Triabalism Is Rational

I started writing for freethought blogs because I thought that my use of reason made me special, and I identified with those that had disdain for God.  I wanted to share this by way of science, but I did not have a real purpose.  Were these the real reasons for binding?  After researching rationality and self-interest, I realized that my self-interest was behind it all, but I needed to justify it first.

I was reluctant to embrace all of the blog’s principles, namely “an appreciation of human diversity and equality” because I didn’t “get it” until I experienced subordination first-hand.  Christopher Boehm, an anthropologist who studies social hierarchies, articulates what this purpose may be.  I first reasoned that tribalism (i) was divisive and irrational, and I now reason that it is rational and just.

…egalitarianism is in effect a bizarre type of political hierarchy: the weak combine forces to actively dominate the strong.  My thesis is that they must continue such domination if they are to remain autonomous and equal. [2]

Reasons for Tribalism

I was self-righteous and naive because of rationality and so reason itself was a roadblock for me to want to be political.  Rationality, at least my rationality, was that if we are ideologues and don’t use critical thinking skills to look at each issue and stay clear of our biases and in-groups, then we will never build a juster society.  But I was mistaken, in a big way.

We are not rational, and passion guides our moral reasoning – that is, what we decide to be right or wrong is anchored in our feelings and directs us.  And morality evolved to suppress self-interest in one another to allow for cooperation to take place, see below.  That is its function, and this is not a philosophical position but rather a scientific fact.

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and innate tedencies that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible. [5]

Our culture sets standards that must be met in order to advance in the hierarchy.  But some based on biology or bad luck will not be able to achieve the status they want and become subordinated.  So the anthropologist above is saying that biology justifies everything that liberals use to become more equal, e.g., economic equality, affirmative action, gender equality, and so forth.

The idea of people living morally as political equals is a beautiful one, but in an important sense it seems to go against human nature—a nature that leads, quite naturally, to interpersonal domination and to the formation of social dominance hierarchies, with alpha individuals presiding over them. [2]

We Were Egalitarian

But before twelve thousand years ago, humans basically were egalitarian (Knauft 1991). They lived in what might be called societies of equals, with minimal political centralization and no social classes. Everyone participated in group decisions, and outside the family there were no dominators. [2]

I don’t get the impression that all evolutionary biologists believe that we lived as egalitarian tribes for most (95%) of our existence since they have a Hobbesian view of what it means to be human – that is, morality is but a thin veneer that keeps our savage-like self-interest in line.  But anthropologists certainly have a lot of evidence and reasoning to show that we did.

Far from being admired as “clever opportunists,” selfish individuals looking to exploit the generosity of other foragers are viewed as pitiful and potentially dangerous, likely to be nudged off the nearest cliff. Such an individual would be lucky to survive for long in a real-world foraging society, much less flourish. [12]

But egalitarianism is not what we think it is.  Yes, it says that in some respects people are thought to be equal and should have equal opportunities (not outcomes).  But this is a normative statement and by no means is what we actually observe.  On the other hand, real egalitarianism is about domination and that is what freethought blogs does very effectively that I used to be against.

Equality Is a Fight

My thesis, however, is that egalitarianism does not result from the mere absence of hierarchy, as is commonly assumed. Rather, egalitarianism involves a very special type of hierarchy, a curious type that is based on antihierarchical feelings. [2]

This is a very intuitive thesis and is something that we all have experienced through the emotions of envy and resentment when we are not included in certain groups or are treated unfairly.  It is so obvious that we have to be reminded of its truth.  The problem is that conservatives and libertarians will immediately say that we are not playing fair.

The argument here is that egalitarian societies constitute a very special type of hierarchy, one in which the rank and file avoid being subordinated by vigilantly keeping alpha-type group members under their collective thumbs. [2]

We must keep power in check so that the “strong” won’t weed out the “weak” as this anonymous conservative says below.  This conservative’s reasoning embellishes the folk idea that life is a competitive struggle for survival, while conveniently – since well-positioned people have little use for empathy – ignoring the role of compassion and altruism because he can.

The least immoral path is to honor each man’s freedom, limit governmental intervention, and let each man bear the burden of responsibility for himself.   Combined with personal charity, awarded by the productive to those who they feel are worthy, such a scheme would produce society where everyone was committed to the success of our nation, and sloth was unrewarded, beyond a bare subsistence level of support to those who are worthy in some regard.


