Our Moral Fate: Evolution and the Escape from Tribalism

Buchanan, Allen

My comments 2023-07-13


Are humans inherently tribal? Has evolution focused our moral sense to consider only the group to which we belong ? Allen Buchanan thinks it is obvious that the two Great Expansions, as he calls them, shows that this cannot be the case. The first Great Expansion is the inclusion of all humans in the moral sphere, that is, the ideal of universality, that all humans, as humans, have equal moral standing. The second Great Expansion is the view that also (some) animals have a moral standing, that mistreatment of animals is a moral problem. These two expansions do not make sense if one takes for granted that the human moral sense has evolved solely as a regulator of tribal life.

Buchanan, an accomplished philosopher, criticizes several authorities who, he thinks, do not consider the fact of the two Great Expansions, or at least make statements that do not reflect taking it seriously. A central line in the criticism is aimed at two dogmas that Buchanan thinks need to be demolished: The Cooperation dogma, which states that since morality arose as a solution to fundamental problems of cooperation, that is all it is. Wrong, says Buchanan. Morality has outgrown its origins.

The second is the Tribalism dogma, that we are morally hardwired for tribalism due to our evolutionary history. In contrast, Buchanan proposes that we have a flexible moral sense, which is expressed as different moral attitudes depending on the context. If the environment permits, our moral mind moves in the direction of universality, away from tribalism. The economic growth of the last few centuries, and many concomitant societal changes, form the basis for such a change in our moral sense, and is the basis for the two Great Expansions. Buchanan makes clear that this development is by no means deterministic. Backsliding into tribalism is perfectly possible, and can be seen to occur, illustrated by many developments in the current political climate in the democratic world.

The writing is clear and forceful. The author really wants to make his position clear, which is so refreshing. However, he overdoes it at times, reiterating points that have already been made. On the other hand, the summary of his argument that makes up the last chapter is actually a very good way of ending the book.

Unusually in this genre, there is an extensive discussion of the state of contemporary politics, and what to do about current issues. Buchanan analyses the current polarization in much of the democratic world as a form of intrasocietal tribalism, and discusses the societal features and developments that have led to it. I find this part important and suggestive, but also a little thin. I cannot really fault the author for this, since I cannot provide any better analysis. The lack of concrete ideas to overcome the current stalemate is shared by most writers. If Buchanan's text can provoke further thinking in this direction, then it has performed its duty.

This is a highly interesting and thought-provoking book. It deserves to be discussed broadly, by scientists, philosophers and the general public.