Joshua Greene, MORAL TRIBES, post 1

Here is a substantial book about human morality that offers ideas that, to me, helps the ideas of others fit together. For chronological orientation, this 2013 book follows, of course, the 1997 Pinker (review ends here) and 1998 Wilson books (here) from the ’90s that I recently read; it also follows Haidt’s 2012 THE RIGHTEOUS MIND (here), Harris’ 2010 THE MORAL LANDSCAPE (notes/review not yet posted), and Kahneman’s 2011 THINKING, FAST AND SLOW (partial). All but Wilson are included in his bibliography, and he devotes a number of pages near the end to the ways in which he disagrees with Haidt. (Michael Shermer’s 2015 THE MORAL ARC follows Greene, but its subject is not quite the same.)

Subtitled: “Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them” (The Penguin Press, Nov. 2013, 422pp, including 70pp of acknowledgements, notes, bibliography, image credits, and index)

The book is long and detailed but well-structured, meaning that I should be able to boil it down to an outline fairly easily. The theme is how individual human tribes evolved different versions of base human morality, given circumstances, and how these need to be resolved in order to solve problems among the “new pastures” of the modern world.

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Believing Anything

  • A long opinion piece by Dana Milbank at WaPo shows *how* Trump supporters will believe anything, without explaining (despite the headline) *why* they do;
  • My thoughts about what has brought about the loss in consensus reality;
  • And short items about … xenophobia, treason, violence, and suppression.

A skim of this shows no one line answer. Let me read it more closely now and see if we can learn anything new.

Washington Post, Dana Milbank, 12 Apr 2024: Opinion | This is why Trump supporters will believe absolutely anything

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The poorly educated and the “cognishly umpired”

  • A Tom Gauld cartoon illustrating tribalism — “Our Blessed Homeland” vs. “Their Barbarous Wastes”;
  • Anti-woke teachers in public schools;
  • Abrahm Lustgarten on the American climate migration (which applies to the wider world, of course);
  • More from John Gartner about Trump’s dementia; and how Sunday’s Doonesbury illustrates it;
  • Why people believe the myth of high crime rates;
  • And how politics and social media have exaggerated America’s political divide;
  • And an endpiece about dealing with the estate of my late friend Larry K.

Tribalism, as illustrated by Tom Gauld. (The graphic is all over social media so I feel safe displaying it here.) This illustrates virtually every conflict in human history, I suspect.

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  • Fascinating piece about a new book Slouch, about the curious preoccupation with posture, at least in America;
  • Short items about Trump’s dumb attorneys; Christian rallies against the LGBTQs; why Trump’s “Christian Visibility Day” illustrates Christians’ persecution complex; and that traffic to right-wing sites is collapsing.

Here’s the second item I’ve seen or heard in the past month about a new book called Slouch: Posture Panic in Modern America, by Beth Linker, published by Princeton University Press just last Tuesday. (The first was an interview on KQED’s Form, Beth Linker’s Book ‘Slouch’ Recounts History of ‘Posture Panic’, which I heard as broadcast. You can listen to it, but there’s no transcript.)

The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead, 8 Apr 2024: The Truth Behind the Slouching Epidemic, subtitled “From the onset of the twentieth century, poor posture has been associated with poverty, bad health, and even civilizational decadence. But does the real problem lie elsewhere?”

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The Dual-Process Theory of Morality, and Some Examples

Today I finished reading this month’s big book (i.e. a substantial nonfiction book), Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, an extremely interesting book for the way its central idea knits together many of themes I’ve read about in other books, from Wilson and Pinker to Kahneman and Haidt, and how it applies to, or perhaps *explains*, the political polarity in modern American culture. This post isn’t a review or summary of the book. Just a brief statement of his theory, and then another batch of political items like those I’ve been posting, with some comments about how the theory applies to each.

I should say that his theory, and its applications, might be eye-rollingly obvious to some people. And it’s pretty much how I’ve understood the recent world. But it’s nice to see someone pinning it down.

The gist of his “dual-process” theory is that (as Wilson and Pinker have explained) morality evolved to facilitate cooperate between individuals… within a single tribe, or community… and that morality can change, given experience and new knowledge. Primitive tribal morality solved the ‘tragedy of the commons,’ the conflict between Me versus Us. But that doesn’t work to solve our modern problems, which involve the conflicting values of different tribes: the Us versus Them problem, the ‘tragedy of commensense morality.’ It’s a tragedy because different tribes to their different intuitive, ‘common sense,’ moralities, and they’re different because they’re not based on evidence or reality, though they’re similar because they’re all driven by motivations for survival — tribal morality, or what I’ve been calling ‘savanna’ morality because they evolved during the hundreds of thousands of years that humanity lived in small tribes on the African savanna. How then to solve modern, global, problems? The solution is analogous to the way cameras have ‘automatic’ settings as well as a ‘manual’ mode — to solve the problems of the real world, the big overcrowded modern world where tribes with differing values necessarily must get along, is to shift into a sort of manual mode to solve moral and ethical problems. This involves *thinking,* and Greene spends some time defending utilitarianism, or as he prefers to call it, ‘deep pragmatism,’ as the best approach to do this.

