most options but still allows the reporter to feel some success in resisting the temptation.)

The results vary considerably depending on the country and population in which the experiment is carried out: from almost equal ratios of each number in some Scandinavian countries, Austria and the United Kingdom to ratios strongly skewed towards five in Morocco, Tanzania, in Vietnam and Georgia. Payouts are set at a similar share of local revenue at each site to reduce the possibility of larger monetary rewards from lying leading to differences.

Other examples of variation in universal morality versus relationship-based morality used for illustration include the frequency with which members of UN diplomatic missions from different countries have taken advantage of exemption from fines. New York City parking lot over the years the city has extended this privilege to all diplomats, and the proportion of affirmative responses to a hypothetical question about whether it is one’s duty to lie when a friend or relative asks him to do so – for example, if one had been his passenger when his driving caused the injury or death of another.

Universalist morality is relatively rare

Henrich argues that the sense of equal moral obligation to strangers is a particular result of centuries of progressive social change in Western Europe, modifies his research by going back to Church rules prohibiting marriage between cousins ​​and other relatives, including in-laws.

What interests me here are not the specifics of this evolutionary process, but the compelling evidence that a strongly universalistic morality is a relatively rare and new development for human society, that it constituted an important part of the under -structure of honesty and trust that has facilitated modern economic growth. , and that he has also contributed to promoting the notions of equal rights, political democracy and integrity in the public service. These, in turn, helped give rise to the liberal modern societies that flourished in the decades between the end of World War II and the first decade of the 21st century, societies associated with values ​​that seemed to be on the rise. in the world at the time.

Economists seem to have only recently noticed the diversity of moral systems along the community versus universal dimension, although this overlaps to some extent with the literature on trust and social capital and on collectivist versus individualist norms, which began to appear in the late 1980s and 1990s. Economist Guido Tabellini began to generalize the difference between family-based moral systems and universal moral systems, following earlier research by sociologists and political scientists on differences in trust and value systems between northern and southern Italy. He extended the analysis to subnational regions in other European countries and demonstrated correlations with integrity in government and business in work summarized in a presidential address to the European Economic Association in 2008. Several economists, including Benjamin Enke, Jonathan Schulz, and Devesh Rustagi, also contributed studies closely related to the themes of Henrich’s book and are frequently quoted therein.

The question of the moment may not be whether we now have a perfect explanation for the emergence of moral universalism as an important contributor to late 20th century modernity, but rather whether we have begun to identify the phenomenon a little too late to keep it rare flower alive. Events of recent years suggest that the pervasiveness of universal moral values ​​may not have been as deep as it seemed.

In the mid to late 20th century, once the fascism of Nazi Germany and its allies was defeated on the battlefield, universalist values ​​seemed to be a shared element of the discourse of the dominant political parties in Western countries. It has been embraced by global organizations (e.g. the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights), the Catholic Papacy, many Protestant churches, secular humanists, mainstream news outlets, and the rhetoric of communist and socialist parties. But parochial, national, religious and ethnic identities have remained alive and well in most parts of the world, and since the end of the Cold War have spawned conflict in almost every region – the current struggle in Ukraine being framed by many people (see Klein) as a battle for “liberal” values ​​that largely overlap with those of universalism.

The struggle between universal and tribal or identity values ​​now also threatens civil discourse and democracy in the United States. Enke (2020) confirms that the gap between Republican and Democratic politicians on the use of “community” (us/them) language versus “universalist” language widened significantly when candidate Donald Trump captured the nomination of his party by veering sharply into the language of emphasizing self-interest, self-defense rights and a return to a white, Christian national identity. The more social survey responses in a constituency indicated the strength of communal values ​​versus universalist values, the higher Trump’s vote share and the greater the difference between Obama v. McCain and Obama v. Romney vote margins. in 2008 and 2012, and the Trump vs. Clinton voting margin in 2016.

Vladimir Putin’s behavior in sending his army to reduce civilian apartment buildings to rubble in the name of the perceived national interest may seem to be explained by the simple desire to control territory and resources, and therefore to be the business of ordinary economics and politics, without the need for explanation in terms of the psychology of moral systems. But Henrich’s book and related works mentioned here argue for a connection between moral value systems and psychology, and it’s no exaggeration to see the bullying nationalisms he and other emerging authoritarians around the world promote. as proof that the universalism that propelled the West to its special position in the world for the past decades remains a fragile minority perspective in danger of extinction if not vigorously defended.

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