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.

Now let’s visit some recent headlines. These aren’t intended as ideal examples of Greene’s thesis, but all of them can be understood as consequences of a world wrestling with tribal vs cosmopolitan thinking.

Joe.My.God, 12 Apr 2024: Maine GOP Reps Censured After Claiming That Local Mass Shooting Was God’s Revenge For Abortion Laws

Religion is what binds tribes together, and serves a function to solve Me vs. Us problems. Religions don’t involve evidence or thinking; they’re different from one tribe to the next. So appealing to any one of them solves nothing. Such appeals merely reveal deep superstition: appeals to the imagined supernatural.


NY Times, David French, 11 Apr 2024: The Great Hypocrisy of the Pro-Life Movement

The hypocrisy French speaks of is the panic with which Republicans are backing away from the strict IVF laws that prevent many of their supporters from having children that they otherwise would not have. The idea of the laws is that embryos, even frozen ones, are people. Well, are they or aren’t they, pro-lifers? Be consistent. (The cynics, and some liberals, would say it’s because pro-lifers aren’t so much concerned about babies, as about controlling women.) Greene actually spends some time discussing abortion, showing the inconsistencies of both the pro-life and pro-choice positions, as an example of how ‘deep pragmatism’ might lead to a solution.


Boing Boing, Carla Sinclair, 11 Apr 2024: Oh dear! Newsmax host slams Biden for not knowing “Africa is a country” (video)

Tribalists are more inclined to disavow knowledge of the outside world, especially if it conflicts with their tribal values. Thus those Jewish Orthodox schools in NYC, and many home-schoolers. Thus, in this case, it’s the conservative Newsmax host who thinks Africa is a “country.”


Slate, Ben Mathis-Lilly, 10 Apr 2024: Epidemic of Bozo Behavior Strikes Republican Senate Candidates Who Were Chosen to Be Boring, subtitled “This was the one thing Mitch McConnell didn’t want to happen.”

Same comment as previous, essentially; Republicans are beholden to tribal values — demonization of outsiders, demonization of any sexual activity that does not lead to the propagation of more children, demonization of knowledge about the real world that would conflict with tribal religious values — which I suspect is why so many Republican candidates are celebrities, and not people with any kind of experience or expertise.


Salon, Chauncey DeVega, 10 Apr 2024: Trump’s MAGA rallies have morphed, subtitled “For MAGA’s most faithful, Donald Trump’s political hate rallies are a type of spiritual experience”

Well, *of course.*


LA Times, Jonah Goldberg, 9 Apr 2024: Column: The latest sign that Republicans are abandoning even their most deeply held principles

Principles require some kind of thinking, what Greene calls a ‘metamorality’ that can be appealed to beyond tribal morality. Republicans might, at one time, be said to have had principles. But that requires a constant amount of attention; it’s easy to slide back.


Washington Post, 9 Apr 2024: Which Trump lies stick? Republicans believe some falsehoods more than they did six years ago, our poll finds.

Tribal thinking does not involve thinking true things; it involves thinking things the entire tribe agrees upon — stories, myths, religions. But such thinking will not solve modern problems that threaten the entire world, and all the tribes within it.


Joe.My.God, 10 Apr 2024: Arizona Senator Mocks “God-Haters” Over Criticism After Leading “Tongues Prayer” Against Abortion Ruling

No particular tribal rituals will actually solve anything, not praying in tongues, not rain dances. And it’s consistent with simplistic, tribal thinking, which isn’t actual thinking, that this Arizona senator is clueless about why people objected to his stunt.


Enough for one day. Many other examples from recent days and weeks and months and years can be similarly understood. I’ll cover Greene’s book sometime this next week. And meanwhile, I’m working on a long piece that’s a “provisional conclusion” about the source and function of morality.

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