How Good and Evil Ignore Tribal Lines

Every hero story, every epic fantasy tale ultimately distills into a force of good coming against a force of evil, and it’s the struggle between the two that drives an interesting plot, because it alludes to the battle between good and evil in our own world.

In the polarized world, traditional morality has been thrown out the window in favor of what I call “tribal morality”: judging people not by their actions, but rather their affiliations. Though not new to the world, tribal morality has made a resurgence in recent times, particularly in this early 21st century.

The Resurgence

The 19th and early 20th centuries produced novel conceptions of morality and of the delineation between good and evil: a blurry, gray boundary that shifts with the viewpoint of the observer. Morality was no longer black and white with a precise line drawn between them by a religious framework or natural law. No, the intelligentsia of our great-grandfather’s generation built again the Tower of Babel – but this time they didn’t use stone to rise above man’s natural place but instead the teetering scaffolding of relativism. We had become used to gaining power over the rest of nature, of building machines to decouple ourselves from the human experience in ever more extreme ways, and then there stood one last ceiling on human potential: the moral ceiling. And, like Adam and Eve with but one temptation before them, we acquiesced to let no single rule hold power over us – no, we must make the rules now. Of course, when the players of the game begin making their own rules, the game ends. Likewise, when relativism took hold over us, our intellectual prosperity began its decline until we made sure that in our quest to know everything, we knew nothing – not even what is good and bad anymore.

This relativism generated two egregious evils of the early 20th century: 1) the Nazi party’s dehumanization of Jews, other religious, gypsies, and the mentally handicapped and 2) the Russian Revolution and its dehumanization of the kulaks (farmer classes) and abolition of the individual for the common good.

But curiously, though relativism had destroyed the world’s perception of absolute good and evil even to this day (see a brief history of relativism here), another moral yardstick emerged. In the collective moral vacuum left by relativism, tribal morality took the place of natural or religious morality. Whereas relativism evolved because of deference to nuance ad absurdum, tribal morality is the complete opposite as it paints an over-simplistic picture: one where the green army men are the good guys and the tan army men are the bad guys (at least that’s how I always played with them). Tribal morality places central importance on identity to a cause or through group affiliation. And, while the former moral systems of religion and natural law would differentiate good and bad causes and groups, the individual judgement of a person’s morality superseded their group affiliation, the “flag” under which they lived. According to tribal morality, all Communists were evil by reason that they are members of a group that support the larger (wholly evil) Communist movement. More commonly today, tribal morality labels all conservatives, liberals, police as evil by virtue of their affiliation to a political party or wearing of a badge. The flipside of this simple moral framework applies to the good as well. For example, tribal morality simply says all the Allied soldiers were good, all the Jewish prisoners were benevolent, etc. – by mere affiliation with their group and what that larger group represents or promotes.

Now, in most fallacies, there is something that rings true that makes an idea enticing. A cause can be good or evil; I affirm the causes of Nazism and Communism were and are evil; however, not all members under the flags of those causes were the decrepit cartoons of evil that we imagine – people are more complex than that. Here, we might enter into a long digression about whether one superficially supporting a cause (e.g. wearing the enemy uniform) constitutes one being a real member of this cause. However, practically, if one’s name appears within the ranks of that enemy, they wear the enemy uniform, gets paid to hold a position in that organization, and is recognized by other their comrades to be part of the same movement, then to the observer on the other side, he is the enemy. Whether they are actively subverting their own superficial side or not is rarely discernible. Hence, we base one’s affiliation to a group or cause on face-value markers (like uniform color) rather than intent. So, when one says Nazism and Communism are evil political philosophies, I wholly agree. The problem is when one says all Nazis or Communists were evil, because these example ideologies came with monumental social pressures, though heroic to openly defy. Furthermore, the larger goals and actions of a cause may be obscured to the single member supporting that cause. A good example of how this can happen is the Manhattan project, which employed thousands of U.S civilians to build the atomic bomb without their explicit knowledge of what they were creating!

For illustration of how tribal morality fails in comparison to traditional morality, I defer to two prime examples: Viktor Frankl’s second-hand account of a concentration camp commander and the incredible story of Oskar Schindler.

