Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them (Anglais) Relié – 31 octobre 2013
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The Tragedy of Commonsense Morality
To the east of a deep, dark forest, a tribe of herders raises sheep on a common pasture. Here the rule is simple: Each family gets the same number of sheep. Families send representatives to a council of elders, which governs the commons. Over the years, the council has made difficult decisions. One family, for example, took to breeding exceptionally large sheep, thus appropriating more of the commons for itself. After some heated debate, the council put a stop to this. Another family was caught poisoning its neighbors’ sheep. For this the family was severely punished. Some said too severely. Others said not enough. Despite these challenges, the Eastern tribe has survived, and its families have prospered, some more than others.
To the west of the forest is another tribe whose herders also share a common pasture. There, however, the size of a family’s flock is determined by the family’s size. Here, too, there is a council of elders, which has made difficult decisions. One particularly fertile family had twelve children, far more than the rest. Some complained that they were taking up too much of the commons. A different family fell ill, losing five of their six children in one year. Some thought it unfair to compound their tragedy by reducing their wealth by more than half. Despite these challenges, the Western tribe has survived, and its families have prospered, some more than others.
To the north of the forest is yet another tribe. Here there is no common pasture. Each family has its own plot of land, surrounded by a fence. These plots vary greatly in size and fertility. This is partly because some Northern herders are wiser and more industrious than others. Many such herders have expanded their lands, using their surpluses to buy land from their less prosperous neighbors. Some Northern herders are less prosperous than others simply because they are unlucky, having lost their flock, or their children, to disease, despite their best efforts. Still other herders are exceptionally lucky, possessing large, fertile plots of land, not because they are especially wise or industrious but because they inherited them. Here in the North, the council of elders doesn’t do much. They simply ensure that herders keep their promises and respect one another’s property. The vast differences in wealth among Northern families have been the source of much strife. Each year, some Northerners die in winter for want of food and warmth. Despite these challenges, the Northern tribe has survived. Most of its families have prospered, some much more than others.
To the south of the forest is a fourth tribe. They share not only their pasture but their animals, too. Their council of elders is very busy. The elders manage the tribe’s herd, assign people to jobs, and monitor their work. The fruits of this tribe’s labor are shared equally among all its members. This is a source of much strife, as some tribe members are wiser and more industrious than others. The council hears many complaints about lazy workers. Most members, however, work hard. Some are moved to work by community spirit, others by fear of their neighbors’ reproach. Despite their challenges, the Southern tribe has survived. Its families are not, on average, as prosperous as those in the North, but they do well enough, and in the South no one has ever died in winter for want of food or warmth.
One summer, a great fire burned through the forest, reducing it to ash. Then came heavy rains, and before long the land, once thick with trees, was transformed into an expanse of gently rolling grassy hills, perfect for grazing animals. The nearby tribes rushed in to claim the land. This was a source of much strife. The Southern tribe proclaimed that the new pastures belonged to all people and must be worked in common. They formed a new council to manage the new pastures and invited the other tribes to send representatives. The Northern herders scoffed at this suggestion. While the Southerners were making their big plans, Northern families built houses and stone walls and set their animals to graze. Many Easterners and Westerners did the same, though with less vigor. Some families sent representatives to the new council.
The four tribes fought bitterly, and many lives, both human and animal, were lost. Small quarrels turned into bloody feuds, which turned into deadly battles: A Southern sheep slipped into a Northerner’s field. The Northerner returned it. Another Southern sheep did the same. The Northerner demanded a fee to return it. The Southerners refused to pay. The Northerner slaughtered the sheep. Southerners took three of the Northerner’s sheep and slaughtered them. The Northerner took ten of the Southerners’ sheep and slaughtered them. The Southerners burned down the Northerner’s farmhouse, killing a child. Ten Northern families marched on the Southerners’ meetinghouse and set it ablaze, killing dozens of Southerners, including many children. Back and forth they went with violence and vengeance, soaking the green hills with blood.
To make matters worse, tribes from distant lands arrived to settle the new pastures. One tribe claimed the new pastures as a gift to them from their god. The burning of the great forest and the greening of the hills had been prophesied in their holy book, they said. Another tribe claimed the new pastures as their ancestral homeland, from which they had been driven many generations ago, before there was a forest. Tribes arrived with rules and customs that seemed to outsiders rather strange, if not downright ridiculous: Black sheep must not sleep in the same enclosure as white sheep. Women must have their earlobes covered in public. Singing on Wednesdays is strictly forbidden. One man complained of a neighboring woman who, while tending her sheep, bared her earlobes in plain view of his impressionable sons. The woman refused to cover her earlobes, and this filled her pious neighbor with rage. A little girl told a little boy that the god to which his family prayed did not exist. The shocked boy reported this to his father, who complained to the girl’s father. The father defended his daughter, praising her fierce intelligence, and refused to apologize. For this he was killed, as required by the laws of the tribe he had offended. And so began another bloody feud.
