“To every man there openeth
A Way, and Ways, and a Way.
And the High Soul climbs the High way,
And the Low Soul gropes the Low,
And in between, on the misty flats,
The rest drift to and fro.
But to every man there openeth
A High Way, and a Low.
And every man decideth
The Way his soul shall go.”
The idea of individual responsibility came fairly late in human history.
In ancient times, individuals were seen only as part of their family, clan, tribe, or nation. The group bore collective responsibility for the actions of any of its members.
That’s no surprise, because it’s how our minds work. We use concepts to group similar cases together. Such generalization helps us think about them more efficiently.
We seldom realize how great an intellectual achievement that was. Nor do we realize how subconscious generalizations bias our thinking.
Numbers are an example. They’re a fairly late development. A number such as three covers related cases based on them having three items in each case. Ancient people, and some primitive tribes even now, lack a single concept for it. In one example, there are:
“… [seven] distinct sets of number words: one for flat objects and animals; one for round objects and time; one for counting men; one for long objects and trees; one for canoes; one for measures; [and] one for counting when no definite object is referred to.”
It took an intellectual leap to realize that “three” was the same idea whether it applied to flat objects, round objects, or anything else. We’re so accustomed to the general idea that it seems totally obvious to us, but it wasn’t obvious to our ancestors. When they finally saw it was the same idea in all those different contexts, they could think more efficiently. General concepts are now a fundamental way in which we understand the world.
Thus, our default reaction is to see people as group members rather than as individuals, such as Americans, Canadians, Jews, Gentiles, Republicans, and Democrats.
Often, that’s helpful. Generalizations help us make accurate predictions. They often enable our group and us to survive in a world that is at best competitive and at worst dangerous.
Sometimes, however, they bias our thinking in ways that can harm us and other people.
When we catch ourselves thinking in terms of “us” versus “them,” we should take a breath and make sure we’re thinking clearly. If we don’t get our facts straight, then we risk blundering into injustice.
Check out my new book, Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace.