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Altruism And Tribalism


GeorgeW
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I heard an interesting (at least to me) comment by a pundit following the Republican convention about Mitt Romney. He said something to the effect that Romney is a generous person with people he knows, but is indifferent to needs of millions of people he doesn’t know. The purpose of this thread is not to critique Romney as such, but to examine this particular idea – generosity within a close group with indifference to the needs of strangers.

 

I haven’t sorted how what I think about this. But, my initial thought is that this is the interaction of altruism and tribalism. Clearly, altruism is an evolutionary development in humans which allows us exist as social animals in groups larger than an extended family. On the other hand, we also have tribal instincts as well that cause us to distinguish between 'us' (friendlies) and 'them' (potential enemies). The result may be a deeper concern for our family and friends and much less for strangers and even less for adversaries and enemies.

 

In his book, The Evolution of God, Robert Wright writes quite a bit about the development of universal love. In fact, he proposes that while Jesus promoted love among the Jews, it was Paul who expanded it to all humans.

 

I have noticed this with conservative acquaintances who are basically caring people, but caring about those close to them. It seems to me that the more liberal one becomes, the wider the circle of concern becomes. Maybe this is one of the distinguishing features of conservatives and liberals (politically, socially and religiously).

 

I would be interested in what other think about the distinction, if any, between concern for those close to us and concern for complete strangers.

 

George

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George, I have noticed this trend.

 

I volunteer for a few charity groups around town, and notice that to a person, the volunteers and organizers are all of a liberal political leaning. I've yet to come across a conservative Republican in a soup kitchen (except conservative politicians looking for a photo op during election season).

 

However, when I was younger, my father took me to a store-front "shelter" for poor folks in the city sponsored by our Baptist church (very conservative). They served coffee and gave a sermon. Other than that, there was no attempt to provide material assistance. The emphasis was on the "eternal soul." In a way, one could say that this is caring for strangers.

 

Of course, anecdotes are hardly proof of a trend. I would be interested to see some sort of statistical analysis to back up this claim.

 

When I asked a conservative friend to explain this alleged phenomenon, he said that "Conservatives are too busy working hard to provide the money for our welfare state to volunteer in a soup kitchen."

 

Hmm.

 

NORM

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I may be wrong on this and I apologise if it offends any conservatives reading this, but I have always considered conservatives in general to be a cold, hard bunch regardless of their profession to love God and their neighbours with all their heart. What I mean by this is that I see a certain 'us & them' mentality whereby those who are saved by Jesus and in and those who aren't saved, well that's up to God to punish them because that's what they deserve.

 

So I see this strange amalgam where people say that love is all that matters, but then seem to not care that billions of their brothers and sisters are going to suffer for the rest of eternity.

 

I have pondered how this sort of view effects the goodwill of conservatives. I think they often convince themselves that somehow they love unconditionally and are bearing some unique witness to the world, when all the time they are content for God to deal their understanding of his hand to the unsaved for all eternity.

 

I think that simply has to impact on how they feel for others. Like Norm mentions, they might hand out some coffee and preach, but that really is lacking when it comes to appropriate love.

 

I'm sure some will say that at least they are doing something, and they are, but I would say it is hardly the assistance that their Lord and Saviour seemed to be recommending.

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I would bring in Haidt's five moral foundations as a lens to view this. They are Caring, Fairness, Purity, Loyalty and (I'll have to look for the 5th one.)

These moral foundations are universal. Haidt offers a criticism of liberals that we are only concerned about the first two and ignore the other three. Haidt challenges us to speak to these.

 

I started this post to build a bridge but I come up against elitism and anti-intectualism. Liberal concern for purity is focused on purity in food, etc. Liberal concern for loyalty is global? Well perhaps our loyalty is to the social justice issue which energizes us most. Sometimes we can't understand why every one isn't as concerned we are about the disappearance of all vultures in India.

 

Augustine tells us (I trust my son here) that our sphere of influence should determine where we attend to the brokenness in the world. If one is not concerned with the death of so many vultures (a real issue for Farsi) because one can have no effect is that tribalism?

 

To be clear I believe fear, powerlessness, and a belief that there is not enough to go around keep the tribal circle small

 

Dutch

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However, when I was younger, my father took me to a store-front "shelter" for poor folks in the city sponsored by our Baptist church (very conservative). They served coffee and gave a sermon. Other than that, there was no attempt to provide material assistance. The emphasis was on the "eternal soul." In a way, one could say that this is caring for strangers.