Despite their fighting, the herders of the new pastures are, in many ways, very similar. For the most part, they want the same things: healthy families, tasty and nutritious food, comfortable shelter, labor-saving tools, leisure time to spend with friends and family. All herders like listening to music and hearing stories about heroes and villains. What’s more, even as they fight one another, their minds work in similar ways. What they perceive as unjust makes them angry and disgusted, and they are motivated to fight, both by self-interest and by a sense of justice. Herders fight not only for themselves but for their families, friends, and fellow tribe members. They fight with honor and would be ashamed to do otherwise. They guard their reputations fiercely, judge others by their deeds, and enjoy exchanging opinions.
Despite their differences, the tribes of the new pastures share some core values. In no tribe is it permissible to be completely selfish, and in no tribe are members expected to be completely selfless. Even in the South, where the herd is shared, workers are free at day’s end to pursue their own interests. In no tribe are ordinary members allowed to lie, steal, or harm one another at will. (There are, however, some tribes in which certain privileged individuals are free to do as they please.)
The tribes of the new pastures are engaged in bitter, often bloody conflict, even though they are all, in their different ways, moral peoples. They fight not because they are fundamentally selfish but because they have incompatible visions of what a moral society should be. These are not merely scholarly disagreements, although their scholars have those, too. Rather, each tribe’s philosophy is woven into its daily life. Each tribe has its own version of moral common sense. The tribes of the new pastures fight not because they are immoral but because they view life on the new pastures from very different moral perspectives. I call this the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality.
The Parable of the New Pastures is fictional, but the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality is real. It’s the central tragedy of modern life, the deeper tragedy behind the moral problems that divide us. This book is about understanding and, ultimately, solving these problems. Unlike many authors of popular books, I make no promise of helping you solve your personal problems. What I’m offering you, I hope, is clarity—and with this clarity, the motivation and opportunity to join forces with like-minded others.
This book is an attempt to understand morality from the ground up. It’s about understanding what morality is, how it got here, and how it’s implemented in our brains. It’s about understanding the deep structure of moral problems as well as the differences between the problems that our brains were designed to solve and the distinctively modern problems we face today. Finally, it’s about taking this new understanding of morality and turning it into a universal moral philosophy that members of all human tribes can share.
This is an ambitious book. I started developing these ideas in my late teens, and they’ve taken me through two interwoven careers—as a philosopher and as a scientist. This book draws inspiration from great philosophers of the past. It also builds on my own research in the new field of moral cognition, which applies the methods of experimental psychology and cognitive neuroscience to illuminate the structure of moral thinking. Finally, this book draws on the work of hundreds of social scientists who’ve learned amazing things about how we make decisions and how our choices are shaped by culture and biology. This book is my attempt to put it all together, to turn this new scientific self-knowledge into a practical philosophy that can help us solve our biggest problems.
LIFE ON THE NEW PASTURES
Two issues dominated Barack Obama’s first presidential term: healthcare and the economy. Both reflect the tension between the individualism of the Northern herders and the collectivism of the Southern herders. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, established national health insurance in the United States. Liberals praised it, not as a perfect system but as a historic step in the right direction. The United States had finally joined the rest of the modern world in providing basic health-care to all its citizens. Conservatives—many of them—despise Obamacare, which they regard as a step toward ruinous socialism. The recent healthcare debate has been awash in misinformation,* but amid the lies and half-truths there can be found an honest philosophical disagreement.
At its core, this disagreement, like so many others, is about the tension between individual rights and the (real or alleged) greater good. Universal health insurance requires everyone to buy in, either through an individual purchase of health insurance or through taxes. Conservatives mounted a legal challenge to Obamacare, culminating in a landmark Supreme Court decision. The Supreme Court upheld Obamacare on the grounds that it’s funded through a combination of voluntary purchases and taxes (which are both constitutional) rather than by the government’s forcing people to buy something (which is arguably not constitutional). But the tax-versus- forced-purchase distinction is really just a legal technicality. The people who hate Obamacare don’t hate it because they believe that it’s funded by forced purchases rather than forced taxes; what they hate is the forcing. Obamacare might not be socialism, but it’s certainly more collectivist than some people care for, restricting individual freedom in the name of the greater good.
During the 2012 Republican presidential primary, candidates denounced Obamacare as loudly and often as possible, calling it socialism and vowing to repeal it. During one of the primary debates, journalist
*This is the only footnote in this book, but the endnotes are packed with supporting material, in addition to source citations. Nowadays, many books leave endnotes unmarked in the main text. I don’t want to clutter your view with hundreds of little numbers, but I want you to know when you may be missing something of interest, and how much you may be missing. I’ve therefore devised the following notation system, analogous to the chili pepper heat index used on Asian food menus: Asterisks are used to indicate additional material in the notes (* = sentences; ** = paragraphs; *** = pages). Notes that simply list sources are unmarked in the main text. (For more on “awash in misinformation,” please see the endnotes for the introduction.)
Wolf Blitzer had the following exchange with Texas congressman Ron Paul.
