29 July 2020

Tribalism and ethics

The essential feature of ethics — that is to say, respect for the right of the individual to have what he wants and to decide for himself what is of importance to him, so long as it is not interfering with the rights of others to pursue what they consider important for them — arose in association with capitalism. It was an ethic that could only arise when individuals had at least the potentiality of paying for what they wanted within the structure of the society they lived in.

This ethic has been nominally taken over by the modern trend towards tribalism. We will retain the great advances in knowledge and control of our environment which were made when collective control was somewhat weakened, but we will not consider it moral for individuals to pursue whatever goals they consider conducive to whatever sort of wellbeing they choose for themselves, unless we happen to agree with them. (‘We’ is a vague collective entity consisting of social agreement about what is right and proper.)

We aim to remove freedom, so far as we can, but we sweeten the pill by confirming our belief in the ‘individual’. Indeed, we respect the ‘individual’ more than ever before and complain that the previous state of society had too little of this respect. But when the nature of this ‘respect’ is formulated, it does not come out to anything so simple and absolute as respect for other people’s power to decide; it comes out as a concern for their well-being, based on some sort of ‘balanced’ assessment of their total wants and needs. By implication this is an assessment that we will make, not them, and ‘balance’ provides a lot of scope for overriding a person’s strongest inclinations if our respect for them is ‘balanced’ by our respect for something else that they should be inclined to want instead.

Extract from the forthcoming book by Celia Green, The Corpse and the Kingdom, due to be published in 2021.