Tribalism Is Moral

This will be a short post as the point is largely self-evident with a basic understanding of the biology of morality. However, as people often claim that in-group preference is “racist” and “immoral,” because it is not fair, this is a subject that it seems many people could use a bit of information on.

The basis of morality is caring about others as well as yourself. Oxytocin, the hormone of love and attachment, is the hormone that affects how much people care about others. A person’s oxytocin level is the determiner of how moral (empathetic and selfless) or immoral (apathetic and selfish) their behavior will be.  A primary focus of research on people with antisocial personality disorder (psychopaths and sociopaths) is on genetic mutations that prevent their bodies from processing oxytocin correctly. The Moral Molecule by Paul J. Zak, a leading researcher on this subject, goes over the evidence that oxytocin = morality in detail, if anyone’s interested.

Oxytocin is also associated with strong in-group preference.

Oxytocin Promotes Human Ethnocentrism by C. De Dreu et al.

This study showed that nasally-administered oxytocin increased the in-group favoritism of Dutch men while decreasing acceptance of members of other ethnicities. They tested the men’s out-group derogation for both Arabs and Germans, however, and while in-group preference increased across the board, out-group derogation only increased for Arabs, which indicates there was a racial basis for the in-group preferences.

Oxytocin Receptor Gene and Racial Ingroup Bias in Empathy-Related Brain Activity by S. Luo et al.

This study found that people with G/G rs53576 oxytocin receptors had over twice the neural empathetic response for individuals of their race who were in pain than they did for individuals not of their race who were in pain. Whereas people with A/A rs53576 oxytocin receptors, a mutation which has been abundantly associated with a malfunctioning ability to process oxytocin, had a similar low empathetic response to everyone. Interestingly, A/A people had a much higher response in the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) than G/G people did to people not of their race in pain. NAcc activity negatively predicted the person’s desire to help the person in pain. So while those horrible racist G/G people had a low empathetic response to people not of their race, on par with the A/A people’s empathetic response to everyone, they were still significantly more likely to want to help people not of their race in pain, compared to those fair A/A people who felt equally empathetic for everyone.

Oxytocin Motivates Non-Cooperation in Intergroup Conflict to Protect Vulnerable In-Group Members by C. De Dreu et al.

In this study, some men received nasally-administered oxytocin and others did not. They were then divided into groups and presented with a competitive game to play. The men who did not receive oxytocin were unaffected by the interests of the others in their group and made decisions based on their self-interest. The men who did receive oxytocin competed in a way that protected others in their group, including refusing to cooperate with those in other groups if it would harm their members.


In short:

  • Oxytocin = morality. People with high levels of oxytocin are moral, and people with low levels are selfish.
  • Oxytocin = tribalism. People with high levels of oxytocin prioritize the needs of their own group, while people with low levels treat everyone more or less equally.

You can’t have it both ways. Either people are moral and tribal, or they are immoral and universalist. When someone claims they feel the same about everyone or values everyone’s needs equally (as utilitarians do), it’s not that they’ve magically developed attachments to people they’ve never met. It’s that they’ve detached themselves from their family, friends, and tribe, thinking that this is the more moral way to live.

Don’t try to love everyone equally. Don’t try to prefer strangers over your own family, and outsiders over your own people. Cultivate strong relationships and attachments, and be as proud of your tribalism as you are proud of your morality. The two are inseparable.


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