Saturday, April 07, 2012

Much work to be done

E.O. Wilson ends his essay on tribalism this way:
Civilization appears to be the ultimate redeeming product of competition between groups. Because of it, we struggle on behalf of good and against evil, and reward generosity, compassion, and altruism while punishing or downplaying selfishness. But if group conflict created the best in us, it also created the deadliest. As humans, this is our greatest, and worst, genetic inheritance.
Jonathan Haidt has a similar message in his important book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt notes that "groupishness" and "groupish righteousness" are, not only facts of life, but central to our morality, which "binds and blinds".

"Fair" is a famously difficult and slippery idea.  But "fairness" (and "unfairness") assertions are everywhere, widely embraced as an indispensible rhetorical device in politics. 

But there is an example of unfair which is clear. It is the simple fact that the accident of birth capriciously places all of us in vastly dissimilar circumstances.  Various international contrasts offer the most serious examples.  What can we possibly do about that?  I agree with those who suggest that open borders would be the most powerful policy response.  But that requires a cosmopolitan posture that has to overcome our tendency to "groupishness".  But Haidt cites Robert Putnam's finding that immigration and ethnic diversity reduce social capital.

"So the next time you find yourself seated beside someone from a different [moral] matrix ... Don't just jump right in.  Don't bring up morality until you've found a few points of commonality or in some way established a bit of trust.  And when you do bring up issues of morality, try to start with some praise, or with a sincere expression of interest.  We're all stuck here for a while, so let's try to work it out." (p. 318).

There is much work to be done.