When Bad Men Do Good Things

While there are many examples of demonstrably bad men having sudden conversions to the good, e.g. St. Paul, sometimes there are perceivably good men all along, who for whatever reasons wore the wrong uniform. Such is the case of the SS commander in charge of a concentration camp trodden by the famous author and psychologist Viktor Frankl.

In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl recalls a story of the camp commander of where he would eventually be liberated by American soldiers:

It was found after the liberation – only the camp doctor, as prisoner himself, had known of it previously- that this man [The commander] had paid no small sum of money from his own pocket in order to purchase medicines for his prisoners from the nearest market town.

This Nazi commander of a concentration camp was secretly purchasing medicines for the inmates at his own expense. Further, Frankl never recalled a time when he or his fellow inmates suffered physical harm at the bidding of this commander. In fact, the commander was so well regarded by some Hungarian prisoners, they went to great lengths to ensure the commander fared well during the liberation of the camp:

At the end of the war … three young Hungarian Jews hid this commander in the Bavarian woods. Then they went to the commandant of the American Forces who was very eager to capture this SS commander and they said they would tell him where he was but only under certain conditions: the American commander must promise that absolutely no harm would come to this man. After a while, the American officer finally promised these young Jews that the SS commander when taken into captivity would be kept safe from harm. Not only did the American officer keep his promise but, as a matter of fact, the former SS commander of this concentration camp was in a sense restored to his command, for he supervised the collection of clothing among the nearby Bavarian villages, and its distribution to all of us who at that time still wore the clothes we had inherited from other inmates of Camp Auschwitz who were not as fortunate as we…”

This passage, taken from a footnote in Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, illustrates the ability for good men to wear bad uniforms and yet to work for good even when swamped in a monstrosity like the Holocaust. Tribal morality would’ve labeled this commander as definitively evil; however, good and evil are choices that define an individual. Even the will to survive, Frankl writes in his book, is ultimately a choice each person makes despite their circumstances.

Another example from WWII is the story that serves the basis of the movie Schindler’s List, where Oskar Schindler, the owner of a German munitions factory, risks his life and fortune to covertly protect and eventually liberate hundreds of Polish Jews destined for the concentration camps. While materially supporting the Nazi party (through producing ammunition for their war efforts), Schindler used his business and personal resources to fight the immediate evil within his control: the mistreatment of the Polish Jews. To this day, hundreds (if not thousands) of descendants of these Polish Jews have this wealthy German businessman to thank. Oh – and one important point: Oskar Schindler was a registered Nazi party member. For whatever reasons he lived this dual life, I don’t think the hundreds of Polish Jews he saved cared.

Another conversion, even more on the nose to the title of this article, is . Paul, who was analogous to an SS commander of his time, has such an experience as to not only compel him to stop committing murderous evils, but to join the ranks of the hunted Christians at the time. Again, neither the uniform nor the history of the person indicates their true moral state. In both instances the temporary evils were driven out and yielded good men in the end.

Where to Find Good and Evil

For the Christian, the evil of tribal morality should be obvious – as Jesus of Nazareth came for Jew and Gentile alike – the tribe did not matter. Neither uniform nor the history of a person’s misdeeds alone indicates their true moral state. St. Paul’s journey from persecutor of Christians to a Christian himself is a clear example. A world where morality is derived from tribal affiliation is cartoonish. I’m beginning to think those who have most experience of real evil understand it the best, because it is to another survivor of horrible mistreatment that I turn to end my thoughts. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, survivor of the USSR gulags and author of the Gulag Archipelago, wrote so insightfully:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

Gulag Archipelago – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Everyone has the capability and choice to do good or evil despite our “uniforms”. Perhaps we as a society need to remind ourselves that “the tribe” is only so good as the people in the tribe.

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Published by Christian Poole

Catholic | Father | Husband | Founder of ThinkingWest .com

One thought on “How Good and Evil Ignore Tribal Lines

  1. Dear Christian Poole,

    Hello! I enjoyed reading your post and would like to inform you that two paragraphs from this post are featured as a quotation and discussed in my extensive and analytical post entitled “Misquotation Pandemic and Disinformation Polemic: Mind Pollution by Viral Falsity“, which can be easily locate at the Home page of my blog.

    Happy September to you!

    Wishing you a productive weekend doing or enjoying whatever that satisfies you the most!

    Yours sincerely,

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