Thinking with traditions, not with tribes

Thinking with traditions, not with tribes
Everyday Philosophy

Tribalism in politics and ethics is an easy thing to criticise. By ‘tribalism’ I’m specifically talking here about tribalism about opinions: changing your beliefs in order to better conform with a group that you identify with in some way.

This criticism is mostly right: I think this sort of tribalism is usually bad. But I do want to say a couple of words in the defence of some things that are easily confused with tribalism.

Sometimes there are particularly good reasons to let your agreement with a person or group on one point strongly influence your other beliefs.”

First, people inevitably shape their thinking in conversations with groups. We don’t do our thinking as isolated, monadic calculators, but in conversations with family, friends and colleagues. That will inevitably mean a certain amount of ‘thinking together’: like-minded people treating each other as reliable guides on the quest for truth. There’s nothing wrong with this per se: if I think someone is right on a lot of things I’m going to take them more seriously on things I don’t know as much about.

Sometimes there are particularly good reasons to let your agreement with a person or group on one point strongly influence your other beliefs. If you end up agreeing with the Church on enough of its values, its central claim to be preserved from error in certain areas will start to look more and more plausible. If that claim eventually looks plausible enough to accept, it’s only rational to then agree with the Church on other beliefs that come under that claim’s scope.

A claim of divine preservation from error might seem like a very special case, but there are other examples where agreement on one point gives you a good reason to agree on others. If, for instance, you accept a Marxist analysis of history in which everything ultimately boils down to the working of economic forces and relations, then that gives you a good reason to analyse things like the divorce rate in terms of those forces and relations. (‘If’ is, of course, doing a lot of work here).

So if it’s fine to think together with others, to take generally correct people more seriously, and to place justified trust in a tradition of thought, what exactly is wrong with ‘tribalism’ when you’re deciding what to think?

First off, nobody is right about everything. Nobody believes only true things. I, for instance, almost certainly have many wrong opinions!

That doesn’t mean I’m not confident about each individual opinion. Let’s say I have 100 separate opinions, and I’m 95% sure each of them is correct. Given this, the chance of all 100 of my opinions being correct, of there being not a single erroneous one, is 0.59%. Then consider how many more than 100 significant opinions people have, and how much lower than 95% their confidence in many of them ought to be, and the probability of someone being right on everything rapidly becomes negligible.

The same point applies in reverse: no-one is wrong on everything either. Even if you get past the blitheringly obvious (humans have one head! Granite sinks in water! The Lord of the Rings is the greatest novel of the 20th Century!) and get on to actually contested questions, the chance that anyone is completely wrong, that all of their moral and political beliefs are false, is miniscule.

This means that I should be very careful before reflexively agreeing with people on everything because I agree with them on some things: even really important things. Nor should we treat people as negative bellwethers and say “if he’s for it, I’m against it”. I disagree profoundly with Clare Daly MEP about abortion and the role of religion in society: but that shouldn’t make me doubt my agreement with her on drone warfare.

As for thinking with a tradition: in Catholicism and Marxism we’re dealing with well-developed traditions of thought that have deep, well-reasoned links between their different claims. But many of the ‘traditions’ that drive tribal thinking are not like this.

For example, each of the two political parties in the United States combine a variety of different policy stances together in what might be charitably described as an ideological jumble. A series of historical accidents, coalition-building exercises, and quirks of the electoral system have led to a situation where opposition to abortion, scepticism about government-provided healthcare, and immigration restrictionism are now viewed as having some intrinsic link, some fundamental logic binding the three positions together.

Many people – and not just Americans – who have one of these positions find themselves drifting towards the others: not for any real reason but because of a sense of cultural association and a too-eager embrace of the belief that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Let’s say yes to thinking with a tradition, thinking together, and acknowledging knowledge and wisdom. But we should still say no to pure tribalism.