Tribal truths and social good


Amidst turmoil it is difficult to reflect on fundamental causes of conflict, divisions and chaos. Three authors assist with relevant analyses.

Reinhold Niebuhr was an influential mid-century pastor, social ethicist and theologian. His book, “Moral Man and Immoral Society,” noted that an individual develops a moral compass and higher norms more easily than any group does. An individual can live altruistically and act for the good of others even at the loss of some personal benefit. Social groups struggle with moral norms, because group unity is paramount. Hence, a mob engages in evil actions — including rape, theft, destruction, and even murder — whereas a participant acting alone would never stoop so low. A hopeful corollary is that individuals can lift group norms.

Sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman wrote “The Social Construction of Reality” a few decades later. Humans are social beings and of necessity create social systems. Moreover, as members of society they develop conceptions and beliefs about reality that are transmitted within the group. Groups agree on such conceptions and norms in order to operate as a society. Hence, Berger and Luckman concluded, reality is socially constructed. A glimmer of hope is that such conceptions and norms can be positive, not negative.

Jonathan Rauch recently wrote “The Constitution of Knowledge” about how contemporary societies develop and protect conceptions of reality. He noted that individual rational agents can form groups that are not rational at all. Humans must identify with groups, and our partisan identity and social reputation depend upon agreement with the group. Closed-minded groups form tribes grounded on tribal truths and group think. Current echo chambers and confirmation loops in which perceptions are contagious and one’s biases are confirmed by biases of others with whom one identifies illustrate his thesis. In instances where mediating institutions break down, societies begin to behave more tribally, and creedal conflicts and political conflicts become almost indistinguishable. Rauch notes, however, that we are not doomed to be gullible, prisoners in such angry and hopeless tribes.

In part, that is because truth is not the possession on any one individual or group. Humans are finite and imperfect — sinners saved by grace — and all our knowing is finite. The greatest error is not to be wrong, but to deny that any truth exists, or to affirm that we live in a post-truth world. Our search for truth is essential to our rational nature. Truth beyond tribal affirmations is the goal of all good education and civic discussions. We have freedom and responsibility as American citizens to seek truth for the public good.

Moreover, we are free agents and can choose our primary group. “People choose their gods when they choose their playmates.” We are free agents and can decide what groups will shape aspects of our core identities. Therefore, it is wise to choose carefully what group will help you determine what is true to affirm and good to do. Some groups lead us toward truth and life; others lead toward error and death.

The groups we join and the society we create must be stable enough to ground our identity and also sufficiently open to avoid tribalism. A paradox is that the walls must be secure, but with open doors and windows that welcome others and new ideas. In such communities, new information and reasoning that are independent of our biases lead to an increase of information and knowledge. True patriots affirm that a free, constitutional democracy provides that community. Christians pray that the church universal heralds expanding circles of community. Others join with patriots and people of faith to hope for a renewal of community that will provide a basis for flourishing. Our future depends upon cooperation as free moral agents to create a community in Crawfordsville and Montgomery County now for such flourishing.


Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.


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