BLITZER: A healthy 30-year-old young man has a good job, makes a good living, but decides, you know what? I’m not going to spend $200 or $300 a month for health insurance because I’m healthy, I don’t need it. But something terrible happens, all of a sudden he needs it. Who’s going to pay if he goes into a coma, for example? Who pays for that?
PAUL: Well, in a society that you accept welfarism and socialism, he
expects the government to take care of him. BLITZER: Well, what do you want? PAUL: But what he should do is whatever he wants to do, and as
sume responsibility for himself. My advice to him would have a major medical policy, but not be forced— BLITZER: But he doesn’t have that. He doesn’t have it, and he needs intensive care for six months. Who pays? PAUL: That’s what freedom is all about, taking your own risks. This
whole idea that you have to prepare and take care of everybody— [applause] BLITZER: But Congressman, are you saying that society should just
let him die?
As Paul prepared his hesitant answer, a chorus of voices from the crowd shouted, “Yeah! Let him die!” These are the Northern herders. Paul couldn’t quite bring himself to agree—or disagree. He said that neighbors, friends, and churches should take care of such a man, implying, but not explicitly stating, that the government should let him die if no one else is willing or able to pay. As you might expect the more Southerly herders disagree.
(Note: In the Parable of the New Pastures, the Southern herders are extreme collectivists, communists, and are thus far to the left of contemporary mainstream liberals, despite frequent accusations to the contrary. Thus, as we discuss contemporary politics, I refer to contemporary liberals as “more Southerly” rather than “Southern.” Contemporary U.S. conservatives, in contrast, resemble more closely their fictional Northern counterparts.)
Along with healthcare, the miserable state of the U.S. economy took center stage during President Obama’s first term. When Obama took office in 2009, the economy was in free fall, thanks to a housing bubble that burst after a decade of inflated growth and a financial sector that placed enormous bets on housing prices. The government did several things in an attempt to stave off complete financial disaster. First, in late 2008, while President Bush was still in office, the federal government bailed out several of the investment banks at the heart of the crisis.* Later, the Obama administration bailed out the auto industry and extended aid to homeowners facing foreclosure. These measures were opposed, to varying degrees, by Northern herders who argued that the banks, the automakers, and the desperate homeowners should, like Ron Paul’s hypothetical patient, be allowed to “die.” Why, they asked, should American taxpayers have to pay for these people’s poor judgment? The more Southerly herders didn’t especially relish the thought of bailing out irresponsible decision makers, but they argued that these measures were necessary for the greater good, lest their bad choices sink the whole economy. During Obama’s first year, congressional Democrats passed his $787 billion stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. This, too, was opposed by Northern herders who favored less government spending and more tax cuts. Better, they said, to put money into the pockets of individuals who can decide for themselves how to spend it.
Related to both healthcare and the economy is the broader issue of economic inequality, which came to the fore in 2011 with the Occupy Wall Street protests. From 1979 to 2007, the incomes of the wealthiest
U.S. households skyrocketed, with the top 1 percent enjoying income gains of 275 percent, while the bulk of Americans gained around 40 percent. (The gains at the tippy top, the top 0.1 percent, were even larger, around 400 percent.) These trends inspired the Occupy slogan “We are the 99%,” calling for economic reforms to restore a more egalitarian distribution of wealth and power.
The story of rising income inequality comes in two versions. According to the individualist Northern herders, the winners earned their winnings fair and square, and the losers have no right to complain. “Occupy a Desk!” read the sign of a Wall Street counterprotester. Presidential hopeful Herman Cain called the protesters “un-American,” and the eventual Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, accused them of waging “class warfare.”
In September 2012, the liberal magazine Mother Jones dropped one of the biggest bombshells in U.S. electoral history. They posted online a secret recording of Romney in which he described roughly half of the American population as willful government dependents who will never “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” According to Romney’s infamous speech, the “47 percent” of the population that earns too little to pay income taxes (on top of payroll taxes) deserve no better than what they’ve got.
The more Southerly herders tell a different story. They say that the wealthy have rigged the system in their favor, noting that rich people like Mitt Romney pay taxes at a lower rate than many middle-class workers, thanks to lower tax rates on investment income, myriad tax loopholes, and overseas tax havens. And now, thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which legalized unlimited campaign contributions to “independent” political groups, the rich can use their money to buy elections like never before. These more Southerly herders say that even in the absence of nefarious system rigging, maintaining a just society requires active redistribution of wealth. Otherwise the rich use their advantages to get richer and richer, passing on their advantages to their children, who then begin life with a big head start. Without redistribution of wealth, they say, our society will bifurcate into permanent classes of haves and have-nots.
During her first political campaign, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren made a Southerly case for redistribution in a stump speech that went viral on YouTube:
There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody.
You built a factory out there—good for you. But I want to be clear.
You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory . . . Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea—God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
Responding to these remarks, Ron Paul called Warren a socialist and said that the government can do nothing but “steal and rob people with a gun and forcibly transfer wealth from one person to another.” Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh went a step further, calling Warren a communist and “a parasite who hates her host.”