(i) Tribalism is defined here as the antagonistic nature of inter-group behavior between the major ideologies of conservatism and liberalism.  Bi-partisanship is largely a myth because these two world-views don’t reason the same about morality and will always be in conflict.


[1] Anonymous. The Evolutionary Psychology Behind Politics. Federalist Publications.

[2] Boehm, Christopher. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Harvard University

[3] Deaton, Angus. The Great Escape. Princeton University Press.

[4] Greene, Joshua. Moral Tribes. Penguin Publishing Group.

[5] Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

[6] Kling, Arnold. The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides. Cato Institute.

[7] Lakoff, George. Moral Politics. University of Chicago Press.

[8] Lakoff, George. The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant! . Chelsea Green Publishing.

[9] Lakoff, George. Philosophy In The Flesh.

[10] Lakoff, George. The Political Mind. Penguin Publishing Group.

[11] Lakoff, George. Your Brain’s Politics. Societas.

[12] Ryan, Christopher. Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress. Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster.

[13] Tuschman, Avi. Our Political Nature. Prometheus.

[14] Waal, Frans de. The Age of Empathy. Random House LLC

[15] Westen, Drew. The Political Brain. PublicAffairs.



  1. Allison says

    I’m having trouble understanding what you’re saying. You talk about “tribalism,” but then bring up a quote about egalitarianism, and then say that that proves that tribalism is rational. I cannot figure out a meaning for “tribalism” which relates to egalitarianism.

    The second quote sounds like social Darwinism, dressed up a bit to obscure the fact.

    To me, the obvious definition of “tribalism” is the tendency of human beings to form groups (“tribes”) where everyone in principle knows everyone else, or at least, they all think enough alike that they feel they can trust one another. It is a rational or at least a logical consequence of the fact that human beings cannot survive as scattered individuals, like tigers, so they have to form groups to survive. But they also need to be in regular contact with the other people in the group so that they will mostly encounter people whose previous behavior (or misbehavior) is known to them, which curbs antisocial behavior. (Cf. tit-for-tat in game theory.) It also explains the hostility to outsiders: you don’t have a history with them (or enough of one) to be sure they won’t rob you or kill you or whatever.

    The problem with individualism (as we know it) is that it requires the resources that only a large, cooperative group can supply. I notice that survivalists always seem to use a lot of stuff (guns, ammo, etc.) that are only available because we have a huge fairly high-tech society to make them. How many survivalist groups have the resources or know-how to manufacture, say, gunpowder or bullets?

    • musing says

      Yes, that is what I mean but am highlighting the antagonistic nature of the group. Early on in my studies about human nature, I saw that tribalism – that is, liberalism clashing with conservatism – was THE problem. How naive since bi-partisanship is a myth and conflict is inevitable since these are really conflicting world views that are deeply rooted in our personalities. My goal was to be “rational”, whatever that means, and to take the high road and remain politically impotent by being an independent moderate. Now Boehm comes along and says that the only way that those that are the “weak” or subordinated within the prevailing culture or economic system can gain equality is to dominate the strong by creating social norms to suppress their self-interest. It will always be a struggle since the strong will justify that the weak aren’t worthy to be the strong; it’s in our nature to subordinate those that don’t meet standards or norms since we are competitive, and the result of competition is that this or that person doesn’t meet this or that standard, allowing us to advance ahead of them. Egalitarianism is not the absence of hierarchy as it will always exist but rather is the struggle for the weak to suppress the self-interest of the strong by creating, say “affirmative action” and new social norms to protect the weak. It is a dynamic battle that never ends because of our nature.

      • John Morales says

        Egalitarianism is not the absence of hierarchy as it will always exist but rather is the struggle for the weak to suppress the self-interest of the strong by creating, say “affirmative action” and new social norms to protect the weak.

        What? No.

        Egalitarianism is just the recognition that everyone is merely a person.

        No matter from whose loins someone sprang, no matter how much wealth someone has, no matter how popular they may be, they’re just another human.

        It most certainly has nothing to do with the “strong” and the “weak”.

        (It does have to do with not tugging your forelock to your “superiors”, though)

        • musing says

          That is the conventional definition from political science. But that is not what really is happening. We are not equal, because we rank on one another in terms of abilities and so forth. This is a natural tendency. We have created a social norm by defining egalitarianism in that way, but acknowledging that we have intrinsic worth does not mean that is what happens in reality. I am talking about the actual mechanism behind egalitarianism, not its definition.

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