Living the Golden Rule/Embracing other Races and Outgroups

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Embracing other Races and Outgroups[edit]

An African-American child at a segregated drinking fountain on a courthouse lawn, North Carolina, US 1938.

Racism is having concern only for members of your race. If you’re a white racist, then you have concern only for whites; you don't care what happens to others, except as this affects whites. Groupism, a broader notion, is having concern only for members of your group; you might define “your group” by race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or whatever.

We’ll first consider groupist objections to the golden rule. Then we’ll talk about how to criticize groupism by appealing to consistency and GR. Finally, we’ll introduce the historic slavery debate in the U.S., which featured GR.

Groupist GR objections[edit]

Groupism is a plural egoism. Groupism is having concern just for your group while egoism is having concern just for yourself. Our groupism discussion in this section mirrors the egoism discussion in the previous section.

Two forms of groupism give GR objections. First, ethical groupism says we ought to do whatever promotes good and prevents harm for our group, regardless of how this affects others. So applying GR to others is disloyal and wrong:

Objection based on ethical groupism We ought to have concern only for our own group. Thus it's disloyal to our group and wrong to apply GR to those outside of our group.

So we as whites (or blacks, Jews, Palestinians, Tutsis, Hutus, Catholics, Protestants, or whatever) ought to have concern only for “our own kind.” GR is fine, but it's to be applied only within our own group—not to outsiders.

Thomas Hobbes argued that enlightened egoism leads to GR, since individuals live better when GR prevails between individuals. Enlightened groupism likewise leads to GR, since groups live better when GR prevails between groups. Imagine a world where each group cares only for itself and accepts no duties toward other groups. Each group lies, steals, or kills when this serves its interest. Every group would suffer from the war between groups. This is the fallacy of projecting a tribal perspective onto a problem that requires a global perspective.

Taking a global perspective, a wise group leader might say: “This constant war hurts our group. It’s in our group’s interest that there be peace and justice between groups. We must act justly toward other groups and get other groups to act justly toward us. Wanting our property to be respected, we’ll agree to respect their property. Wanting our lives to be respected, we’ll agree to respect their lives. All groups need to enforce GR rules that consider everyone’s interests. We need to ensure that those who treat other groups badly will suffer alienation, social disapproval, and legal penalties (external sanctions)—and guilt, anxiety, and low self-respect (internal sanctions); and we need to praise those who treat other groups well. All groups need to do this. If this happens, our group (and others) will prosper and won’t suffer from this war between groups.”

For a group to compromise, it must be unhappy with its current situation. It may be unhappy because it suffers from violence (harm to people or property) or non-violent resistance (demonstrations, strikes, economic boycotts, or sit-ins). Even a small oppressed group, when organized, can make it in the oppressor’s interest to end the oppression and follow GR toward other groups.

As groups mix over time, groupism faces the further problem of fuzzy group identity. There may be intermarriage, as between blacks and whites, or Jews and Muslims. Cultures may mix, as when whites learn to enjoy and create rap music. And groups may combine in endless ways, which shake our prejudices; imagine a gay-bashing Republican who gets to know a firm Republican who is gay. In complex societies, where groups mix and combine in different ways, it becomes less clear what “my group” is and what people I’m supposed to be against.

Psychological groupism says people by nature are motivated to have concern only for their own group. GR is a social trait we evolved to promote cooperation within our own clan. Since we’re genetically programmed to apply GR just to our group, a universal GR goes against human nature:

Objection based on Psychological groupism We're built (as products of evolution) to have concern only for our own group. Thus applying GR outside our group goes against nature, is unrealistic, and leads to frustration.

Applying GR to everyone won’t work, since it goes against how we’re built.

We’re certainly inclined toward in-groups and out-groups (just as we’re inclined toward egoism). There’s “us” and there’s “them.” But the “us” and “them” can, in complex societies, vary from moment to moment. We’re playing football against a rival team; “us” is my team, and we try to defeat the other team—and it seems not to matter what my teammates are in terms of race, religion, ethnicity, gender preference, and so on. I’m at a company meeting; “us” is my company, and we try to outsell the other company. I’m with my family (another “us”). I’m with my class or church group (each forming another “us”). In each case, I focus on serving a specific group; but I may still treat other groups fairly, by GR.

