Avoiding dehumanisation

pexels-photo.jpgWe are programmed to create categories and so to think of the world in terms of ingroups and outgroups. We understand and care for our ingroups (for example, our family and friends, our national brethren, members of our race) and aim to propagate them and help them thrive.

Between our ingroups, we sometimes have moral decisions to make. An action hero is often deciding between her family and her country. Which one should she save?

It is, however, our relationship with outgroups that determines our moral character.

Our natural instincts appear to be unfortunate. Nature seems to have wired us to think of outgroups as less moral, less intelligent, less able. We paint all members of an outgroup with the same brush. At worst, we actively dehumanise some outgroups. The source of most types of groupthink hate (e.g. racism, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant) is this outgroup bias. Note that our action hero is happy to murder anyone standing in the way of her helping out her family / country (delete as appropriate based on the decision she made) without a further thought.

We need to avoid this outgroup bias. We need to recognise it when we see it, and we need to kill it stone dead. We need to ensure that we do not just assume superiority. We need to understand that our need to categorise exists to simplify the world so that our feeble, measly brains can understand it and thus we need to not be slaves to the categories that we see.

I’m pessimistic about the morality of capitalism, and one of the reasons is that capitalism is an active user of outgroup bias to allow people to feel comfortable with morally uncomfortable decisions. Managers talk about “target markets” and “consumers” rather than people, making consumption of a product or service the only facet of an individual’s life. A manager at a cigarette company will talk about a 12-year-old in Africa as a “potential smoker”, rather than as a child that they are knowingly inducing into an unhealthy, potentially deadly habit – and will often not allow their own 12-year-old child to smoke. Similarly, Silicon Valley leaders do not let their children run free with tech but always think about acquiring new users for their products. As the world becomes increasingly data-led, I fear we may be more and more likely to think about people as markets, as consumers, and as members of a dataset.

It should be noted that the moral questions around outgroup bias above hint at some belief that humanity is something that is worth respecting over and above nature. That humanity deserves some special attention over other beings. That other animals and plants are the outgroup. I think it takes an individual with huge moral cojones to make all life, all of nature part of their ingroup. I wrote about this a bit here.

 

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