When Team Loyalty Skews Moral Logic

Two ships in a harbor, one in the distance. On board, men stripped to the waist and wearing feathers in their hair throw crates of tea overboard. A large crowd, mostly men, stands on the dock, waving hats and cheering. A few people wave their hats from windows in a nearby building.

It is interesting to ask Americans whether they think the Boston Tea Party was a morally acceptable act. This was a polarizing question for the contemporaries of the time — Samuel Adams and Benjamin Franklin had starkly opposing views. For those who may not recall the details, the Wikipedia entry makes good reading. It was an act of high-dollar, coordinated, mob-driven vandalism, conducted by citizens dressed up like minorities/indigenous peoples. But because they were Americans (i.e., the home team), and because of their politics, many of my countrymen give this bit of anarchy a pass, and indeed hail the Tea Partiers as heroes to be emulated.

In our day, it is interesting to ask Americans if they condemn the Summer 2020 riots and looting that followed police killings (Note here that I support the broader protest movement, but not rioting or looting). Or to ask folks what they think of the storming of the Capitol on January 6th, 2021. Or to ask Christians whether they will condemn Jesus’ actions in ‘cleansing the temple.’ I’ve written at length on these in two recent blog posts:

One point I made in the Jesus & Insurrection post is that religious and patriotic loyalties can cause people to use two different sets of moral books when making judgments about violence. Tribal affiliation fogs minds.

To illustrate, I propose a test of moral clarity, applied under the pressures of tribal affiliation. The following four incidents involved violence, vandalism, and/or anarchy.

  • Capitol Riot (may tread on the Trumper loyalties of some)
  • Summer 2020 Riots (may tread on wokeness loyalties of some)
  • Boston Tea Party (may tread on the American patriotism of some)
  • Jesus’ Cleansing of the Temple (may tread on the religious attachments of some)

The test is this: can you condemn all four events as acts of anarchy? Can you condemn the violence, the destruction of property, and the vandalism? Can you say flatly that the perpetrators were wrong to do what they did?

For all four historical events, the perpetrators were not acting in defense of others against an immediate threat of harm. All were justified by the perpetrators on grounds of beliefs or revenge or political ends. It is notable that anarchy, violence, and vandalism are nearly always justified by perpetrators on some special pleading. I personally conclude that each was wrong, irrespective of my national identity or political and religious viewpoints, past or present. Special pleading is the province of the immoral, of those who keep two sets of books, those who view right and wrong as a matter of group membership.

We can and should sympathize with others. We should work hard to understand grievances. But we should still call such acts of violence wrong, without asterisks. Particularly when they are the actions of those in our tribes, in our groups — we should hold our own to a higher bar, not a lower one.

If you find yourself arguing in defense of some items on the list while condemning others — if you find yourself reaching for “what-about” or “yeah-but” responses — perhaps tribal loyalty is affecting your ability to apply consistent moral logic.


  1. Good point on moral consistency. I know some people justifying their support of the Capitol attack by citing some liberal whitewashing of the summer riots, so this makes sense.

    Interesting question on the other two, since they’re part of our mythology. I don’t know.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Interesting question. Let me see.

    Capitol Riot (may tread on the Trumper loyalties of some) – not acceptable.

    Summer 2020 Riots (may tread on wokeness loyalties of some) – While I support the summer 2020 protests, in those instances where the protests turned to riots, also unacceptable

    Boston Tea Party (may tread on the American patriotism of some) – a complicated situation. See below.

    Jesus’ Cleansing of the Temple (may tread on the religious attachments of some) – Possibly fictional. However, if it was real, in addition to property damage, it led to the execution of the instigator, whose followers then retconned the whole thing into having been due to some kind of “divine purpose” and founded one of the more destructive religions ever to have existed. So both in the short term, or the long term aftereffects, this one is also unacceptable.

    The Tea Party is an interesting question. There’s the version of it I learned in school, with the big “Yay us!” mentality, that I reject. But studying it more later, it was the result of a political standoff. After much mismanagement of trade and taxation by Parliament, they had granted a monopoly on the tea trade to the East India Company, and imposed a tax, both of which were not acceptable to the colonists. Boston had a shipment of tea sitting on ships, waiting to be unloaded, taxes paid, and delivered to designated merchants to sell on consignment.. The other colonies that had received similar shipments had managed to force the resignation of the consignees, and had mostly sent the boats home without unloading. The colonists would not allow the Boston shipment to be unloaded, and the royal governor dug in and would not allow the ships to leave with the tea onboard. The “tea party” was not randomly violent, and was not aimed at injuring people, just at removing the source of the standoff. And there were apparently offers to England from the colonies to reimburse the cost of the tea afterwards.

    So I have mixed feelings about that one. If there had been some other clear route to resolving the standoff that didn’t involve property destruction, then it would be easy to condemn the violence. But I don’t know if a better solution existed.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Sorry to be a bit delayed in responding, as I have been dealing with some anti-vaxxer relatives here lately. Sigh.

    Anyway, the dynamics are even more layered than that. The Sons of Liberty seemed to have been somewhat analogous to the more smash/grab right wingers we have today. But they were only one faction of the colonists, agitating for physical action. Franklin and Washington, etc., were not on board with such suggestions, much less actions. So the colonists were not monolithic in viewpoint. There were some trying to pump the brakes and others pushing the gas. So gents like Franklin wanted to get the damages paid for afterward, while the SOL were pleased with themselves.

    But I agree, they were not attacking people, and that contrasts with the other three historical events. They only check the boxes for anarchy and vandalism. Then again, a number of looters in the summer protests weren’t attacking people either, just smashing windows and robbing stores.

    As a follow up thought experiment, I mentally project myself into the situation, which for me at least lends some cringey realism… If I put on, say, black face and an afro wig… Then I board someone else’s boat… Then I smash their locks and go inside… And my friends and I remove $2M worth of property and dump it into the sea… At some point in that whole arc, I’ve definitely crossed the line into criminal behavior. I’m definitely looting someone else’s property while dressed up like a minority. Maybe I had my reasons. Maybe my friends like the idea as much as I do. But does that matter?… OK, end of thought experiment.

    I struggle to see an objective criterion by which the tea party would be justifiable, but the summer looting would not.

    George Washington was interesting:

    “In June of 1774, George Washington wrote: “the cause of Boston…ever will be considered as the cause of America.” But his personal views of the event were far different. He voiced strong disapproval of “their conduct in destroying the Tea” and claimed Bostonians “were mad.” Washington, like many other elites, held private property to be sacrosanct. ”

    Reminds me of what we might see from Republicans today — there are the politicking and public statements, apparently at stark odds with private views of abhorrence.

    Perhaps nothing has changed…

    Liked by 1 person

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