Consider evolution. According to Darwin, our social instincts evolved to promote the good of our group. So a purely instinctual ethics would be groupist. But social evolution (including religion and reason) moves us to higher morality of concern for everyone, even our enemies, as expressed GR.[1] While Darwin was vague about what forces move us from groupism to a universal GR, we can highlight four key factors:

  • War between groups or individuals hurts everyone.[2] As a result, group-interest and self-interest move us to promote a universal GR.
  • As groups mix over time, groupism faces the further problem of fuzzy group identity. This hurts groupism.
  • Every major religion teaches a universal GR.[3]
  • Consistency pushes us to a universal GR and away from groupism (which we’ll see is riddled with inconsistencies).

So social, religious, and rational forces support a universal GR. The “rational forces” here include consistency and rational self- and group-interest.

Darwin saw groupism as a lower morality and a universal GR as a higher morality. Those who spread division (racial, ethnic, religious, or whatever) are promoting a groupism that’s a relic from our evolutionary past, when clans with similar genes competed for survival against other such clans. A universal GR better promotes the good of groups and individuals.

Gold, besides being a metal, is a color. Let’s name five natural forces after the colors of autumn leaves:

  • Golden rule: Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.
  • Yellow rule (self-interest): Do unto yourself.
  • Brown rule (group-interest): Do unto your group.
  • Red rule (repayment/retaliation): Treat others as they treat you.
  • Purple rule (consistency): Be consistent in thought and action.

Which should we follow? GR, of course! But the others can lead to GR. Enlightened self-interest (yellow) can push us to promote a society where individuals follow GR. Enlightened group-interest (brown) can push us to promote a world where groups follow GR toward other groups. Repayment / retaliation (red), if practiced by others, makes it in our interest to follow GR since then the treatment we give is the treatment we get.[4] Consistency (purple) has us shun GR inconsistencies. So these five primal forces, if we understand them, can all point us in the same golden direction.

Extreme groupist principles[edit]

Conscientiousness is the requirement that we keep our life (including our actions, intentions, etc.) in harmony with our moral beliefs. This gives a way to criticize groupist principles. Let’s call “All short people to be beat up, just because they're short” shortism. If I hold shortism then I must, to be consistent, desire that if I were short then I be beat up. And this I likely can’t do. But then my thinking would be inconsistent.

Here are some extreme groupist principles:

  • Jews ought to be put into concentration camps and killed just because they’re Jews.
  • Blacks ought to be enslaved, just because they're black.
  • Women ought to be denied educational and voting opportunities, just because they’re women.
  • Gay people ought to be beaten up, just because they’re gay.

If you accept such principles consistently, then you must desire that if you were Jewish (black, female, gay, or whatever) then you’d be treated in an awful way. So such principles are difficult to hold consistently.

Instead of appealing to consistency against groupism, we might be tempted to counter with our own principle, like “People of all races ought to be treated with respect.” While this is a fine principle, a groupist will just reject it. And so we have a stalemate, where the groupist has his principle and we have ours, and neither can convince the other. A consistency appeal is more effective, since it turns the groupist’ s own principle against himself.

In rare cases, groupists might pass the consistency test; then we need to appeal to other factors, like knowledge and imagination. Perhaps the Nazi genuinely desires that if he were a Jew then he be put into a concentration camp and killed. There’s an allegedly true story about a Nazi who reacted this way when he discovered his Jewish ancestry. Since he hated Jews so much, he came to hate himself and his family. So he had himself and his family put into concentration camps and killed. This Nazi was consistent.

Such hateful anti-Jewish desires may come from:

  • current false beliefs. The Nazi may think Aryans are superior to Jews and racially pure. We can criticize this on factual grounds.
  • previous false beliefs. The Nazi may hate Jews because of previous false beliefs about Jews. He’s given up these beliefs, but his hatred of Jews remains.
  • social conditioning. The Nazi may have been taught to hate Jews. Maybe his family and friends hated Jews, called them names, and promoted stereotypes about them. And maybe he met only a few atypically nasty Jews. Then the Nazi’s hateful desires would diminish if he understood the origin of his hatred and broadened his experience of Jews in an open way.