 

Norm, I think there are a number of soup kitchens run by conservative Christian groups. But, I wonder if the motivation is concern for the material well being of others (who are strangers) or proselytizing. The food, as I understand, is always accompanied by a sermon and/or religious tracts.

 

The same is true of foreign missionaries. Is their objective conversion to Christianity or the material well being of the people?

 

If one is interested primarily in winning converts, is the accompanying charity really an expression of altruism or recruiting new members to one's tribe?

 

George

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Altruism is a complex subject. If I understand George correctly, we are talking about a form of altruism with a foundation in care, empathy and compassion. The critcal component in atruism is action. The Bible focuses heavily on the call to feed the poor. For those who are not well off, food, clothing and shelter are scarce (or threatened) resources. The lack or scarcity of essential resources is a threat to survival in this world. If your goal is to reach a blissful afterlife, your behavior will differ from one who believes the Kingdom of God in the here-and-now.

 

In addition, a glitch sometimes occurs when "the poor" are seen as the out-group. Once that happens, a number of rationalizations are likely to take place, some of which become quite objectionable (from a PC perspective). My point is that many variables come into play. I could list many more.

 

Myron

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Norm, I think there are a number of soup kitchens run by conservative Christian groups.

 

I've worked for many of them in my area, and have yet to see one. Perhaps conservative on social issues? I DO know of food pantry / soup kitchen / Habitat for Humanity volunteers who are morally conservative (i.e., anti-abortion), but are not members of the Republican Party. They tend to be Catholics, who are generally speaking; normally aligned with the Democrat (progressive) Party.

 

But, I wonder if the motivation is concern for the material well being of others (who are strangers) or proselytizing. The food, as I understand, is always accompanied by a sermon and/or religious tracts.

 

Well, now that you mention it, there are "outreach" programs offered by some Baptist churches that I am aware of. And, yes, they do require (it's mandatory - if you want a meal, you HAVE to sit through an altar call) attendance at a sermon of some sort. Having grown up in such a church, I know that the budget for these things always comes from the evangelism line item.

 

And, believe me, the food was of the most least expensive quality possible - hardly considerate of proper nutrition.

 

If one is interested primarily in winning converts, is the accompanying charity really an expression of altruism or recruiting new members to one's tribe?

 

George

 

I suppose it depends on the people on the receiving end of the charity. Personally, I wouldn't care what the motivation was.

 

NORM

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I don’t have much background in sociology or politics, but find this an interesting topic. About Jonathan Haidt, maybe this context is what was being referred to -

 

“Political liberals tend to rely primarily on the moral foundation of care, followed by fairness, and liberty. Social conservatives are much more concerned about loyalty, authority and sanctity.”

 

I tend to agree with George’s suggested parallel, that there is more tribalism among conservatives and more altruism or ‘widening circle of concern’ among liberals-- at least as far as public policy, government programs etc. However, looking at articles on line, it seems that studies show conservatives give more as individuals to charity. It's not that simple though. According to a New York Times column, conservative donations often end up building extravagant churches, while liberal donations frequently sustain art museums, symphonies, schools and universities. If donations to religious organizations are excluded, liberals give slightly more to charity than conservatives do. Conservatives give blood more often. One of the most generous groups in America is gays.

 

Of course, when it comes to statistics, volunteering one’s time, giving away goods and services, can’t be measured.

 

In terms of of evolving from tribalism toward altruism, universal love —the ideal of the new testament -maybe the first goal is to become more aware of one’s own tribal thinking. That in itself would go a long way.

 

Also I think Dutch’s point --our sphere of influence should determine where we attend to the brokenness in the world --is well taken. In Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, the “neighbor” is on a personal, not group level-- the individual in our path, the one we are moved to help, able to help. In my experience that is how philanthropy works best.

Edited by rivanna
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In terms of of evolving from tribalism toward altruism, universal love —the ideal of the new testament -maybe the first goal is to become more aware of one’s own tribalism. That in itself would go a long way.

 

Yes.

