Skip to main content
woman wiht fire cups in the water, outdoors

What Is Tribal (Secular) Morality? Our Underlying Societal Dynamic

Think about your reaction and the reactions you saw from others about the following news stories.

What thoughts come to mind? What are you compelled to say?

When news events unfold of which we’re not affected nor do we have direct influence, our reaction is a helpful glimpse into who we are, the nature of our character, the hierarchy of our values, and the power dynamics in our society. It’s also a revealer, particularly in the age of mass digital participation, of the tribal (secular) moral dynamics in which we operate. Two recent major events that have revealed our tribal morality are the recent atrocities committed by Hamas against Israel and the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

When we operate with highly problematic assumptions, we give evil cover because we draw and enforce tribal lines instead of moral lines. We easily police other tribes but tend not to audit ourselves or those in our tribe that we trust.

And because of our tribal morality, we often fail to truly understand and deal with the depth of hatred and evil. Fear, allegiance, and ideology blind us. Secular, tribal, morality moves us down that road, often unknowingly.

Clarifying Tribal (Secular) Morality

We are all caught up in Tribal morality (my group matters more than yours or your group matters less than mine).

Let's explore our societal dynamic.

"1. Alasdair MacIntyre’s “disquieting suggestion” is that our capacity for ethical discourse is long gone, even if we never noticed its absence. 2. Nowadays, we have a lot of people making appeals to “objective” ethical standards that are incompatible. 3. Emotivism is the theory that all moral speech is actually just a disguise for arbitrarily asserting one’s opinion or will." - Jesse Nigro, Secular Stories, Part 1

The essence of secular morality, which I am labeling as tribal morality, is when no moral tradition has privilege over another (a technical definition of secular). If all moral frameworks are man-made then all forms of morality are on an even playing field.

If morality is man-made, the morality that is elevated is elevated because of power. Whichever tribe is most powerful and able to force its morality on others is the morality of the people. This means a morality can be imposed that is partially or fully immoral — assuming a transcendent morality exists. If it does not exist, there is no objective transcendent source of morality and nothing to which we can appeal.

Transcendent Morality

If there is a transcendent morality, then we must align our personal morality and societal ethics with it. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously stated.

“A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.“ - Martin Luther King Jr. Letter from a Birmingham Jail

It was this transcendent approach that made MLK Jr so effective. Instead of reacting to the morality of the time with a mirroring version of the same thing (which many in his era did), he appealed to and pushed for a transcendent morality instead. It's in his example, and those like him, that we find inspiration.

A transcendent morality is sourced in something higher (in natural law, and ultimately in the source of that natural law). The implication is that what is true and good must align with this higher source of morality. If it does not, it is a counterfeit.

Religious traditions work out this morality over time and across generations to align with natural law and the source of morality. I believe Jesus, and by extension Christianity, is the tradition that most fully and completely embodies the true and full nature of things (But I invite interfaith dialogue because I could be wrong, I have much to learn from those who differ from me, and it is one of the most fruitful tensions for helping us to discover the truth more fully). And I also acknowledge that Christianity has often abdicated its moral authority by shedding transcendent morality for tribal morality. There is potential for evil to pervade anything, religion, and secularism included.

Traditions outside of Christianity and within it, working together against evil can transform the world we live in. Together, we can operate along moral lines instead of tribal ones. And we can help each other see our respective blindspots and vulnerabilities.

If we want to condemn evil it must be across the board. We don’t pick and choose the groups we want to condemn. Whether it’s white supremacy, Russia’s war crimes, Antifa’s violence, or Hamas’ brutality, we have to draw the line across the board, and that includes the radical inside ourselves and the toxic extremists in our own tribes.

Degenerating Man Made Morality

Instead of elevating our morality into the transcendent, the alternative is to corrupt our morality. The end of this road is becoming the evil monster while justifying it as the good.

Most of us have embraced forms of morality that we think are transcendent but are simply another form of man-made morality. Sometimes we even justify it with scriptures, religious teachings, and other groundings, while failing to see it as counterfeit (as Bush did justifying the Iraq war, and as Japan did with its attacks and invasions in World War 2). These counterfeit moralities make us vulnerable to nefarious actors and internal corruption. They make it easier for us to degenerate.

There are practical limitations to who we can help and there are limited areas of responsibility we each have, but our moral disposition on the issues should remain the same and in alignment with transcendent morality, even beyond our limitations.

The Contrast to the Ideal

Tribal morality could also be us wanting others to be held to a moral standard for which we do not want to be held accountable. Accountability for "thee", not for "we".

And it’s also important to note that those who align with transcendent morality can become a threat to those who are out of line with it. This difference creates a comparison. The ideal makes the nonideal look bad.

“Every ideal becomes a judge.” - Jordan Peterson

The story of Cain and Abel is an insightful example. Cain destroys the ideal (murdering Abel) and spites God (whom Cain cannot directly harm).

This contrast to the ideal is most striking between Jesus and the religious leaders who hated him and had him crucified.

For this reason, it’s often difficult or impossible to change towards the ideal. In many cases where it is possible, it takes multiple generations to steadily move towards it.

The flipside here is people who see themselves as embodying the ideal, in a self-righteous way, will also condemn and oppress those that are in the shadow of the ideal.

girl looking through the blinds on a window

How Does Tribal Morality Manifest in Society?

"Placing specific ethnic or cultural identities on a pedestal, they encourage their followers to value their group over the rights of outsiders or the claims of universal human solidarity...