The Nazi’s anti-Jewish desires came from false beliefs and social conditioning. Such flawed desires would diminish with greater knowledge and experience.

We also can have the Nazi consider other socially taught prejudices. All over the world, people in one group are taught to dislike those of another group. We teach young children: “Be suspicious of those other people. They’re of a different race (religion, ethnic background, sexual orientation, or caste). They aren’t our kind. They have strange customs and do strange things. They’re evil and inferior.” When we broaden our knowledge and experience, we conclude, “They’re people too, much like us, with many of the same virtues and vices.”

Hatreds programmed into us from our youth may never completely disappear; but a wider knowledge and experience will reduce them. That’s all that our consistency arguments need. Only a very strong hatred of Jews can make us desire that if we were Jews then we be put into a concentration camp and killed. And we can criticize such desires on rational grounds.

While this example was about Nazis, the same idea applies to one who desires that he be mistreated if he were black, female, or gay. In each case, the desire is likely flawed (since it’s based on a social conditioning that uses false beliefs and stereotypes) and would be given up if we expanded our knowledge and experience of the group in an open way.

Groupist arguments[edit]

Many racists present arguments intended to defend their racist views. For example, a white racist may argue that blacks should be treated as second-class citizens because they’re inferior. This is an argument, with a premise (“Blacks are inferior”) and conclusion (“Blacks ought to be treated as second-class citizens”). How should we respond? Should we dispute the racist’s premise, and say “All races are genetically equal”? Or should we counter with “People of all races ought to be treated equally”? Either strategy will likely bring a stalemate, where the racist has his beliefs and we have ours, and neither side can convince the other.

A better approach is to express the racist’s argument clearly and then watch it explode in his face. His conclusion, presumably, is about how all blacks ought to be treated. Since the conclusion has “all,” the premises also must have “all.” So he needs to claim that all blacks are inferior. And he needs to add that all inferior people ought to be treated as second-class citizens (denied voting, better education, better jobs, etc.). His argument then goes this way:

  All blacks are inferior. 
  All who are inferior ought to be treated as second-class citizens. 
∴ All blacks ought to be treated as second-class citizens. 

To clarify this further, we can ask what the racist means by “inferior.” What exactly puts someone into the “inferior” group? Is it IQ, education, wealth, physical strength, or what? Let’s suppose the racist decides on an IQ criterion: “inferior” = “of IQ below 80.” Then his argument goes:

  All blacks have an IQ below 80.
  All who have an IQ below 80 ought to be treated as second-class citizens.
∴ All blacks ought to be treated as second-class citizens.

The first premise is clearly false, since every race has some IQs below 80 and above 80. And the second premise also applies to whites:

  All people of an IQ below 80 ought to be treated as second-class citizens. 
∴ All whites of IQ below 80 ought to be treated as second-class citizens.

To be consistent, the racist must believe that he ought to treat low-IQ whites as second-class citizens (as he treats blacks). And he must treat these whites this way himself, and desire that others do so. The racist won’t be consistent.

Racist arguments also need to define the oppressed group. What makes a person “black” or “Jewish”? One might be black by skin color, racial features, or descent. One might be Jewish by religion, racial features, culture, or descent. These factors can exist in many combinations, degrees, and mixtures; racism requires giving precise boundaries to something that by nature is vague. Nazis in 1935 used arbitrary stipulations: you were Jewish (and persecuted) if one of your grandparents was a clear case of being a Jew.[5] Traditional American racism stipulated that any black ancestor makes you black—even if you're 99% white by descent, culture, and appearance;[6] so “All blacks have an IQ below 80” means “All who have at least one black ancestor have an IQ below 80.” Racist arguments get even crazier when we try to clarify them.[7]

Our strategy for criticizing racist arguments has three steps:

  1. Formulate the argument. The premises must be clearly stated, and the conclusion must clearly follow from the premises.
  2. Criticize the factual premises, if necessary.
  3. See if the racist applies his moral premise consistently to his own race.