Other tribal disagreements are less obviously related to the fundamental divide between individualism and collectivism. In the United States there is enormous disagreement over what, if anything, we ought to do about global warming. This may appear to be, at bottom, not a debate about values but a factual disagreement over whether global warming is a real threat and whether humans are causing it. But is this argument just about how to interpret the data? Those who believe in global warming are saying that all of us must make sacrifices (use less fuel, pay carbon taxes, and so on) to ensure our collective well-being. Individualists are, by nature, skeptical of such demands; collectivists, far less so. Our values may color our view of the facts.
Some of our troubles on the new pastures are not about individualism versus collectivism per se but about the boundaries of our respective collectives. Nearly all of us are collectivists to some extent. The only pure individualists are hermits. Consider, once again, Ron Paul’s prescription for the man who neglected to buy health insurance. Paul didn’t say that we should let the man die. He said that friends, neighbors, and churches should take care of him. What this suggests is that our tribal disagreements are not necessarily between individualist and collectivist tribes, but between tribes that are more versus less tribal, more versus less inclined to see the world in terms of Us versus Them, and thus more versus less open to collective enterprises that cross tribal lines, such as the U.S. federal government and the United Nations. For many conservatives, the circle of “Us” is just smaller.
Some tribal disagreements arise because tribes have values that are inherently local, particular to the tribe in question. Some tribes grant special authority to specific gods, leaders, texts, or practices—what one might call “proper nouns.”* For example, many Muslims believe that no one— Muslim or otherwise—should be allowed to produce visual images of the prophet Muhammad. Some Jews believe that Jews are God’s “chosen people” and that the Jews have a divine right to the land of Israel. Many American Christians believe that the Ten Commandments should be displayed in public buildings and that all Americans should pledge allegiance to “one nation under God.” (And they’re not talking about Vishnu.)
The moral practices of some tribes are (or appear to be) arbitrary, but, at least in the developed world, tribes generally refrain from imposing their most arbitrary rules on one another: Orthodox Jews don’t expect non-Jews to forgo lobster and to circumcise their male children. Catholics don’t expect non-Catholics to wear ash crosses on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday. The tribal differences that erupt into public controversy typically concern sex (e.g., gay marriage, gays in the military, the sex lives of public officials) and death at the margins of life (e.g., abortion, physician-assisted suicide, the use of embryonic stem cells in research). That such issues are moral issues is surely not arbitrary. Sex and death are the gas pedals and brakes of tribal growth. (Gay sex and abortion, for example, are both alternatives to reproduction.) What’s less clear is why different tribes hold different views about sex, life, and death, and why some tribes are more willing than others to impose their views on outsiders.
This has been a whirlwind tour of the new pastures in the United States during the period in which I completed this book. If you’re reading this book at a later time, or in another place, the specific issues will be different but the underlying tensions will likely be the same. Look around and you’ll see Northern and Southern herders fighting over whether government should do more versus less; tribes that have smaller versus larger conceptions of “Us”; tribes engaged in bitter arguments over the morality of sex and death; and tribes demanding deference to their respective proper nouns.
TOWARD A GLOBAL MORAL PHILOSOPHY
If you were an alien biologist, dropping by Earth every ten thousand years or so to observe the progress of life on our planet, there might be a page in your field notebook like this:
Homo sapiens sapiens: big-brained, upright primates, vocal language, sometimes aggressive
visit# population notes
10 7 billion global indust. economy, advanced technology w/ nuc. power, telecom., artificial intel., extraterrestrial travel, large-scale social/political institutions, democratic governance, advanced scientific inquiry, widespread literacy, and advanced art (See addendum)
For all but the past ten thousand years of our existence, it didn’t look like we’d amount to much. Yet here we are, sitting in our climate-controlled, artificially illuminated homes, reading and writing books about ourselves. Our progress goes well beyond creature comforts. Contrary to popular lamentation, humans are getting better and better at getting along. Violence has declined over the course of human history, including recent history, and participation in modern market economies, far from turning us into selfish bean counters, has expanded the scope of human kindness.
Nevertheless, we’ve plenty of room for improvement. The twentieth century was the most peaceful on record (controlling for population growth), yet its wars and assorted political conflicts killed approximately 230 million people, laying down enough human bodies to circle the globe seven times. In this new century, the death toll continues to climb, albeit at a reduced rate. For example, the ongoing conflict in Darfur has killed, through violence or increased disease, about 300,000 people. A billion people—about one in seven humans—live in extreme poverty, with so few resources that mere survival is an ongoing struggle. More than twenty million people are forced into labor (i.e., slavery), many of them children and women forced into prostitution.
