Weekly Tip 11: Tribalism vs. Self-Interest Rightly Understood

I’m a moral philosopher, cut from similar cloth with First Economist Adam Smith, to use a maxim from long ago.  Smith might have saluted French President Emmanuel Macron at the 100th commemoration of the armistice ending World War I.

Nationalism is betrayal of patriotism, said Macron in stern rebuke to the tribalism of President Donald Trump, listening nearby.  Recently, Trump declared himself a nationalist.  Macron emphasized however, nationalism is the exact opposite of patriotism.  Nationalism sounds like this, Macron said.  Our interests first.  Who cares about others.

To use another maxim, Adam Smith might be rolling in his grave at the very need for a French President to rebuke tribalism in contemporary America and elsewhere.

Back home, Trump sided with Floridian Rick Scott in the governor’s senatorial bid against incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson, even while ballots were still being counted.  Florida ballots were missing and forged, according to Trump and without evidence.  He demanded a halt to the recount in order to stop Nelson from stealing the election, he claimed.  Nelson had initiated it consistent with State law and at a time when many arriving military ballots from overseas were still being tallied.

Adam Smith would have pleaded for self-interest rightly understood.

Capitalism’s intense competition is justified only when the pursuit of self-interest aligns with the common good; with the good of the whole community, the whole nation, even the entirety of the global enterprise.

As the ethics of American capitalism go, so also go the ethics of American civil discourse, or lack thereof.

There are two tracks to moral philosophy as practiced by Adam Smith.  One asks about right action, about what the ethical individual should do.  The other asks about what the ethical community or nation should do.  Sometimes these may be in conflict.  To illustrate, what Donald Trump views as being in his self-interest or the self-interest of his political party may not correspond with the best interest of the nation or the planet.

If you are repulsed by polarization and tribalism in America today, you may be interested in a report on what is driving us apart and what may bring us together, from globally-based More in Common.  It’s a new initiative to build societies and communities that are stronger, more unified and more resilient to increasing threats of polarization and social division.

In the era of social media and partisan news outlets they say, America’s differences have become dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense.  For the combatants, the other side can no longer be tolerated and no price is too high to defeat them.

These tensions, according to More in Common, are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and putting our democracy in peril.

The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now.  It extends from re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities, all the way to building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us.

More about this in future posts.  Stay tuned.

Module 24
Module 26
Module 30
More in Common


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