Thursday, April 8, 2010


I have been scrolling back through some of my posts over the last while and found some interesting trends.  One of the things that has been coming up over and over is the tendency for people to consider some others as part of their group and some not and to justify treating those not in their 'tribe' very badly.

For example, in This Old Post I talked about an old friend of mine and his feelings on the poor in the USA.  Certainly not everyone in the USA feels like the poor are just lazy and stupid but the idea that the poor are a group that should be marginalized is a widespread one.  Middle and upper class people often find it comforting to demonize the poor because it allows them to treat the poor terribly and justify it under the flag of 'they wouldn't be poor if they weren't lazy'.

Of course this isn't unique to the rich because the poor like to do the same thing.  Take Aladdin, Robin Hood or many other heroes in stories who rely on thievery to get ahead.  These stories are designed to show the poor as being good people and the rich as evil to justify amoral behaviour against them.  These heroes steal, injure, destroy and cause mayhem all in the name of sticking it to those in power.

The same effects appear again when we consider patriotism.  People again take it upon themselves to set a group of people different from themselves aside and justify treating them badly based on that division.  They also make gross generalizations about those living in other countries and take it for granted that those people deserve less because of these made up moral failings.

Note that I don't suggest that we all subscribe to a philosophy of treating *all* people the same.  I am going to place a much higher priority on my wife's well being than anyone else's.  However, the reason these agreements are so useful is that I can actually deliver much greater value to my wife than I can to someone else for the same effort.  I know what she needs, I am able to offer comfort and assistance more easily and effectively than anyone else and we both know that we are helping each other.  I can't effectively help a random person in the same way because I don't know their situation or history and don't have an intimate connection.  Friends helping each other out is very useful because we can all police our unstated mutual assistance agreements and make sure no one is being put out and no one is taking more than their fair share.  I cannot have such a benefit with random individuals I do not know so there is no benefit in me assisting one over the other.

Helping those we know preferentially dramatically increases our ability to deliver happiness for the effort involved.  Dividing everyone into groups based on arbitrary criteria and helping those in our group at the expense of other groups is not.  Helping Iolo Longstaff move is good because I can be more useful to him than to a random person.  Helping a white/Canadian/male over someone else just creates divisions and unhappiness.  Though I have no solution for the fact that our brains naturally divide people into 'my tribe' and 'not my tribe' we can and should push beyond those tendencies to create a better society for all.

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