 

I find myself sometimes wrestling with this question. Should I give to some local charity (like a school trip) that benefits middle class, American kids, or to a charity that feeds starving people in Somalia? About the same time as Katrina, there was a devastating earthquake in Pakistan in which millions were homeless and stranded. I have no doubt, which got the most American contributions although the needs were not even close to equal. The influence of tribalism constraining altruism?

 

George

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Is it the assumption here that no tribe ever comes to the assistance of another tribe?

 

I would say they might, depending on the situation, be for one of two reasons - self interest or altruism. If the latter, I would propose that they overcame the tribal constraint.

 

Myron, as you said in an earlier post, this is a complex issue. I definitely agree with that, but I think the main players in these situations are our altruistic and tribal impulses.

 

To add another thought, I feel like (as Wright suggests in The Evolution of God), that over human history, we are developing a broader perspective and getting closer to universal love. At least, I hope that is the case.

 

George

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George,

 

After reading Haidt and others in the field of social justice, it seems that one of their major concerns is easily overlooked. Human behavior is often based on multiple motives. When I donate time or money I know that, if I am honest, I sense several motives in rapid sequence. This evolved from reading Jung and Whitehead. This group of thinkers, including Haidt, has been reluctant to degrade a function to promote a single perspective. Evolution moves too slowly to ignore tribalism. The solution is to find ways to teach our children how to respect and understand their emotions and intuitions, not deny them.

 

To borrow from another thread. What percentage of the world's population has had the opportunity to learn critical thinking skills? I have heard sermons and lectures in Progressive Churches that place a heavy emphasis on universal access to education as a form of pragmatic altruism. Something like the Heifer Project. Donate cows, chickens and education. Enable someone else to become self reliant.

 

Myron

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George

Should I give to some local charity (like a school trip) that benefits middle class, American kids, or to a charity that feeds starving people in Somalia?

---o-o---o---------

 

Both of these are in our sphere of influence because of money. Values might guide our choices. We might be less able to make a difference in the vulture-Farsi problem.

 

Dutch

 

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Dutch,

 

Please excuse my ignorance, but I don't know what a "vulture-Farsi problem" is. Are you referring to the burial practices of the Indian Parsis?

 

In the school-trip vs starving Somali example, I was trying to pose a situation in which the choice is constrained by resources - one could do one but not both (or more realistically, do less for one because of the other). Maybe that was not a good example.

 

George

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Yes, George, Parsis :) My memory and hearing. From NPR: All the vultures in India have disappeared. Instead of hours for the dead to be stripped of flesh, it now takes days because smaller birds take longer.

 

We have the choice to extend our sphere of influence or not. Alone that is not negative or positive. We can enhance life wherever. I don't like 'switch and bait" ministries, etc. either. But we knew these answers when the thread started.

 

How many needs can an individual respond to? When you have kids in school and there is not enough money to buy new computers should you send money to Somalia or help the fund raiser at school? Why?

 

What is your sphere of influence today? Be here now. Later the sphere will change and may include Somalia.

 

I have been wondering about scattering my donations versus focusing on one or two efforts, thereby becoming more invested and having more influence. Would Jesus approve if one of those were the arts? Does that mean I am departmentalizing my life?

 

Political votes: There are slimy politicians but not all are. Shouldn't a discussion of strict father and nuturing mother be here?

 

How does elitism amd anti-intellectualism affect this discussion?

 

Dutch

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Yes, George, Parsis :) My memory and hearing. From NPR: All the vultures in India have disappeared. Instead of hours for the dead to be stripped of flesh, it now takes days because smaller birds take longer.

 

The /p/ and /f/ sounds are often hard to distinguish. In fact, this group came from Persia as Farsis, but apparently when they got to India Sanskrit had no /f/ sound, so they became Parsi instead of Farsi (which is the way Indians would have also heard the word).

 

I had guessed you meant Parsi since I had also heard the NPR story about their vultureless plight.

 

George

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How many needs can an individual respond to? When you have kids in school and there is not enough money to buy new computers should you send money to Somalia or help the fund raiser at school? Why?

 

What is your sphere of influence today? Be here now. Later the sphere will change and may include Somalia.

 

What seems to be clear is that physical and social distance are important factors in altruism and often trump factors of need and suffering. The closer the distance, the greater the altruism. The closer the relationship (ethnic, national, religious, etc.), the greater the altruism.

