Group Bias, History, and Possibility

By Michael George

War distorts and does violence to most of our best attempts to create and maintain healthy and functional social relationships, even including religious relationships. In the case of Ukraine, divisions in the Orthodox church in that country that pre-date the current conflict indicate that autonomy, a central aspect in Orthodox theology and authority, is a contentious issue with differing interpretations depending on one’s thoughts about politics, nationalism and religion. As all of these factors are strongly affective, and linked to identity in fundamental ways, it is not so surprising that disagreement exists. From a more general perspective, these sets of problems indicate an aspect of social relationality that illuminates a fundamental tension in human communities, even in the absence of war. That tension has to do with the necessity of belonging to a group, or groups, that provide the support and security we require to exist and thrive, something that is essential to human survival we are told by evolutionary thinkers, and that underlies a list of virtues (such as loyalty, responsibility, empathy, trust, and the like), that we all endorse, as communal bonds are foundational for all human activities, but which can become hugely problematic when the group(s)’ values become exclusive, ideological, or absolute.

The nature of this problem, or more accurately, sets of problems, is something called “group bias”.[i] In essence, group bias is some form of interference with the development of practical common sense, but unlike individual bias (which has the same basis, i.e., interference with the development of practical common sense), group bias is supported by intersubjective feeling provided by the group. So, how does something which is essential for human existence, growth and stability, namely membership in a group, become the source of so many practical problems and series of historical distortions? To some extent, we are all participants in different forms of group bias, inasmuch as we live in historically conditioned contexts and are all members of different social groups. At which points, and under what sorts of conditions, do these essentially important relationships become detrimental to the development of the members of the group, and to the larger sets of social relationships that the group participates in? Clearly, it would be impossible to consider all possible situations and factors that affect whether or not the choices that are made are made in order to promote the general public good and welfare, or the choices are made in order to promote the interests of the group alone, but distortions of ideas, or incomplete ideas become clear when such choices are implemented. The current war now being waged in Ukraine is an extreme example of such a distorted set of choices being put into motion.

Group bias becomes problematic to the extent that the ideas that are promoted, and the actions that are chosen cease being directed by the desire to understand a given situation and then to act to improve the general social conditions and instead become occasions that promote the vested interests of the particular group without consideration of the rest of the social order. This dilemma, a constant feature of human life, seems to be exacerbated in the current global political/economic climate where self- and vested interests are often perceived as unquestioned values and where achieving and maintaining power and wealth are taken for granted as legitimate enterprises. However, it would not be so difficult to make the same claim for the larger extent of human history, particularly as the domination and subordination of others seems to be an inherent element of how humans organize and control the social polity. This reality is a constant challenge to any and all who might propose moral or religious grounds as a sufficient counter-measure that might serve to rectify or mitigate the negative tendencies created by different forms of group bias. Despite the fact that religious groups are also subject to their own forms of group bias with accompanying distortions, there is an interesting argument presented by the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, about the larger role of religion in the social order in the current times despite the overall decline in the social and political significance of religion in Western society.[i] In the prize-winning book, Taylor explores some of the major features and implications of changes that led Western Society from a comprehensive theological sensibility that informed all aspects of culture and society, including power and authority, in the year 1500 to become a mainly secularized social order in the year 2000 (the years are not significant in themselves but represent boundaries of the time frame he examined) where religion, where it still exists is primarily a matter of personal choice, and has little or no influence on decisions of state or economy. In his concluding remarks, he makes the case that religion remains a significant (if diminished) part of Western Society, if only because it provides a public space for the possibility of transcendence.[ii] While Taylor’s point addresses the continuing role of Christianity albeit as a reduced presence, I am interested in considering expanding the notion oftranscendence as the ground of possibility as such, inasmuch as transcendence indicates for me the recognition that humans are never only victims of circumstance, but are always capable of being more than the sum of the situations that they find themselves in. In considering the social polity, and the lack of any social spaces where people are encouraged to publicly engage in critical discussion and reflection about the general state of their lives, their communities, their countries, and their planet, religion still offers a public space where the agendas of our social/political/economic projects are not determinative, or even normative (at least, theoretically speaking). The lack of social spaces where social engagement around issues and questions of meaning, purpose and identity might take place indicates the low priority that our societies place on such endeavours, which in turn raises questions about how our lives are supposed to be adequately supported and sustained by our active participation in consuming goods and services. While meeting material needs is certainly a requirement of any functional social order, in a civilized society people might expect that meaning and purpose might also have a significant social value. In the absence of public spaces where such considerations would be promoted, encouraged, and sustained, and recognized as essential elements in the constitution and maintenance of psychic and mental well being, we should not be surprised when the cumulative effects of group bias continue to negatively affect the health and viability of the larger social order. I believe that Taylor’s point about religion providing a necessary public space for transcendence is an important observation that recognizes that a social order that focusses exclusively and reductively on economic interests is neither healthy nor helpful for human beings.

The larger implications of the unrecognized instances of group bias seem to include our unwillingness or inability to recognize that our current historical reality is not so much a fixed and necessary condition but rather the results of bad choices and decisions that have collectively led to the point that our general welfare and the fate of our planet are inextricably linked and threatened. The lack of historical consciousness that seems endemic in North America is another dimension of these related problems. While there are no straightforward means to change this lack of historical awareness, that we are of history, in history, and that we make history, in the absence of historical consciousness we lack the skills and sense to reject all those actions that do not promote the well being of all people. Group bias, something we all share and participate in, can provide moments where we can recognize our own culpability in promoting our own interests at the expense of others. The condition is ubiquitous, but not a necessary truth.

Perhaps in considering Taylor’s claim for the necessity of maintaining a public space for transcendence, whether that be contemplative or critically reflective and open to possibility, the religious impulse that is generic to humans might be encouraged without repeating some of the more obvious problems that have accompanied the establishment of religions, and their respective institutions. As group bias grows out of legitimate and necessary social bonds and relationships and becomes a source of distortion and negation, we might also begin to reflect on how our own balancing necessary goods and relationships with the possibility of distorting our values or disregarding others involves us all in some form of continuous critical self-reflection, and that these actions have social and political implications and effects. At a certain point, all of us are going to have to recognize that our individual well being is directly dependent on the well being of all.


[i] Lonergan, Bernard. Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan- Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, Volume 3, eds. F.E. Crowe & R.M. Doran. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992, 2013), pp. 247-250.

[ii] Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007).

[iii] Taylor, Charles. Ibid. see particularly pp-767-772.


Dr. Michael George teaches Ethics, and Religion and Culture at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick. He has been a visiting scholar at the Universities of Split and Zagreb in Croatia. His research interests are in the area of ethical foundations, the nature of historical consciousness, and in Integrative Bioethics, where he participates with a number of European colleagues in attempting to develop an inclusive model where issues/problems might be understood as linked through historical relationships and contexts. His interests include walking, sports (now mostly as a spectator), music, history, archeology, biophysics and physics, cigars, whisky, and spending time with his family.