Ethnicity is Obsolete

One of Greece’s most notable pieces of ancient history concerns the region’s repeated battles with barbarians from the East. The Greeks considered themselves civilized, advanced, cultured people. Cultural chauvinism had been rampant and in most historical accounts it is generally thought to have been fully justified. The reason is that despite much dispute about what if anything is universally, objectively true concerning how human beings ought to organize their communities, certain basic principles are not thought to be controversial. Thus, for example, we now take it that human beings possess certain basic rights. And while this idea may have been expressed differently in ancient times, the Greeks of 5th century B.C. made the greatest leap toward implementing it in their communities. Democracy itself was a result of this revolutionary public policy. And there were all kinds of ethical, intellectual, scientific and related advances made by the Greeks which set them miles ahead of other civilizations of the time.

Yet even back in those days it was rather difficult to be clear about who actually was a civilized person and who a barbarian. Some who might have looked more like most of the former, did not behave accordingly, and vice-verse. For example, among the barbarians who became slaves in Greece, some became formidable thinkers of their own right. Certainly, interbreeding began right off. So it was by no means simple from the outset to identify ethnic membership.



And this is as one might expect. After all, what really unites us biologically in this world is our membership in the human species. Our so called ethnic membership is ultimately irrelevant to what and who we are, in the final analysis. It comprises only incidental, traditional or conventional elements of our makeup. We take on those elements because our parents and our neighbors insist, not because they are inborn.

If this was true already in the 5th century B.C., it is certainly true today. That is why the recent efforts to reintroduce ethnicity into modern society were so wrongheaded and such a sign of regress instead of progress in the human condition.

One need only travel a bit and notice how true this is. On this trip, which I took so as to deliver a talk about individualism at a conference – held at the Athens University of Economics and Business – I had an experience that fully highlights this point. I met a young person from Pakistan who is engaged to an Italian and they both wish to marry. But the parents of the former are against it on grounds that we can only consider ethnic prejudice. Yet, except for the desire to please the parents, the young persons see no point in upholding the ethnic boundaries that supposedly separate them. Those boundaries are, as they see it, entirely arbitrary except for the wishes of some who are dear to them. This is an especially poignant case to me since I know a young woman who is a Danish national whose parents are Pakistani and Danish. And, of course, my own parents are ethnically diverse – my mother is Transylvanian German and my father was a Hungarian whose parents came from Scotland or Slovakia or something!

In the United States of America ethnic distinctions are especially impossible to maintain with a straight face. Who are the Native Americans? The blacks? The whites? The Hispanics? These are entirely accidental categories, having to do with attributes that hardly remain stable over the lives of individuals, let alone across generations.

In our world the barbarians at the gate are, in fact, those who wish to forcefully reintroduce into our lives the ancient distinction between the civilized and the primitive forces. These barbarians, no matter their color or tradition or convictions, insist that human beings ought to be divided into sects and that this division should make a major difference in their lives. They, thus, deny the most important discovery the ancient Greeks made, namely, that what really counts is that we are all human individuals with the need to be treated justly, that is, in line with our basic humanity.



Dr. Tibor R. Machan is a Hoover research fellow, Professor Emeritus, Department of Philosophy, Auburn University, Alabama, and holds the R. C. Hoiles Endowed Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman University.


As our readers may know, Dr. Machan's columns have previously appeared at the now defunct Daily Bell. His articles have also frequently been published at We are delighted to welcome Dr. Machan as a new guest author at Acting Man. 





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