If the racist’s conclusion is about how all blacks (or Jews, or whatever) are to be treated then he needs a criterion to separate the groups cleanly, so all blacks will be on one side and all whites on the other. An IQ number doesn’t do this—and neither does any other plausible criterion. These considerations of logic consistency will destroy most racist arguments.

Consider a racist citizen who argues that blacks should be treated as second-class citizens because they have dark skin:

 All blacks have dark skin.
 All who have dark skin ought to be treated as second-class citizens.
∴ All blacks ought to be treated as second-class citizens. 

The first premise is false, since many albino blacks have light skin; but the racist wants to treat them as second-class citizens too. And many whites have dark tans; the racist must treat them as second-class citizens. And if a Skin So Pale cosmetic were invented that turned black skin permanently white, the racist must discriminate only against blacks who didn’t use it.

The racist also must desire that if he and his family had dark skin then they’d be treated as second-class citizens. To dramatize the idea, we could tell him R.M. Hare's story[8] about the color-changing germ that's about to infect the world. The germ turns originally light skin permanently dark and originally dark skin permanently light. Does the racist really desire that if happened then the newly light-skinned people be treated well, and dark-skinned people (including himself and his family) be treated as second-class citizens? With questions like this, we can show him that his moral thinking is inconsistent and thus flawed.

Abraham Lincoln[9] similarly used consistency to criticize pro-slavery views. Suppose, Lincoln asks, you think that having a lighter skin (or greater intelligence) gives you the right to enslave another. Then you must accept that you are to be slave to the first person you meet with a lighter skin (or greater intelligence).

Sexism is also groupism. In the U.S. before 1920, men could vote but not women. And women were long denied equal education and employment. Women were thought to be intellectually inferior—less logical and emotional. Here's the argument:

 Men are more intelligent than women.
 All who are more intelligent, and only those, ought to be allowed to vote, participate in higher education, and assume leadership roles in government and business.
∴ Men but not women ought to be allowed to vote, participate in higher education, and assume leadership roles in government and business.
Women's suffragists parade in New York City in 1917, carrying placards with signatures of more than a million women.

The premise about men being more intelligent has been criticized in two ways. Many say that, if we compare men and women with the same education and background, both groups have equal intellectual abilities. Experiments with college students, for example, show no difference in logical skills between men women.[10] Another response contends that, while the intellectual skills of both groups differ, both are equally valuable. Logical skills are only part of intelligence. Women have other qualities, such as emotional sensitivity and a more holistic intuition, that are just as important.

What does the first premise, “Men are more intelligent than women,” mean? We might take this as “Every man is more intelligent than any woman” (there’s some intelligence level that every man is above and every woman is below); this claim is entirely implausible but needed to derive the conclusion that “Every man be allowed to vote (and so on) but no Woman ought to be allowed to do this.” Or we might take the first premise as “The average intelligence level of men is higher than the average level of women.” But even this doubtful claim wouldn’t justify banning every woman from voting, higher education, or leadership roles in government and business. Clearly many women have greater intelligence than most men who participate in these activities. One who holds the second premise (“All who are more intelligent, and only those, ought to be allowed to vote...”) must, to be consistent, allow the vote to women of greater intelligence but not to men of lesser intelligence.

This section analyzed old-fashioned racist and sexist arguments that used to be influential. It’s important to understand why such arguments are wrong and how to criticize them. Other groupist arguments have similar patterns: we ought to treat members of a group (Tutsis, Muslims, gays, etc.) in an unfavorable way because they have such and such a defect. But do they all have this defect? And what about people in your group who have this defect?

Groupist actions[edit]

Applying GR to groupist actions is straightforward. Let's consider a white racist who mistreats blacks. Kita suggests four steps.

(K) Get the racist to know the facts, especially about race (including the capabilities of different races) and about how his actions affect others. When President Kennedy applied GR to racism, he first tried to get whites to understand what segregation was doing to black people. Blacks were treated as second-class citizens because of skin color. They couldn’t vote, go to the best public schools, eat at most public restaurants, or sit in the front of the bus. These practices brought further poverty and frustration, and a low sense of self-worth. We can learn about another’s situation by observation and testimony. So we might have the racist observe blacks—how they live and how segregation affects them. And we might have him listen to the testimony of blacks about how they’re treated.

