22. Group Ethic

Benefits of self-examination

Expected outcomes with no self-examination

capacity to consult conscience flight from conscience
weighing up effective social engagement looking after own interests
reflection on actions action without reflection
resolving moral dilemmas defer to religious authority
building prosocial group ethic develop antisocial group ethic

We are adaptive creatures. I believe that self-examination and the access it grants us to conscience provides us with an evolutionary advantage. Self-examination and self-reflection can facilitate conscientious group bonding – bonding where a majority in the group agrees that it is in the best interests of that group to pull together. Whole group survival more likely ensures individual survival within that group. Furthermore, a conscientious group ethic will offer a better chance of individual or group survival than a disharmonious or self-destructive group ethic. Meanwhile, as we have seen, group ethic and group Theory of Mind (ToM) differ from community to community. From this we might see discernible and significant differences between any two cultures around the globe. Hence, Russian belligerence in the face of NATO encroachment or Chinese fear of American-style democracy.

I support Wilson’s (2013) view that our instincts have been honed to favour group selection rather than individual natural selection. Wilson goes on to observe that

The key question remaining in the dynamics of human genetic evolution is whether natural selection at the group level has been strong enough to overcome the powerful force of natural selection at the level of the individual. Put another way, have the forces favoring instinctive altruistic behavior to other members of the group been strong enough to disfavor individual selfish behavior?

Now, going back to my earlier premise, that lingering or sometimes current tribal affiliations skew social interactions in Africa (see here for reference), we might look to Wilson’s (2013) further claims that

Chiefdoms, the next level of complexity, also called rank societies, are ruled by an elite stratum who upon debility or death are replaced by members of their family or at least those of equivalent hereditary rank. That was the dominant form of societies around the world at the beginning of recorded history. Chiefs or “big men” rule by prestige, largesse, the support of elite members below them-and retribution against those who oppose them (see also Meredith, M., The State of Africa, 2011).

Where self-examination provides access to conscience in a relatively free society we learn what is right and wrong firstly within the context of family, secondly within our local groupings and finally within national expectations. Conscience here is relatively free to develop albeit within cultural norms. In a chiefdom self-examination may not be necessary as rules for behaviour and social interaction are set by your rank in the hierarchical order. In such societies the lower your rank order the less you have to say in how you are governed, hence the ‘Untouchables’ in India. Self-examination or self-reflection in this case becomes either irrelevant or dangerous. For example, Meredith (2011) observed that

In Malawi, Hastings Banda’s grip on power extended not just over the government and the economy of the country but even over the moral standards under which the population was required to live (Meredith, M., 2011)

As members of any group we are programmed to adapt to the norms and customs of that group for our own benefit and protection. Although we are mostly inclined to favour group selection, what happens if, as a result of self-examination we find that the group ethic is no longer plausible? Do we then suppress our conscience or do we resist the pressure to conform? When we see our group ethic as corrosive we begin to think of our own survival. We may even be tempted into anti-social behaviour.

Groups that are unable to rise above such ethic are more likely to fail when challenged by groups with a more equitable social constitution.

A group with members who could read intentions and co-operate among themselves while predicting the actions of competing groups, would have an advantage over others less gifted. There was undoubtedly competition  among group members, leading to natural selection of traits that gave advantage of one individual over another. But more important for a species entering new environments and competing with powerful rivals were unity and co-operation within the groups (Wilson, 2013).

It would seem from all of this that those who are capable of self-examination also become more acceptable as group-members if, by using that self-examination they reflect on their personal contributions to the group. They may also call upon their conscientious obligations to the community. In so doing the individual and the group form what might be called a symbiotic relationship where both are beneficiaries. Natural selection at the level of the individual is satisfied within a cohesive, conscientious group and the group succeeds where other, less cohesive groups fail. More soon.

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About johnderonde

UK-based charity worker in Tanzania
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