Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Group Evolution and Practical Moralilty


by Bill Creasy

Human beings seem to have an innate urge to form groups. It is safe to assume that there has been evolutionary selection to be a member of a group, since groups provide safety and security (when they work right). Most people seem to be willing to form groups for all sorts of purposes.

There has been a long history of humans in groups, much of it unrecorded and prehistoric. The rules of group evolution allow a reevaluation of the rules of morality that seem to have arisen from that history. D.S. Wilson and E. O. Wilson summarized group evolution rules: "Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary." I will give some commentary with minimal references except my general impressions, which could be subject to revision. Morality takes constant reexamination for particular situations. But at times, it is worth taking some philosophical overview of what we should expect. I will try to raise some interesting question, even if there aren't simple answers.

The first big question is, Why do people form large groups? For most of human existence, people have primarily lived in small tribal groups of perhaps no more than 100 people. There is evidence that people are most comfortable with groups about this size. But with the rise of civilizations, cities of thousands to millions of people formed. People can feel loyal to a country with billions of people. Is there an upper limit on the size of a group that people can feel attached to?

There may not be a limit, because there was never a need for people to set one. Even when people lived in small groups, they may have found advantages in forming the largest possible temporary alliance to fight military confrontations with other groups. But the existence of large groups was limited by food, communication, and other resources. There might have been a way of thinking that "if big is good, bigger must be better." There may be some truth in that goal, but ultimately the problem was limited by how to feed the army (or other large group), and that problem automatically limited the size of the group regardless of what people wanted. The large groups probably broke up automatically under that pressure. The relatively recent formation of permanent large organizations was because technology has given a way to overcome the practical limits. That doesn't guarantee that large countries will last forever. In fact, history is full of large empires, countries, or governments that ended. It just doesn't occur to most people to wonder if the group is just too big.

If people tend to be comfortable in groups, they must have developed the best ways to behave in a group. We can classify the interactions between individuals and groups into these categories, again following the rules of group evolution: 

1. Prosocial actions: actions that keep the group going for the benefit of all the members. These actions benefit the actor in the sense that the actor benefits from group membership. But the actor may be at a disadvantage to someone else in the group who doesn't expend effort to do these kinds of actions. (Some researchers call these "altruistic" actions for that reason, but that word also has other connotations that can be misleading.) One way that these kinds of actions are encouraged is that the actions are regarded as virtuous. Anyone in a human society who gets a reputation for prosociality can benefit from the reputation of being virtuous. Other people often feel a need to reciprocate. But be careful! There's nothing that keeps you from being unfairly taken advantage of, if you are prosocial for the wrong people.

2. Individual actions that keep the individuals healthy and motivated. Any member of the group has to take care of self preservation, like eating, drinking, and sleeping. This is necessary for individuals and not specifically good or bad for the group, but of course the group will disperse if the members aren't able to get what they need to survive while they are in it.

3. Antisocial passivity: not doing a prosocial action, or stopping doing a prosocial action that had been done regularly. If too many people take this approach, the group will fall apart. It can happen for many reasons, from simple laziness, underestimating the value or importance of the action, or annoyance about unfairness because of other people who don't want to be bothered.

4. Antisocial action: actively trying to end or disperse a group, or doing actions that the group has forbidden. Morally, these actions are usually called immoral or illegal, or even evil. But the motives of the actor can be complex. (That's the reason that villains in stories are more interesting than heros.) For example, whistleblowers may think themselves as good employees or citizens, and just don't like a policy of the organization that they belong to, so they want to stop a policy without ending the group. Alternately, the actor may intentionally decide the group isn't good and act to end it. Or the actor may be trying to take advantage of prosocial people for personal benefit.

Why should anyone be prosocial and help a group? What is a group, and what is it for? A group is just a collection of people who may like each other, may work well together, or may depend on each other. But they won't be in the group forever, and they could decide to leave anytime. Some of the people may do better without the group, or in another group. 

But the reason groups exist is because they evolve and they get better. They are actual things or real creations. They have a real existence based on the people in them, but also based on the rules by which the people interact that are separate from particular individuals, that make up the "culture" of the group. The rules can be hard to grasp, because sometimes they are not verbal or they are unwritten habits or patterns. There are certain obligations and expectations that each person has for the way the others will act. These qualities make groups very fluid and hard to characterize. They are constantly changing. They are difficult to objectively quantify. But they are real.

Is opposition to a group really evil? There are times that lives depend on a group's existence and support. If so, then a threat to the group is a risk to life, and it is evil in the view of the members. But other groups can be trivial or only for entertainment. Criticizing a group of football fans should be treated as perhaps an insult, but not as an evil. So the use of the term "evil" with regard to groups depends on the function of the group and who relies on it. It depends on the group and who belongs to it.

As examples, we can consider the promises of Donald Trump during his campaign. He made several promises that serve as convenient examples, whether or not he meant them. (I won't use exact Trump quotes because the quotes would be too "fantastic" and "incredible," or "disastrous" and "SAD," so I'll only paraphrase.) 

One example is that he promised to decrease military support for traditional American allies like NATO unless they contribute more money. This action can be classified as passively antisocial. It ends an action by the U.S. that is prosocial for the groups of countries in the international alliances. The actions may put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage due to the expense of our defense spending. But it is good for the U.S. to be a member of the groups, and the actions give the U.S. the reputation of being virtuous. It is possible that the U.S. may have gotten its money's worth from increased trade and global security. Also, there is the question of whether Trump opposes NATO because he is doing what Russian president Putin wants him to.

Trump promised to control the border and deport illegal immigrants. The interpretation of this action depends on whether one considers the 10 million illegal immigrants as part of the U.S. Most of them work hard and pay taxes that they won't benefit from. But they are illegal. So eliminating them from the U.S. economy may improve it for citizens. It may or may not benefit the trade alliance under NAFTA. The immigrants won't like having to leave, and the effort to identify and deport 10 million people could create a police state. So, again, Trump made an argument that border control is a good thing, and it sounded good to some voters, but it is not clear that he is right.

Trump promised to cut taxes, mostly for wealthy people and corporations. This action has the appearance of helping Trump's social group of rich businessmen. He claims, as Republicans have claimed for decades with little evidence, that tax cuts will help the economy grow faster. 

Finally, Trump has financial conflicts of interest between his and his family's business interests and the country's interest. As a family man, Trump will be tempted to make deals to benefit his family group. Will he be able to put the country's interests above his own?

Trump's way of looking at groups is different from that of an experienced politician, as demonstrated by his campaign. He claims he will give the interests of the country first priority. But as a businessman, he has put his interest above anything else in the past. His life's work has been making money for himself. That doesn't automatically imply that he will try to dismantle larger cooperative organizations in favor of his family, his social class, or his ethnic group. But we should be very suspicious and skeptical that he might not change his old habits. 

So it will be the responsibility of the citizens of the country to make sure they aren't being excluded from Trump's preferred group. And if we happen to be included, we will have to stand up for those who are left out.

For additional articles about group evolution, see the Evolution Institute website:

This article was previously published in WASHline, the newsletter of the Washington Area Secular Humanists.

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