Desert versus Identity
By Bryan Caplan
When moderns read the Old Testament, they’re often horrified by the gruesome collective punishments. Mankind falls into wickedness, so God sends a flood to drown every man, women, and child on earth?* Before the book is over, though, the prophets start singing a radically different tune:
[T]he son will not be made responsible for the evil-doing of the father,
or the father for the evil-doing of the son; the righteousness of the
upright will be on himself, and the evil-doing of the evil-doer on
You can’t judge a person for the actions of his father, sisters, neighbors, or people who share his hair color. Instead, you must judge him for what he has personally done. What moral truth could be more self-evident?
Yet in practice, human beings’ adherence to this moral truth remains iffy. The main reason is clear: group identity. When people judge members of their own groups, they accept an endless list of lame excuses. When people judge members of other groups, they accept an endless list of ludicrous condemnations.
War crimes are a stark example. Suppose a soldier from group X plainly murdered ten innocent civilians from group Y. What do the people of X say? “It was war.” “He just lost his buddy a month earlier.” “If you’ve never been in that situation, you can’t judge.” “He was just following orders.” “His officer should have seen it coming.”
This absurd leniency reverses, of course, when members of group X judge some enemy Y’s during wartime. Although the individual Y’s plainly never hurt a fly, they deserve to die! “They started the
war; we’re just finishing it.” “They leave us no choice.” “They would have done far worse to us.” “What about the innocent X’s the Y’s killed?” Never mind if the specific Y’s on the chopping block are powerless peons, hapless conscripts, or defenseless children. They brought their deaths on themselves by belonging to a team they are metaphysically unable to quit.
We see the same farce when people decide whether someone deserves his poverty. If the pauper belongs to group X, members of group X loathe to blame him. The pauper is routinely drunk? Well, that’s an understandable response to an unjust society, bad upbringing, or despair. The pauper spends half his money on cable? Well, in our society cable’s a necessity. He got fired because he could barely read or add? Our public schools failed him – even if his teachers reliably showed up and did their jobs – and the student was smoking in the boys’ room.
If the pauper belongs to an out-group, in contrast, members of group X will fault him for the most absurd reasons. The best job he can get pays $1 a day? He should have gotten himself a better education. The government’s teachers rarely even show up to class? That’s what you get when you elect a government with crummy economic policies. His government is a dictatorship? That’s what happens when you forget that vigilance is liberty’s eternal price. What about the obvious fact that all of these problems – unlike alcohol and cable consumption – are largely or entirely outside the control of one impoverished individual? Blank-out.
Human beings evolved in small bands. Group identity – and group identity’s tendency to corrupt our sense of justice – is in our DNA. Once you learn this harsh truth, though, you can, should, and must compensate for your immoral urges. Review your judgments of out-group members for draconian harshness. Review your judgments of in-group members – yourself included – for maudlin absolution. You won’t make a lot of friends, but you will be a better person.
* Noah‘s family excepted, of course.