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Obsolete Laws, Morality, and Beliefs

The world is changing, and conservatives deny this by appealing to values of a simpler past.

  • How Republicans are resorting to obsolete laws — the Comstock laws, the 1864 Alabama ruling — to enforce their morality upon everyone;
  • How the Vatican’s latest statement doesn’t amplify dignity, it only exhibits the same base morality of tribal thinking that lacks any empirical basis;
  • And a piece by Brian Karen about Donald Trump that quotes Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall.” With a comment about Three-Body Problem.

This mentality has always been with us; it’s part of base human nature.

LGBTQNation, Dr. Warren J. Blumenfelt, 11 Apr 2024: The archaic Comstock laws were named for a man who also fueled the US obsession with book banning, subtitled “Anthony Comstock destroyed 15 tons of books during his 1800s quest for a “pure” nation, which also included banning abortion medications through the mail.”

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Daniel Dennett, Exploring the Universe, the Eclipse, and How so Many People have no idea what an eclipse is about

  • Daniel Dennett’s four biggest ideas in philosophy;
  • Why we spend money to explore the universe;
  • Washington Post with images of the eclipse;
  • And SF author CJ Cherryh on how so many ‘people on the street’ have no idea what makes a solar eclipse.

Let’s move back into the world of rationality and reason and reality, mostly. Starting with another piece about the late Daniel Dennett.

Big Think, The 4 biggest ideas in philosophy, with legend Daniel Dennett, subtitled ““Forget about essences.” Philosopher Daniel Dennett on how modern-day philosophers should be more collaborative with scientists if they want to make revolutionary developments in their fields.”

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Here is a book published about a year ago now that turns out to be very similar, thematically, to the more recent book by Adam Frank, The Little Book of Aliens, that I reviewed here in January. That book was published last October, six months after Green’s. Frank’s book had blurbs by Kim Stanley Robinson, Carlo Rovelli, Martin Rees, and Marcelo Gleiser (and one other); Green’s book has blurbs from Jeff VanderMeer, Ed Yong, Chuck Wendig, and a couple others.

Subtitled: “Science, Imagination, and Our Quest for Kinship in the Cosmos” (Hanover Square Press, April 2023, 304pp, including 28p of bibliography and index)

The themes are similar: speculations about the likelihood (Frank) or nature of (Green) life in the universe, in particular intelligent life that humans might contact and interact with. While Frank focused on SETI, and discussed UFOs and UAPs, Green takes a broader chronological view, moving from the origin of life, then of planets, of animals, of people, of technology, and then of possible contact. Those are the subjects of her six chapters.

What distinguishes Green is her interest in and knowledge of science fiction, with some long passages about particular works. Many are to pop TV shows and movies, yet a significant few are to SF novels and even short stories. Here’s a summary, including her SF references.

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Eclipse Aftermath, and Politics

First of all, our street had a scheduled power outage this morning, from 9-12, so I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to see any of the TV coverage of the total eclipse crossing the eastern US today. There were in fact a whole bunch of PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric) trucks and vans on our street first thing this morning. Our power went off at exactly 9am. But they finished by 10:30am, and our power came back on, and so by then we were able to turn on the TV and see the eclipse coverage in the east: Texas, Arkansas, Ohio. Nice to see, but we saw the 2017 total eclipse in person, in Oregon.

Starting today with a couple substantive essays, then another list of what the crazies are up to.

NY Times, Jonathan Rauch and Peter Wehner, 8 Apr 2024: There Is a Way Out of MAGA Domination

The gist here: principled Republicans should form a sort of party-in-exile, and work to depose the MAGAs. The essay opens by reminding us how many such people there are.

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The Awe of the Solar Eclipse

Three items today.

  • Addressing a piece that claims that the awe of the solar eclipse, tomorrow, will somehow unite humanity (I think not; it hasn’t before);
  • Another appreciation of Daniel Kahneman, who explained how humans think, and established the idea of “cognitive biases”;
  • And looking back to a song by Split Enz, the predecessor group of Crowded House and soloist Neil Finn.


Here’s an article that wonders if tomorrow’s solar eclipse will somehow be a united force among all humanity. My initial reaction is: of course not. Has it happened after previous eclipses? No. At the same time, the awe is there for people opening to experience it.

Caption: “In-camera multiple exposure of the solar eclipse as seen in Salem, Ore., on Aug. 21, 2017. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)”

LA Times, 7 Apr 2024: These scientists think an ‘awe’-some eclipse could help unite Americans in troubled times

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