Book review: ‘Moral Tribes’ by Joshua Greene

The dictator Joseph Stalin reputedly once said that “The death of one person is a tragedy; the death of one million is a statistic.” Behind this chilling remark lies an important insight into human moral psychology. Our moral intuitions are myopic. For instance, we are repelled by the idea of causing others direct physical harm, while it is psychologically much easier to inflict the same, or greater, amounts of harm in non-direct ways. (Think of controlling a drone, as opposed to stabbing someone at close range.)

The short-sightedness of our evolved morality brings serious risks and is unsuited to modern life in numerous ways. In his new book Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them (published October 2013), Joshua Greene, an associate professor at Harvard University, surveys the defectiveness of our moral intuitions and outlines the case for his own preferred normative approach – utilitarianism. For many professional philosophers this will sound a little bland, but Greene’s book should be welcomed as a thoughtful and engaging introduction to moral psychology and philosophy for an intelligent general readership.

Greene’s book begins with a parable about several tribes of herders, each of which has a different moral view as to how an area of land should be used for grazing. Within tribes their moralities sustain wholesome social lives. But amongst tribes there is war – each fighting for what it believes is right. There seems to be no way to resolve these incompatible moral views. Greene calls this kind of disagreement ‘The Tragedy of Commonsense Morality’. It is a problem writ large – for instance between the moral views of those from different religious traditions. ‘Moral Tribes’ attempts to provide an explanation of why these disagreements arise, and present a system of morality that may help us transcend them.

Firstly, why do disagreements arise? According to Greene it is because morality evolved for the purpose of ensuring cohesion amongst small groups of people. This tribal aspect of intuitive morality has some frightening consequences. For example, from as young as six months old infants prefer to accept toys from and become friends with those who have similar accents to their parents / carers. Implicit Association Tests reveal that even the most supposedly cosmopolitan citizens harbour racist attitudes. And we’re quick to demonise those of other nationalities whilst overlooking the shortcomings of our own communities. These various biases help initiate and prolong conflicts. (Just think of the Israeli-Palestinian vendettas.) Likely, however, these traits had an evolutionary advantage. There was a survival advantage conferred on groups who felt close-knit and were thus better able to cooperate. In a world where small groups lived largely independent, nomadic lives, our tribal morality may have worked well for ensuring cooperation. It works less well in a world in which those from different ‘tribes’ frequently bump up against one another. How can we resolve disputes that arise from different moral views? This is what Greene sets out to answer in the second part of his book.

Having impugned our intuitive, tribal moralities on the basis of their evolutionary origins, Greene asks that we sidestep our intuitions and subscribe to a moral system based on the objective pursuit of well-being. In other words, Green attempts to persuade his readers to accept utilitarianism, which he prefers to call ‘deep pragmatism’. According to him, utilitarianism is “the most underrated and misunderstood idea in all of moral and political philosophy.” Whilst addressing conventional objections (and whether he does so successfully will divide readers) he makes a strong case that utilitarianism, regardless of whether it represents a ‘moral truth’, provides the most useful metamorality for resolving disagreements between those with different substantive moral views. He counsels that “public moral debate should be a lot wonkier” and that those involved in such debates should invoke evidence of benefits and harms more than they invoke subjective feelings.

Moral Tribes is an extremely engaging book. It is well written and does an admirable job of outlining recent psychological research and providing an introduction to moral philosophy for non-philosophers. But I suspect that many professional philosophers will balk at it. Those who are already hostile to utilitarianism are unlikely to be swayed by Green’s arguments. In particular, his moral philosophy simply does not follow from the psychological evidence he presents, as he seems to imply. He asks us to discard our intuitive morality on the basis of its evolutionary heritage, but he does not explain how we can do moral philosophy without at least some reliance on intuitions. Moral Tribes does for moral philosophy what Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and Dan Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow did for economics. But a complete dismissal of intuitions might leave us driving without a map.

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2 Responses to Book review: ‘Moral Tribes’ by Joshua Greene

  • Andrew says:

    “His moral philosophy simply does not follow from the psychological evidence he presents, as he seems to imply”

    I don’t think he ever claims that it follows directly, instead suggesting it does some work behind the scenes that can help us figure out where we want to go normatively.

    “He asks us to discard our intuitive morality on the basis of its evolutionary heritage, but he does not explain how we can do moral philosophy without at least some reliance on intuitions”.

    He only asks us to discard ‘point and shoot’ morality when considering ‘new’ problems (e.g., climate change, global poverty, nuclear war etc).

    He does not advocate doing away with intuitions completely, but suggests they should be treated as mere ‘alarms’ rather than as ‘currency’.

  • OblongCircles says:

    So, in short, the tribe with the stronger or larger number of warriors wins the dispute. Might is right in the more primal, basic manner of mammalian survival, right?
    What intuitive morality do you speak of? Morality is a learned trait that inherently invites dispute.
    The creatures that ignores truly intuitive warnings (instincts) does not usually last too long but make great snacks for predators.
    Morality of a given group is simply a set of controls designed to continue the existence of the group.


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