Even in the world’s happier quarters, life is still systematically unfair to millions of people. When researchers in the United States sent out identical résumés to prospective employers, some with white- sounding names (e.g., Emily and Greg) and others with black-sounding names (e.g., Lakisha and Jamal), the white résumés generated 50 percent more calls from employers. Worst of all, we face two problems that may severely disrupt, or even reverse, our trend toward peace and prosperity: the degradation of our environment and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Amid such doom and gloom, the premise of this book is fundamentally optimistic: that we can improve our prospects for peace and prosperity by improving the way we think about moral problems. Over the past few centuries, new moral ideas have taken hold in human brains. Many people now believe that no human tribe ought to be privileged over any other, that all humans deserve to have certain basic goods and freedoms, and that violence should be used only as a last resort. (In other words, some tribes have become a lot less tribal.) We subscribe to these ideals more in principle than in practice, but the fact that we subscribe to them at all is something new under the sun. As historians tell us, we’ve made a lot of progress, not just technologically but morally.
Inverting the usual question about today’s morals, Steven Pinker asks: What are we doing right? And how can we do better? What we lack, I think, is a coherent global moral philosophy, one that can resolve disagreements among competing moral tribes. The idea of a universal moral philosophy is not new. It’s been a dream of moral thinkers since the Enlightenment. But it’s never quite worked out. What we have instead are some shared values, some unshared values, some laws on which we agree, and a common vocabulary that we use to express the values we share as well as the values that divide us.
Understanding morality requires two things: First, we must understand the structure of modern moral problems and how they differ from the problems that our brains evolved to solve. We’ll do this in part 1 of this book. Second, we must understand the structure of our moral brains and how different kinds of thinking are suited to solving different kinds of problems. That’s part 2. Then, in part 3, we’ll use our understanding of moral problems and moral thinking to introduce a solution, a candidate global moral philosophy. In part 4 we’ll address some compelling arguments against this philosophy, and in part 5 we’ll apply our philosophy to the real world. I’ll now describe this plan in a bit more detail.
In part 1 (“Moral Problems”), we’ll distinguish between the two major kinds of moral problems. The first kind is more basic. It’s the problem of Me versus Us: selfishness versus concern for others. This is the problem that our moral brains were designed to solve. The second kind of moral problem is distinctively modern. It’s Us versus Them: our interests and values versus theirs. This is the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality, illustrated by this book’s first organizing metaphor, the Parable of the New Pastures. (Of course, Us versus Them is a very old problem. But historically it’s been a tactical problem rather than a moral one.) This is the larger problem behind the moral controversies that divide us. In part 1, we’ll see how the moral machinery in our brains solves the first problem (chapter 2) and creates the second problem (chapter 3).
In part 2 (“Morality Fast and Slow”), we’ll dig deeper into the moral brain and introduce this book’s second organizing metaphor: The moral brain is like a dual-mode camera with both automatic settings (such as “portrait” or “landscape”) and a manual mode. Automatic settings are efficient but inflexible. Manual mode is flexible but inefficient. The moral brain’s automatic settings are the moral emotions we’ll meet in part 1, the gut-level instincts that enable cooperation within personal relationships and small groups. Manual mode, in contrast, is a general capacity for practical reasoning that can be used to solve moral problems, as well as other practical problems. In part 2, we’ll see how moral thinking is shaped by both emotion and reason (chapter 4) and how this “dual-process” morality reflects the general structure of the human mind (chapter 5).
In part 3, we’ll introduce our third and final organizing metaphor: Common Currency. Here we’ll begin our search for a metamorality, a global moral philosophy that can adjudicate among competing tribal moralities, just as a tribe’s morality adjudicates among the competing interests of its members. A metamorality’s job is to make trade-offs among competing tribal values, and making trade-offs requires a common currency, a unified system for weighing values. In chapter 6, we’ll introduce a candidate metamorality, a solution to the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality. In chapter 7, we’ll consider other ways of establishing a common currency, and find them lacking. In chapter 8, we’ll take a closer look at the metamorality introduced in chapter 6, a philosophy known (rather unfortunately) as utilitarianism. We’ll see how utilitarianism is built out of values and reasoning processes that are universally accessible and, thus, how it gives us the common currency that we need.*
Over the years, philosophers have made some intuitively compelling arguments against utilitarianism. In part 4 (“Moral Convictions”), we’ll reconsider these arguments in light of our new understanding of moral cognition. We’ll see how utilitarianism becomes more attractive the better we understand our dual-process moral brains (chapters 9 and 10).
Finally, in part 5 (“Moral Solutions”), we return to the new pastures and the real-world moral problems that motivate this book. Having defended utilitarianism against its critics, it’s time to apply it—and to give it a better name. A more apt name for utilitarianism is deep pragmatism (chapter 11). Utilitarianism is pragmatic in the good and familiar sense: flexible, realistic, and open to compromise. But it’s also a deep philosophy, not just about expediency. Deep pragmatism is about making principled compromises. It’s about resolving our differences by appeal to shared values— common currency.
We’ll consider what it means, in practice, to be a deep pragmatist: When should we trust our automatic settings, our moral intuitions, and when should we shift into manual mode? And once we’re in manual mode, how should we use our powers of reasoning? Here we have a choice: We can use our big brains to rationalize our intuitive moral convictions, or we can transcend the limitations of our tribal gut reactions. I’ll make the case for transcendence, for getting beyond point-and-shoot morality, and for changing the way we think and talk about the problems that divide us. I’ll close in chapter 12 with six simple, pragmatic rules for life on the new pastures.
