Moral Tribes

Greene_Moral_TribesJoshua Greene

Joshua Greene has been espousing his theory of “dual morality” for some time, but it’s only now that he’s put all of his ideas in popular book form. And this time he’s paired his conception of “automatic” and “manual” moral modes with extended advocacy for a form of utilitarianism that he calls “deep pragmatism.”

Given the clarity and directness with which he makes his case, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them was worth the wait.

The chief characteristic of Moral Tribes is Greene’s skill at making complex arguments accessible without reducing them to useless summaries. Greene gives us his assessment of our moral difficulties, explains the evolutionary and cognitive bases of morality itself, and offers a detailed prescription for teasing solutions out of the cross-cultural clashes that divide us.

To be honest, I found the solution sections less engrossing, and less convincing, than the earlier parts of the book. But then, I always do. At this point in books like this, a picture comes to mind of Sam Jaffe in a white gown, looking dreamily toward the heavens and intoning, “Be kind.” Ronald Colman was impressed, but I always find such nostrums a tad oversimplified, even simplistic. Still, —

Difficult, perhaps intractable, problems may not have clear resolutions; but that doesn’t mean that we can’t understand their natures and origins with quite a bit of insight and understanding. For that reason, even those readers who regard any kind of utilitarianism as, in Greene’s words, “a quaint relic of the nineteenth century” will find much rewarding discussion in the first half of the book.

Greene argues convincingly that our moral sense has two main components, what he calls “automatic” and “manual” modes. He likens these moral senses to the automatic and manual settings on a good SLR camera.

In most cases, “automatic” settings — in the moral arena, our primary and unconscious feelings and emotions — serve us well. In social terms, they distinguish usefully between our personal needs and our relationships with those in our immediate social groups. It’s from these responses that we get human qualities like kin selection.

In more complex social relationships, including those between groups,  Us vs. Them, “manual” adjustments — the checks and alterations made to our base morality by reason and judgment — can take over. And when our automatic settings lead to problematic responses, like racism, it’s good that we have a manual mode to take charge. It’s here that we deal with calculations of relative value, and it’s here that we are able to consider metaethics and the nature of morality itself.

Like many other writers, from Daniel Kahneman to Antonio Damasio to Jonathan Haidt, Greene explains that our “automatic” moral sense is the result of a group of sensory and emotional responses that are born into us. Our “manual” sense must be learned. Much of the time, our reasoning powers are used to construct post hoc justifications and rationalizations for our baser moral instincts. With purpose and practice, however, Greene urges, we can “rise above” the automatic and tinker more thoughtfully with the moral climates in which we live.

… being wired for tribalism does not mean being hardwired for tribalism. Brains can be rewired through experience and active learning. What’s more, our brains include many different circuits that compete for control of behavior, some of which are more modifiable than others.

Greene writes that, whatever our culture, all “socially competent humans” understand the feelings basic to social interaction. His list includes “Empathy, familial love, anger, social disgust, friendship, minimal decency, gratitude, vengefulness, romantic love, honor, shame, guilt, loyalty, humility, awe, judgmentalism, gossip, self-consciousness, embarrassment, tribalism, and righteous indignation.” Greene suggests that we have these feelings because we are an essentially social species:

All of this psychological machinery is perfectly designed to promote cooperation among otherwise selfish individuals …. There’s currently no way to prove that all of this psychological machinery evolved, either biologically or culturally, to promote cooperation, but if it didn’t, it’s a hell of a coincidence.

Greene understands that what works in one setting might not work in another. Cooperation within groups is aided by our automatic moral sense, but the same sensibilities hinder cooperation between groups. This is true, but to Greene not surprising:

Cooperation between groups is thwarted by tribalism (group-level selfishness), disagreements over the proper terms of cooperation (individualism or collectivism?), commitments to local “proper nouns” (leaders, gods, holy books), a biased sense of fairness, and a biased perception of the facts.

Greene argues that our most intractable moral problems are made so difficult not because we have two kinds of moral thinking, but rather because we don’t routinely “match the right kind of thinking with the right kind of problem.”

In fact, we most often use “manual-mode” reasoning to rationalize or contextualize our moral feelings. This is not a route to cooperation between groups, since each group justifies its own, very different moral code. We all share a sense of disgust, for just one example, but we differ greatly about what disgusts us.

If we use our manual-mode reasoning to describe or rationalize our moral feelings, we’ll get nowhere. Instead of organizing and justifying the products of our automatic settings, we need to transcend them. Thus stated, the solution to our problem seems obvious: We should put our divisive tribal feelings aside and do whatever produces the best overall results.

But what is best? The rest of the book makes a good case for “deep pragmatism,” a kind of other-directed utilitarianism that combines the Golden Rule with a broadly humanistic definition of “happiness.”

We may not be all utilitarians, but, Greene argues, utilitarianism is the one moral anchor that is understood by people of all moral codes. In other words, while we may not understand each other’s typically Deity-specific moral rules, we all “get” the bases of utilitarianism.

We all understand why maximizing happiness is, at least on the face of it, a reasonable thing to do. Why do we all get it? Why is there a systematic moral philosophy that makes sense to everyone?

Of course, there are many people who “get” utilitarianism and are quite repulsed by it. Greene feels compelled to devote quite a lot of space to a careful defense of utilitarianism against its many critics.

Greene does a rather good job of this defense, but the mere fact that so elaborate a justification is necessary in a popular work, rather than in a typically-crabbed philosophical treatise, argues against the easy adoption of his “solution.”

But then, as I wrote earlier, I’m generally skeptical of single solutions to complex problems. I like Greene’s “deep pragmatism” a lot, personally, but I doubt that he’ll have much traction with any group whose morality is rooted in supernatural laws.

That said, I think that Moral Tribes is a strong entry in the currently-fashionable moral psychology sweepstakes.

It’s readable — and worth reading.


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