Community, Ethics, Friends, Relationships, Society, Values

The Expansion of Morality and the Internet

Yesterday, a friend suggested to me a way the internet might be bringing together our extremely clever species of super-charged chimpanzee.  As most of us know, humans are a social animal that for evolutionary reasons tends to divide the world into “those who are members of our group” (our in-groups) and “those who are not members of our group” (our out-groups).  My friend likes to call this tendency “tribalism”.  And yesterday, he proposed the internet to some extent breaks down tribalism.

The way the net breaks down tribalism might be two-fold.  First, it might obscure some or many tribal boundaries.  And second, it might heighten the importance to us of things we have in common.  Let’s talk about that first one first.

It’s obvious to nearly everyone the net makes it difficult to know certain things about the people you meet on it.  For instance, you cannot know — unless you are flat out told, and told the truth — whether someone has sweet or sour breath.  Consequently, those of us with breath like fresh spring dew, as well as those of us with breath like stale moose pee, are on a remarkably equal footing when chatting with each other over the net.  More importantly, any natural tendency we net-surfing chimps have to divide ourselves into “those of us whose breath smells like spring dew” and “those of us whose breath smells like stale moose pee” is frustrated by the simple fact the net is a medium that does not carry smells.  So far as the net is concerned, we are all one and the same when it comes to breath flavor.

What’s true of breaths is also true to an equal — or sometimes lesser — extent of many other things.  Things that we humans routinely use to mark who belongs to our group(s) and who doesn’t belong.

For instance, one of the many prevalent ways humans cheerfully divide themselves into groups these days is by an individual’s financial means.  Yet, it’s difficult to tell over the net how rich or poor someone is unless they make a point of letting the world know how rich or poor they are.  Consequently, our tendency to divide ourselves by economic class is at least partly frustrated by the net.

So the first point is the net tends to break down tribalism by obscuring some or many of the signs or marks of which tribes we belong to.  The second point, then, is the net tends to break down tribalism by enhancing, or making more obvious, our common humanity.

For instance, I believe I’ve noticed that communication by text alone tends to emphasize the various ways people think and feel.  And those various ways tend to be universal.  There are logical people the world over.  There are sociable people the world over.  There are emotional people the world over.  And so forth.

If meeting people on the internet tends to prove anything at all, it tends to prove that each society and culture has the same kinds of people in it.   At least, the same kinds of people when it comes to the most fundamental ways in which we humans think and feel.  So I believe it’s reasonable to argue the net can, in one or another manner, break down tribalism by making some aspects of our common humanity more obvious to us.

At this point, I think I’ve explained the gist of my friend’s theory well enough that any interested chimpanzee will rejoice in the fact he or she now has enough information to mull over his theory.  So perhaps it’s time this particular chimp introduced a quibble.

My quibble about my friend’s theory is I suspect the internet is a two edged sword.  Certainly, he’s correct to assert there are ways in which the internet (1) obscures some tribal boundaries and (2) emphasizes some common human traits.  But aren’t there also ways the internet (1) emphasizes — or even creates new — tribal boundaries and (2) obscures some common human traits?

For instance, I wonder if the net doesn’t make ideological differences between people more important than those differences would be face to face.   Sometimes, all you know about a person you are chatting with on the net is they firmly believe in x.   If you knew them off line, you might notice a lot of things the two of you have in common.  But since you are dealing with them on line, and only know they believe in x, you might feel the two of you are worlds apart if you happen to disagree with them over x.

At any rate, the two edged nature of the net is the one real quibble I have with his theory.  I’m tempted to recognize the two edged nature of the net by thinking, “What the internet giveth, the internet taketh away”.   But it turns out that might actually be a superficial gloss of what could be happening to us when we meet and get to know people over the net.

Basically, I suspect what’s really going on is the net, in many cases, is expanding the diversity of our stronger in groups.

I think most of us are very likely to think and feel we belong to many groups — groups such as our family, our network of friends, our community, our nation, humanity, and so forth.  And I think most of us are equally likely to think and feel the groups most important to us — our “stronger” in grousp — are the ones that contain the people we most frequently interact with.  For instance, I feel my friends — both on line and off line — are more important to me than the strangers I see in news photos, even though I recognize we are all of one humanity.   So, for me at least, my friends are a group that’s more important or stronger to me than the group “all of humanity”.