Revue de presse
“[Greene’s] concern is emphatic, his diagnosis precise, and his plan of action very, very ambitious. The salvation of humankind is possible, but it’s going to take concerted effort… [a] rich, sprawling book."
The Boston Globe:
"Surprising and remarkable… Toggling between big ideas, technical details, and his personal intellectual journey, Greene writes a thesis suitable to both airplane reading and PhD seminars… Moral Tribes offers a psychology far beyond the realm of self-help, instead probing the intricacy and complexity of morality in an attempt to help, and perhaps unite, entire communities."
Robert M. Sapolsky, The Wall Street Journal:
Christian Perring, Metapsychology:
“More interesting than its defense of Utilitarianism is the fact that Moral Tribes is one of the first attempts to bring experimental philosophy to a wider audience. Making technical philosophy accessible to a wider group is something that academic philosophers have not done enough. Greene provides a fascinating glimpse of what it might be to do scientifically informed moral philosophy.”
Sasha Pfeiffer and Anthony Brooks, WBUR:
“Joshua Green has a fascinating new book about how we make moral decisions. With a deep knowledge of philosophy and using brain scan science, the Harvard psychologist probes some big questions. Questions like why is it we’re capable of putting the welfare of our communities above our own personal welfare? In other words we’re pretty good at making tribal life work, but then why do groups of people: sports fans, political partisans, religious believers, Americans, have so much trouble getting along with other groups? The question is hugely important in this modern world when conflicts among political parties, religious faiths and nations have dramatic consequences. It’s at the core of Joshua Greene’s new book.”
Thomas Nagel, New Republic:
“Joshua Greene, who teaches psychology at Harvard, is a leading contributor to the recently salient field of empirical moral psychology. This very readable book presents his comprehensive view of the subject, and what we should make of it. Greene offers much more experimental detail and some ingenious psychological proposals about why our gut reactions have the particular subtle contours that they do.”
“With a humorous, relaxed tone, Greene stacks piles of evidence from well-researched studies onto his theory of modern-day morality. Having spent most of his academic career on the study of morality, Greene foresees the questions his readers have and systematically addresses every doubt and concern. As he mixes 20th-century philosophical moral treatises with neuroscience and psychological studies—many of which were undertaken by his colleagues in the field of moral psychology—Greene’s role as educator shines through; his writing is clear and his examples simple yet intriguing.”
Vanessa Bush, Booklist:
“Greene’s strategies for examining moral reasoning are as applicable to day-to-day decisions as they are to public policy. This is a highly accessible look at the complexities of morality.”
"A provocative, if Utopian, call for a new 'common currency of observable evidence…not to gain advantage over others, but simply because it’s good.'”
Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology, Harvard University; author of the international bestseller Stumbling on Happiness:
“Joshua Greene is the rarest of birds—a brilliant scientist and equally brilliant philosopher who simultaneously takes on the deepest problems of both disciplines. More than a decade in the making, Moral Tribes is a masterpiece—a landmark work brimming with originality and insight that also happens to be wickedly fun to read. The only disappointing thing about this book is that it ends.”
Robert Sapolsky, John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor of Biological Sciences, Stanford University:
“A decade ago, the wunderkind Joshua Greene helped start the field of moral neuroscience, producing dazzling research findings. In this equally dazzling book, Greene shows that he is also one of the field’s premier synthesists. Considerable progress has been made in solving the classic problem of how to get individuals within a group to start cooperating. Greene takes on an even bigger problem—how to foster cooperation between groups, groups with deeply felt morals and values, but with different morals and values. There are few more important issues to solve in our increasingly pluralistic world, and this beautifully written book is a step in that direction.”
Peter Singer, professor of bioethics, Princeton University:
“Over the past decade, Greene’s groundbreaking research has helped us understand how people judge right and wrong. Now, in this brilliant and enlightening book, he draws on his own research and that of many others to give a more complete picture of our differences over moral issues. But the significance of this book goes far beyond that. Greene suggests a common moral currency that can serve as a basis for cooperation between people who are otherwise deeply divided on matters of morality. If our planet is to have a peaceful and prosperous future such a common moral currency is urgently needed. This book should be widely read and discussed.”
Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University; author of How the Mind Works and The Better Angels of Our Nature:
“After two and a half millennia, it’s rare to come across a genuinely new idea on the nature of morality, but in this book Joshua Greene advances not one but several. Greene combines neuroscience with philosophy not as a dilettante but as an expert in both fields, and his synthesis is interdisciplinary in the best sense of using all available conceptual tools to understand a deep phenomenon. Moral Tribes is a landmark in our understanding of morality and the moral sense.”