...these kinds of norms and policies are likely to create a society composed of warring tribes rather than cooperating compatriots, with each group engaged in a zero-sum competition with every other group." Yascha Mounk, The Identity Trap, Page 14

Another simple way to understand tribal morality is valuing lives in our group, but not valuing lives outside of our group (or valuing them less). We might value the lives of Americans, but we could care less about the lives of immigrants coming into our country. We don't expect immigrant children to be treated as well as we expect our children to be treated. Or, we're happy to pay taxes for the school when our kids go, but not willing to pay taxes when our kids are done and other kids go. My people, not yours.

These morality distortions can move up and down with different categories. It could include our country and others, our political party and theirs, our religious group, and the other one. In the most horrific forms of fascism and communism, it was one race over another and one class over the others.

Tribal morality is also passing unsustainable laws, ones that benefit a small group at the cost of others. It's when my son hits his brother and justifies it because his brother hit him (while also ignoring how he provoked him). If Trump does something bad and you respond with, well Biden did something bad. Or if someone says Democrats are corrupt and you point to Republican corruption, you’re probably grounded in tribal morality.

But it can also include justification for things that seem good and are not obviously problematic.

"…what Dostoievksi through [Ivan] Karamazov was saying, was that, if we take atheism to be true, then there is no type of action, no matter how horrifying, of which we can be sure that we could never find good reason to perform it, that it would never be overwhelmingly and overridingly in what we took to be the general interest to perform it. Dostoievski through Karamazov was not predicting Auschwitz or the Gulag. He was predicting the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo, the saturation bombing of the Ruhr and the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was predicting not the crimes of the obviously wicked, but the crimes of the apparently good, types of action that it is rational to prohibit unconditionally only if one is a theist."  - Alasdair MacIntyre, 'On Being a Theistic Philosopher in a Secularised Culture'.

The implication of tribal moralism is that one bad behavior justifies the bad behavior of the other. And it allows us to justify things that are not obviously problematic. They did this to me, I can do that to them.  Or it’s that we can’t do bad things to each other, but we can do bad things to you because you’re outside our group and of no (or lesser) value. If you did terrible things to us, we can more easily justify doing terrible things to you.

These are forms of tribal morality. But being racist doesn't fight racism, it perpetuates it. Being less barbaric doesn't make someone not barbaric.

In American society, the driving force behind our morality is a form of preference and practicality as Carl Trueman explains in his book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, on page 77.

"Phillip Rieff's central point here is that the abandonment of a sacred [transcendent] order leaves cultures without any foundation. The culture with no sacred order therefore has the task — for Rieff, the impossible task — of justifying itself only by reference to itself. Morality will thus tend toward a matter of simple consequentialist pragmatism, with the notion of what are and are not desirable outcomes being shaped by the distinct cultural pathologies of the day."

Choose a Different Way: Embrace Responsibility

Jesus spoke against tribal morality. The tribal morality we impose on others reflects back on us.

Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged.

 And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?  How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye?

Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.”

So while pointing out hypocrisy is important at times, it should not be a shield to avoid accountability or a distortion to oppress others. This could include saying something like, you got away with bad behavior so I should get away with it too. It should instead be a way to hold ourselves to account as well as others, out of love (not hate).

Deal with your personal and group's hypocrisy so you have moral high ground and clarity of vision to address it in others.

A Way Forward For Christians

Christians need a vision that aligns with transcendent morality. And we go about accomplishing this vision within virtue and outside of vice, while ensuring the approaches are beneficial to all and not exploitative of others.

Transcendent morality is undergirded in an inherited value. It says that even though you are my enemy, you are still a valuable life. It says even though you are a criminal, you should be treated justly. And it acknowledges that operating with tribal morality corrupts us. 

This is obviously a high bar to reach, but we can make steps towards it, and imperfectly get as close as we can.

I’ll close out with the following insights for Christians, specifically.

"One inescapable conclusion of this extraordinary command is that Christians are obliged to work for the benefit and flourishing of all people whether or not they see the world as we do or agree with us in any way.

A Christian's obligation is not to their tribe, but to their God. A God who cares deeply for all people.

And if a Christian's political ideas and actions are not intended toward the good of their enemies, then their political witness is not Christian in its character. When it is, everyone benefits. " - Michael Wear, The Problem in Our Politics

Michael also shares the following verse from the prophet, Jeremiah.

"Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper." - Jeremiah 29

You can watch the whole talk here or by using the embedded video below.

Wrapping Up: Loving Those Who Don't Love Back & Seeing The Shark Inside Ourselves

A few final words as we wrap this up.

First, I want to share this quote where Jesus is talking about how tribal morality comes easy. But loving those outside our tribe, including our enemies, is not natural, but is what we all are called to do.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Jesus of Nazareth, Matthew - 5:43 - 48 (ESV).

My friend Cris Anzai, shared his insightful commentary on the passage in learning about the Greek translation.

"I wanted to know about what perfect meant in this content and asked Chat GPT what does "Perfect" translate to in this context - it looks like the word "perfect" here is the Greek translation of "teleios" which is related to "telos" (they both share the same Greek root "tel-"). Teleios is an adjective that conveys the idea of being complete, mature, or perfect - about reaching an end goal or state of completeness, whereas Telos generally means "end, goal, purpose, or completion" (or as you defined it - "vision") - it denotes the end point of a process or the purpose for which something exists."

Secondly, I’ll leave you with this fun song, Sharks, by Imagine Dragons which hits the nail on the head, about our sense of superiority towards our rival and enemy tribes, or even those inside our tribe.

"You think you're better than them
Better than them
You think they're really your friends
Really your friends
But when it comes to the end
To the end
You're just the same as them
Same as them"

Additional Resources

Thanks to Cris Anzai for helping to make this better.

  • Created on .
  • Last updated on .