Now, what the net seems to be doing to some extent is increase the diversity of of some of the groups nearest and dearest to us.   For instance, many of us now have friends from all over the world mostly because the internet has made such a thing easy.  But even when that’s not the case, there are still large numbers of us who now have friends with backgrounds quite different from ours.  So it seems in some ways people are connecting on a fairly intimate level with relatively diverse groups of people these days.  And, assuming that’s happening on a large enough scale, it could have consequences for the future of humanity if it continues.

It’s a fact of human nature that we tend to treat members of our own tribe (our in-groups) much better than we do members of other tribes (our out-groups).   That’s to say, many of us — perhaps even most of us — have at least two sets of morals: one we apply to folks in our in-groups and one we apply to folks in our out-groups.

Of course, there are many obvious ways in which it makes sense — even moral sense — that the people nearest to us should be more important to us than “all of humanity”.   But what doesn’t make as much sense — at least not in this age of the world — is to routinely treat the people nearest to us decently and fairly and the people furthest from us indecently and unfairly.

We humans have a vile tendency to consider folks who do not belong to our nearest and dearest groups as somehow less than us, even less than human.  Yet, if we are going to survive our all too clever ability to obliterate human life on this planet, then we must get over the notion that some humans are less than us, are perhaps not even human, and were meant to be treated according to a different set of morals than we would extend to even the worse members of our most cherished in groups.  If the internet can serve as a means — at least one means — of expanding our in group morality to include folks from places and backgrounds very different than our own, then perhaps our species of enlightened chimpanzee might yet outwit our peculiar tendency to destroy ourselves in the most clever ways we can think of.

6 thoughts on “The Expansion of Morality and the Internet”

  1. Ahh, that is you at your best Paul. Intelligent, articulate, original. Controlled passion. It’s like old fashioned sophistry in the best sense of that word.


  2. I recall that when I first started using the internet, everyone I encountered, or virtually (hey, a pun!) everyone wanted to know age, gender, location, and such like stuff. I never replied because I saw the internet as a medium/community where those things, along with race, religion, etc., etc., became irrelevant and only your expressed ideas mattered. Well, it pissed quite a few people off that I didn’t want to play that game.

    Things seem to have mellowed slightly in that regard.

    So, yeah, tribalism. Maybe it’ll become an anachronism.

    I once heard a line that has stuck with me ever since: The world is divided into two kinds of people. People who divided the world into two kinds of people, and people who don’t.


  3. Reminds me of the ‘poor’ Creationist preacher ‘Observant’ who I accused of being my EVIDENCE that there is NO GOD!

    He tried to ‘poo-poo’ it away but I kept hammering his comments, dissecting them line by line.

    I did wonder if I was hurting his feelings, if such ‘creatures’ have true feelings that is.


  4. I think that the internet strengthens some boundaries while blurring others. Gender becomes obscured, as does race and nationality (to an extent). But, politics, religious beliefs, and moral philosophy (or, you know, fetishes) become the major method of separation into groups. And perhaps perceived intelligence and passion for a certain hobby or band or actor, etc. also becomes a new, potentially volatile, in-group. Factor in the essential anonymity of internet comments and that there are less consequences for being an asshole (and there are no human reactions sufficient enough to give you an ordinary sense of guilt for being one), and you find the internet is indeed a double edged sword, as you called it. It is a nice way of unifying people and then re-dividing them into brand new groups that would have been far too inane when limited by geography, and when your entire self isn’t represented by diction and ideology on a computer screen.

    In fairness, at least we will grow to hate people for their ideas instead of physical qualities or geographic location. That’s a step forward. Sort of…


  5. One website I cruise by every day demonstrates this in a subtle way – – it covers events and observances in the sky, and space. Satellites, natural phenomena, that sort of thing. Frequently, photos of these celestial events and phenomena appear on Spaceweather. IMAO, (for the most part) beautiful photos.

    And a surprising proportion of these photos come from Iran.

    No matter where in the world we are, what our politics or religion, it seems we all (or most of us anyway) stand in awe of the majesty and beauty of the sky, particularly the night sky.

    – M. \”/


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