The Tribal Ethic

One of my students recently sent me a link to a short series of video lectures by Stephen Pressfield (author of Gates of Fire, The Virtues of War, The Afghan Campaign) in which he talks about tribalism and tribal behavior. In his video lectures (available here) Pressfield claims that ‘tribalism,’ not Islam is our enemy in the Global War on Terror. He also notes that tribalism, like so much else, has good (constructive) sides, but can have bad (destructive and evil) sides, as well. The evil sides he sees manifest in our enemies in the current war.

This caused me to reflect on the ethical implications of tribalism. We see manifestations of ‘tribalism’ in many facets of our lives in modern society. What I call the ‘tribal ethic’ demands a greater moral obligation to those within the tribe than to those outside the tribe. We belong to our ‘tribe,’ by virtue of a shared identity which entails a series of implicit and explicit values, commitments and obligations that we don’t share with those outside our tribe. One of the values that tribal ethics holds highest, is loyalty to the tribe, its members and its values.

Anthropologists argue that this tribal ethic is built into our DNA. It begins with a greater sense of loyalty to and responsibility for those closest to us and with whom we identify – our family, friends, community, religion, school, culture, nation – than to those with whom we do not share these ties. This is natural, and most would argue there is much that is ‘good,’ in feeling a greater sense of moral obligation to our children, our family, our friends, country and culture, than to those not in our family or culture.

We all want to belong to a strong tribe, and be part of a larger family that we can count on, who will stand with us in good times and bad, and will ‘have our back’ against those not of our tribe who may seek to do us harm. Within our tribe, it is ‘all for one, and one for all,’ (Dumas in The Three Musketeers) ‘united we stand, divided we fall,’ (attributed to many, to include Benjamin Franklin and Lincoln) ‘we few, we happy few, we band of brothers’ (Shakespeare Henry V). Being part of a strong and successful ‘tribe’ lessens our sense of vulnerability and isolation, instills in us a sense of power and community, and gives meaning to our lives. As we look back on our lives, frequently the happiest times were when we felt that we were a fully enfranchised member of a strong and successful tribe, in which others would do anything for us, and we for them. Is that not an ideal?

Indeed it is, but tribalism can clearly have a dark side. While such a strong tribal affiliation can be fulfilling and give meaning to our lives, a less appealing side of the tribal ethic is often most evident to those excluded from its benefits. How porous is that line between those inside and outside the tribe? And how does the tribe regard and treat those outside its boundaries? Tribalism, taken to an extreme, can justify intolerance and bigotry, human rights abuses, racism, and even genocide. People who take their tribal affiliations overly seriously, may truly believe that by virtue of being a member of their ‘tribe,’ they are in fact intrinsically superior – stronger, smarter, better, more entitled than those not in the tribe. Some truly believe that their tribe has entitlements that diminish, disrespect or even dehumanize those not in the tribe. The concepts that “All men are created equal” or “We are all God’s children” are exchanged for “We’re number one” or “We’re the best.”

People are competitive, and so are tribes. Tribes can be very aggressive pursuing and defending their interests. Wars are essentially tribal affairs. Business ethics, military ethics, rules of sportsmanship and other branches of ethics are largely about establishing rules and boundaries to help manage this human impulse toward tribal behavior.

So, how can this tribal instinct manifest itself so positively, in the form of taking care of our own, and so negatively, in the form of arrogance, intolerance and aggressive bigotry? The key issue is how we regard and treat those outside of our own ‘tribal’ group. Arrogant, bigoted, and intolerant behavior can result when those outside the tribe are regarded as very different and somehow less than those inside the tribe. Intolerance of outsiders can even extend to those inside the tribe who may question tribal values, or accept behaviors and values from outside tribal traditions. We see this most often when the tribe feels threatened, or is insecure in its values and identity. The wagons get circled, and the world becomes divided into us, and them.

The ideal of a strong tribal ethic, however, is when members of the tribe readily extend their support and loyalty to outsiders, and when the barrier between those inside the tribe and those outside is porous and easily bridged. This ethical ideal is for each of us to seek to treat more than just a few people like we treat the people we love most – to expand our tribal circle to include more and different groups of people, and to treat all human beings with dignity and respect. There certainly are practical barriers to this ideal, but the tribal ethic at its best is something that we can aspire to extend beyond our comfort zone, to people of different cultures and tribal affiliations.

The circle encompassing all other tribal circles is the family of man. The saints and other spiritual and moral leaders have essentially let tribal barriers and affiliations dissolve, except to the family of man. A saint treats everyone as a brother or sister, as a comrade-in-arms, as a fellow human being. This level of compassion and love is indeed extra-ordinary and religions hold up these spiritual heroes for the rest of us to strive to emulate. Recognizing that we all can’t be saints, we can at least be aware of our instinctual tribal ethic, seek to maximize its positive manifestations, and beware of our tendency to use tribal affiliations to separate us from people with whom we may have more in common with than we realize.

2 thoughts on “The Tribal Ethic

  1. The thing frequently overlooked is our limited capacity to care about others. We’d like to believe we have an unlimited capacity but caring takes mental energy. Anyone who’s ever had a friend in trouble knows it can be mentally draining. Any time we really empathize with another it takes a toll.The upper limit on our capacity to care is unknown but Dr Robin Dunbar has estimated our cognitive limit on friendship around 150 friends. (This is known as Dunbar’s Number.) I would postulate our ability to deeply care for others, as individuals, is not much larger than this. After all, how can you care for someone you don’t consider your friend?I’m talking about caring here as an emotional connection strong enough for us to make a substantial personal sacrifice.Obviously tribes can be larger than this, in some cases much larger, but my point is simply that we have a limit to our ability to care and because of this limit we must economize. That is to say, we must make choices as to who we will care (and sacrifice) for and who we will not.This is logical, reasonable and necessary. It has nothing to do whatever with our desire to care for others just as our desire to make everyone healthy does not imbue us with the capacity to make it happen.I believe the key to violence is not the existence of tribes, nor their size or religious makeup, but, as you point out, the way we treat those outside our tribe. The more severe the emotional dropoff between those within and those outside our tribe, the more animosity, hostility and brutality will exist.


  2. Thanks Buck – I struggled with this since the topic is so big – and opens the door to the anthropology and sociology of group behavior and even mob mentality. But I do think that Pressfield's point has legs, and I wanted to give it some thought about how it might apply in a larger context. I often think that the USMC embodies some of the best and the worst of tribal ethic, and the variable seems to be in whether the individual the individual literally believes the mythology of the tribe, or matures into understanding the mythology as just that – mythology that serves the positive values of the tribe. Dunbar's number is good and the insights you bring up about the limits of our caring are also very good. Thanks Hope to see you next week in Annapolis. Bob


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