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Greene's answer is basically a form of utilitarianism that he calls "deep pragmatism." And to see why requires some explanation, which could be really dull but isn't, owing to Greene's gifts as a good and clear writer. He argues that humans have what is called a "dual process morality" that is divided between intuitive gut instincts (dominated by the ventromedial prefrontal cortex) and a more calculating thought process (owing more to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex). When it comes to questions of "me versus us," the intuition side of things is pretty reliable, making us feel guilty for taking more than "our fair share," breaking rules that we expect everyone else to follow, etc. Understandable, because our intuitions of empathy and the like almost certainly evolved to stimulate cooperation within groups among otherwise selfish individuals (which confers an overall survival advantage).
But our instincts also don't do very well with "we versus them" problems, because the same mechanisms that evolved to stimulate cooperation evolved to do so only WITHIN GROUPS (not between them). So, instincts often make us feel guilty at not helping others who are close to us, but the guilt lessens the farther removed the others-in-need are from us. Here, though, the thinking part of our brains can step in, and the thinking part of our brains (Greene's and others' research suggests) tend to be "utilitarian" - preferring whatever option leads to the greatest overall happiness less discriminately.
The most interesting (and original) parts of this book are those where Greene reviews his own and others' research on "the trolley problem" - a problem philosophers have concocted to illustrate the dilemma between the sanctity of individual rights and the imperative of maximizing overall happiness. The trolley problem - and there are many variations of it - is of a train going down a track where five people are trapped. One can avert the trolley from killing the five only if one pushes a particular person onto the track (fortunately, you are standing at an area of the track where any obstruction to the trolley will avert it to a side-track, and pushing the man in front of the track will create such an obstruction.)
Yes, it is highly contrived, but philosophers have argued for many years over the 'correct' answer to the problem: is it better to maximize happiness by saving five even if it means you have to intentionally sacrifice one, or is it better to let the five die if it means not intentionally killing one innocent person? Greene's study has led him to see the "dual process theory" of morality at work here. Those who have damage to the "instinctual" part of the brain unhesitatingly kill the one to save the five, and those with damage to the "calculating" part of the brain do the opposite. The rest of us struggle because the two parts of our brain are telling us different things.
But, far from saying that there is no good answer, Greene suggests that in the trolley case, the best answer is the utilitarian one, because he suspects that our compunctions about intentionally killing to save five lives is a relic of the intuitional module of our brain (as evidenced partly by the fact that those who choose to let the five die can''t generally give any good explanation for why, save that it feels wrong). And Greene also suggests that while intuitional thinking doe serve us well at times - in "me versus us" questions - it is often ill-equipped to deal with "us versus them" problems (problems the world is facing more and more of).
This is where I start to find Greene unconvincing. Without getting into too much detail, Greene strikes me as a utilitarian only to the degree that it gets him to the answers he wants to get... and there is a lot of inconsistent reasoning Greene gives about why utilitarianism is the best actual theory, rather than the one that gets him the answers he likes best. Mostly, this comes from a mixture of explaining both how utilitarianism doesn't conflict with some of our most deeply held intuitions (disrespect for individual rights when they conflict with the greatest good, etc), AND explaining that when it does, it is because in those cases, our intuitions are wrong. In other words, when utilitarianism validates our intuitions, that shows how good utilitarianism is, but when it conflicts with our intuitions, that shows that our intuitions - not utilitarianism - is flawed. Something seems very post hoc and inconsistent about this.
To be sure, I don't have a much better answer. I think that, in the end, Greene's work actually REDUCES our confidence that there are best and worst answers to moral questions, but that is because unlike Greene, I see no reason to think we can resolve the "dual process" competing answers by somehow stepping above our human moral thinking and saying that there is an objective criteria that can determine which "process" is the right one and which, the wrong one. Might it just be that our impulses toward intuition and calculation conflict and that is that? Yes, Greene (and many of us) do think that it is quite important to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number, but if our instincts about what is morally right can be flawed in some cases, why can't our feeling that the greatest good is important be flawed too (and even though we reason to it, the value we put on the greatest good is still an instinct)? Not that Greene is wrong to put value on it, but I came away thinking that he wanted it both ways: intuitions can be trusted when they validate our calculations, but they're probably wrong when they don't.
Anyway, aside from my general misgivings about Greene's conclusion (or at least his defense of it), I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Greene's research on the neural basis of moral thinking is intriguing, original, and does a service to moral philosophy. And here, he writes a clear and well-written explanation of those and a larger moral case he draws from it. Those who are interested in this book should also read Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality, and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Vintage).The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values
It's on an extremely important topic - the nature of morality. And the contribution Prof Greene makes is an extremely novel one: based on his own psychological studies, he argues that our moral judgments are often a battleground between an intuitive, emotional reaction, and a slower, more deliberative and logical reasoning process. Suppose you can kill one person in order to transplant their organs to save five others. "Don't do it!" says your gut; "But doing so will save more lives!" says the slower, more deliberative part of your brain.
The kicker comes in the final part of the book where he argues that we should normally trust that slow deliberative process over our intuitive judgments. His work in psychology therefore impacts moral philosophy, providing a grand argument for utilitarianism - the idea that one should always do whatever will maximise the sum total of wellbeing in the world.