(I) Try to get the racist to imagine himself, vividly and accurately, in his victim’s place, on the receiving end of the action. So he might read a novel or watch a movie that portrays their lives. Or he might act out the role of someone discriminated against. Or he might relive, in his imagination, cases where he himself was treated poorly because of his background. Or he might just explore in his imagination what it would be like to receive such treatment.

(T) Have the racist test his consistency by asking, “Am I now willing that if I were in the same situation then this be done to me?” Most racists will answer no. If the racist answers yes, then he’s consistent but likely has flawed desires based on social conditioning. Then we need to have him understand the origin of his desires and expand his knowledge and experience of blacks.

(A) The racist needs to act toward others only as he’s willing to be treated in the same situation. This will lead him away from his flawed racism.

If racism is flawed, why did so many otherwise normal people embrace it? Haas 1988[11] explains the rise of Nazism. He talks about ancient racial animosities; about nationalism, charismatic leaders, powerful organizations, and social pressures; about fear, greed, hatred, and blind obedience; about lies, stereotypes, ignorance, and uncriticalness; and about how people get used to killing when their friends find it acceptable. Also, the Nazis compartmentalized their thinking. They applied empathy and GR to their own families but not to Jews. They were rational in choosing means to ends but not in appraising ends. These powerful forces overcame the weak voice of reason.

Something similar explains American racism toward blacks. The story begins with a racist world that tolerates slavery. It continues with the greed of the slave traders and slave owners, America’s ignoring of its founding principle (“All men are created equal”), inherited racial stereotypes and animosities, compartmentalized thinking (empathy and GR are applied to whites but not blacks), fear of change, group pressures, and so on. There are many reasons why we don't apply GR.

History, Slavery, and GR[edit]

Photographed in 1863 – Peter, aka Gordon, a man who was enslaved in Mississippi.

Martin Luther King Jr. assured us that; “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The long and difficult history of slavery in the United States provides an example of a long struggle bending slowly toward justice.

The golden rule was prominent in the historic American debate on slavery. This will not be covered in detail here. The student can read the history of the debate on slavery here, in the companion course, or elsewhere.

Assignment[edit]

The history of slavery is only one example where the golden rule provides an effective argument highlighting the injustices of oppressed and marginalized groups of people. Struggles for equality continue today in the form of latent racism, sexism, homophobia, religious persecution, xenophobia, rankism, hate crimes, class struggles, bullying, and other forms of overt and covert oppression and discrimination.

Learn how the golden rule was used to argue against slavery and model your current thinking, conversation, and debates after those successful arguments.

Please continue the course with the topic on Applied Ethics.

References[edit]

  1. Darwin (The Descent of Man, ch4) wrote: "To do good in return for evil, to love your enemy, is a height of morality to which it may be doubted whether the social instincts would, by themselves, have ever led us. In is necessary that these instincts, together with sympathy, would have been highly cultivated and extended by the aid of reason, instruction, and the love or fear of God, before any such golden rule could ever be thought of and obeyed."
  2. The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker.
  3. This is a major topic in the companion course.
  4. More on this is covered in the companion course.
  5. Haas, Morality after Auschwitz 62-5 & 133-5)
  6. Zack, Race and Mixed Race
  7. It’s unwise to spend much time debating the average genetic IQ of various groups. First, there are questions about the value and cultural neutrality of the IQ test. Second, it's difficult to separate from environmental factors; oppressed groups can be expected to perform poorer (Silber 1964). Third, the moral relevance of average IQ is unclear. Suppose we prove a group to a lower average genetic IQ; why should we conclude that all members of the group ought to as second-class citizens—even those with a high IQ? If we proved that blondes have an average genetic IQ why should we exclude an unusually bright blonde (like the heroine in movie Legally Blonde) from law school on the basis of being blonde? If you don't think this would be crazy, imagine that you're kept out of law school on this basis.
  8. Hare, Freedom and Reason, 1963
  9. Lincoln, A. (1850s-65) The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln 8 vols. 2:223f
  10. In the forty years the Harry Gensler has taught logic, he started with a pretest, on which males and females do equally well. See: http://harryhiker.com/logic.htm
  11. Haas, P. Morality after Auschwitz.