 

I would argue that this is motivated intuitively by our tribal impulses. If the decision is purely rational, I would expect the level of suffering to be the decisive factor.

 

George

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Tribalism is also related to management of scarce resources (Valent, 2007). If resources are scarce, the tribe has two options for survival. Acquire resources from outside the tribe or create new resources within the tribe. Just think about what is going on with the world supply of oil and you have it in a nurshell.

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Here is good example of how things work in the world today. Mind you, this is NOT a conservative speaking, but Sandra Fluke responding to conservative attacks.

 

"Yet, we're not entirely altruistic either. By fighting to protect our nation's social safety net, we ensure that all members of society have a chance to contribute, producing a diversity of ideas that benefits society as a whole. We've seen that affordable access to contraception allows women to contribute their talents to our companies, and the same is true of the host of economic supports under attack. Without President Obama's investment in Pell Grants, over three million additional students (nearly ten million total) might not have been able to afford to attend college last year. The majority of Pell Grant recipients are students of color from economically depressed backgrounds, so we know exactly which perspectives and voices the rest of us would be deprived of."

 

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sandra-fluke/sandra-fluke-joe-walsh_b_1876782.html

 

Myron

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Myron,

 

Along the same line, almost always, foreign aid or intervention is framed as being in our "national interest" (i.e. our self interest). We cannot justify assisting others unless it can be demonstrated as also having a self benefit. I suspect a Senator Jesus would say, if they need help, we should do it whether we benefit or not.

 

George

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Salvation Army?

 

George

 

 

My best friend's mother was an officer (or some such) with the Salvation Army - flaming liberal. They are DEFINITELY on the progressive side of social welfare issues. Yes, they are anti-abortion though - at least they were when I hung around with them.

 

BTW, The SA is one of the first evangelical Christian organizations to allow women to fully participate at all levels. VERY progressive on that front:

 

"I insist on the equality of women with men. Every officer and soldier should insist upon the truth that woman is as important, as valuable, as capable and as necessary to the progress and happiness of the world as man. Unfortunately a large number of people of every tribe, class and nationality think otherwise. They still believe woman is inferior to man." - William Booth, 1908

 

NORM

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There are some really interesting points here. Allow me add a couple of other (maybe not interesting) points:

 

I think we are (often) more likely to help those we know vs. a stranger because of the construct of the Other. We don't know know who this Other might be. We don't know what they are, we don't know what their values are, what their relationships are, what their expectations are. We can't predict their behaviour and/or responses to our assistance. Different cultures, religions, races - the Other can be dangerous, at least to some. When we help out someone we know, there is a fluid exchange of values. They are part of our community, and therefore, part of ourselves. We automatically help ourselves.

 

Also, by investing in our communities, we reap the benefits. Truthfully, I don't think this is as selfish as it sounds. I give back to the community because I live in this neighbourhood, and I want to live in a nice neighbourhood. I want my family to live in a nice neighbourhood. If I one day have children, I want the neighbourhood to be good and safe for them, as well. It's not to say that I wouldn't want those things for other people's kids, but I think there is some sort of natural, intrinsic aspect to our wiring that causes us to look out for our own. (Biological destiny, I would assume.)

 

We had a discussion the other night (church social get-together) about the difference between taking a bullet for a loved and and for a stranger. I would love to say that I would take a bullet for a stranger as easily as I would a loved one, but that's simply not true. Self-preservation is an important part of us all - without it, what would compell us to look both ways before we cross the street?

 

In the same vein, it is natural to look after the ones we know and love first, because they matter to us. Strangers maybe don't matter any less, but they certainly don't matter the same.

 

It would be nice if we could right all the wrongs around the world, but we can't. I don't personally have the resources to do everything for everyone, no matter how much I would like. What I *can* do is see where I can be useful, and make my choices. I can also hope and pray that everyone else does the same. If everyone were able and willing to help even one person, things would look a lot different out there.

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It is my view that true altruism is in contrast to self. It doesn't originate form the thinking mind. It doesn't come from loyalty or obligation in the traditional sense but instead rises up when the ego is subjugated even if only temporarily. Altruism to me originates without thought from the very essence of our being where motive , gain and respect for or allegiance to individual, group or community disappear. (no respecter of persons) It seems to me, it is action founded in alignment with the whole. (Oneness or Christ)

 

Joseph

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