Greene is a stellar psychologist who's precipitated a massive debate in moral philosophy. And he's managed to present his research in a clear, friendly and engaging way. If you want to learn about cutting-edge research on the nature of morality - and have your own moral views challenged! - then read this book.
Greene makes the observation that our intuitive moral emotions evolved to ensure cooperation within your own tribe and treated everyone else as "them". Obviously this doesn't work very well in the modern global world. So the point of this book is to defend a meta morality to resolve all the modern moral conflicts.
Greene uses modern issues like abortion as examples and this is just part of his excellent text. This book has the Amazon "Look Inside" feature and I recommend you utilize that to preview the text.
This is a thinking person's book and I highly recommend it. Very well done.
I personally learned a lot from the book and I am sure it will help me in my day to day interaction with those around me. It will also change the way I interact with the world.
I have a few issues with the book. First, it is not linear as it could have been. The points are well established and important but I knew the conclusion after the first half of the book. Second, the sub-title should have been "Emotion, reason, and the gap between me, us and them". It spends a lot of time not just on us vs. them, but on me vs. us. Though this is actually a good thing. It adds a lot to the book Lastly, Mr. Greene is very clear regarding his personal feelings. While I mostly agree with him and I appreciate it, I think the book would be more effective if it where less personal.
My issues aside, I think it a a great book. It is very readable and I highly recommend it.
Our intuitive moral brain treats them differently. Pushing the man off the bridge, or harvesting organs, seem to contravene an ethical taboo against personal violence that the impersonal act of flipping the switch does not. (This refutes the common idea that humans have a propensity for violence. Ironically, those who believe it must do so because their own built-in anti-violence brain module is set on high.)
Such issues are central to Joshua Greene’s book, Moral Tribes. Our ethical intuitions were acquired through evolution, adaptations that enabled our ancestors to cope and survive in close-knit tribal societies. And our moral reflexes do work pretty well in such environments, where the dilemmas tend to be of the “me” versus “us” sort. But, because our ancestral tribes were effectively competing against other tribes, “us” versus “them” issues are a different matter. That’s the problem really concerning Greene.
He argues for a version of utilitarianism (he calls it deep pragmatism). Now, utilitarianism has a bad rep in philosophy circles. Its precept of “the greatest good for the greatest number” is seen as excluding other valid moral considerations; e.g., in the trolley and doctor situations, sacrificing one to save five – overriding the one’s rights, and Kant’s dictum that people should always be ends, never means.
Greene’s line of argument (exactly the same as mine in The Case for Rational Optimism) starts with what he deems the key question: what really matters? You can posit a whole array of “goods” but upon analysis they all actually resolve down to one thing: the feelings of beings capable of experiencing feelings. Or, in a word, happiness.
Happiness is a slippery concept if you try to pin down its definition. Is it a feeling – that one is happy? That’s circular; also simplistic. As John Stuart Mill famously said, it’s better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.
But in any case, nothing ultimately matters except the feelings of feeling beings, and every other value you could name has meaning only insofar as it affects such feelings. Thus the supreme goal (if not the only goal) of moral philosophy should be to maximize good feelings (or happiness, or pleasure, or satisfaction) and minimize bad ones (pain and suffering).
A common misunderstanding is that such utilitarianism is really about maximizing wealth. But, while all else equal, more wealth does confer more happiness, all else is never equal and happiness versus suffering is much more complex. Some beggars are happier than some billionaires. The “utility” that utilitarianism targets is not wealth; money is only a means to an end; and the end is feelings.
This is what “the greatest good for the greatest number” is about. Jeremy Bentham, utilitarianism’s founding thinker, imagined assigning a point value to every experience. This is not intended literally; but if you could quantify good versus bad feelings, then the higher the score, the greater the “utility” achieved, and the better the world.
But doesn’t this still give us the same problematic answers to the trolley and surgery hypotheticals – killing one to save five? In fact that answer flunks the utilitarian test. Because nobody would want to live in a society where people can be grabbed off the street to take their organs. That might be utilitarian from the standpoint of the five people saved, but extremely non-utilitarian for everyone else. And while one can concoct bizarre hypotheticals like these, the real world doesn’t work that way. In the real world, “utility” can’t actually be maximized by, say, 90% of the population enslaving the other 10% (another typical anti-utilitarian hypothetical).
Utilitarianism doesn’t require narrow-minded calculation of “utility” within the confines of every situation and circumstance. What it tells us instead is to keep our eye on the big picture: that what really matters is feelings; what tends to make them better globally is good; what makes them worse is bad. As Greene puts it, utilitarianism supplies a “common currency,” or filter, for evaluating moral dilemmas.
Meantime, if X is willing to sacrifice himself for what he thinks is “the greatest good for the greatest number,” that’s fine; but if X is willing to sacrifice Y for what X thinks is the greater good, that’s not fine at all. It’s the road to perdition, and we know of too many societies that actually travelled that road.
Thus, a true real-world utilitarianism incorporates the kind of inviolable human rights that protect people from being exploited for the supposed good of others – because that truly does maximize happiness, pleasure, and human flourishing, while minimizing pain and suffering.