Joshua Greene, MORAL TRIBES, post 1

Here is a substantial book about human morality that offers ideas that, to me, help to knit together the ideas of others. For chronological context, this 2013 book follows, of course, the 1997 Pinker book that I recently read (review ends here) and the 1998 Wilson book ditto (here) from the ’90s; 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 Greene’s  bibliography, and he devotes a number of pages near the end to the ways in which he disagrees with Haidt in particular. (Michael Shermer’s 2015 THE MORAL ARC follows Greene, but its subject is not quite the same.)

(Update next day) It also *precedes* a couple recent books that might seem to have incorporated ideas from all these books: Ari Wallach’s Longpath (reviewed here) and Justin Gregg’s If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal (here), both of which concern the need for humanity to use long-term thinking in order to solve existential problems. They’re not about morality exactly, but involve similar consequences.

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.

Intro: The Tragedy of Commonsense Morality

He begins by describing four hypothetical tribes living near a forest, each with a different policy (e.g. individualism, or collectivism, or variations of these) for sharing a common pasture and their animals, and imagines what happens when conflict arises, or new tribes arrive with claims for the pasture. Each tribe is moral in its own way. Thus the tragedy. Author cites contemporary issues that reflect such conflicts: healthcare; individual freedom vs. the greater good; the economy; Wall Street; redistribution; global warming. We’re all collectivists to some degree; for conservatives, the circle of “us” is just smaller. Some tribes have beliefs about what makes themselves special, e.g. their god.

The problems have gotten worse over the last ten thousand years, as civilization has changed given the rising population and global culture. Violence *has* declined (cf. Pinker); we’re becoming less tribal. But we need to do better.

Part I: Moral Problems

Ch1, The Tragedy of the Commons

Author’s Parable of the New Pastures is a sequel to Garrett Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” from 1968* [personal comment at bottom], which concerned the problem of cooperation and shared resources. Morality was a problem after Darwin; if everyone was self-interested, how did cooperation take place? The answer was that morality *evolved* to enable cooperation (i.e. those who didn’t cooperate achieved less than those who did). Thus altruism and unselfishness, and a host of psychological tendencies, and emotions, to enforce them. At the same time, this cooperation applied only to those within one’s own group — but not between groups. [[ My comment: thus the Ten Commandments, including the one about not killing, applied only to the followers of Moses, who in turn believed they were instructed by God to slaughter other tribes. The essence of tribal thinking.]]

Modern herders, i.e. all of us, therefore, need a next level of morality, a ‘meta-morality’, to avoid conflicts and solve problems.

Ch2, Moral Machinery

This is a crisp chapter summarizing the roots of morality — ways to get otherwise selfish individuals to cooperate — and the emotions that ‘enforce’ it. Author uses (again and again, throughout the book) the philosophical experiment called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. One answer is the Golden Rule (which has variations in virtually every culture), another is the ‘tit for tat’ rule about cooperating with others. Other ideas discussed: the concept of friendship, decency, human aversion to violence, threats and promises (honor, guilt, shame, loyalty), watchful eyes and discerning minds (gossip, ostracizement, apologizing), membership in leagues and protection against exploitation, tribalism (or ‘parochial altruism’) and shibboleths, racial biases. Yet, brains can be rewired through experience and learning. [[ Precisely a message of Pinker and Wilson, which is to say, morality is not fixed, by God or anything else, and *should* change as circumstances warrant; though conservatives don’t think so. Because it’s simpler to think that. ]]

Then: cooperation can be enforced by chiefs and kings, Hobbes’ Leviathan, or supernatural authority — perhaps the source of religion (to enable cooperation among people who are “God-fearing”).

The story of life on earth is one of increasingly complex cooperation. Thus, once again: These moral strategies include concern for others; direct reciprocity; commitments to threats and promises; reputation; assortment; and indirect reciprocity. With associated emotions: empathy, care, anger, disgust, forgiveness, gratitude, vengeance, shame, honor, guilt, loyalty, humility, awe, judgment, self-consciousness, embarrassment, tribalism, pro-social punishment, and righteous indignation. (All on that list of human universals that Wilson and Pinker cited.) And they all exist, we now understand, to promote cooperation among otherwise selfish individuals.

[[ Comment aside: it’s common on the idealistic left, which tends to deny human nature, that racism has to be “taught,” and all you have to do is avoid teaching it to avoid it manifesting. No: racism is inherent, as a sign of an out-group or ‘other,’ and has to be overcome through experience with those outside one’s immediate tribal group to avoid it manifesting. That’s why the uneducated and parochial are the worst racists. ]]

Ch3, Strife on the New Pastures

The strategies of the previous chapter often fail in the modern world. Different tribes have different values, some being matters of emphasis, some derived from holy books, beliefs that are parochial. Author details numerous experiments showing how people in different areas have different intuitive reactions to various scenarios, e.g. Southerners in the US, with their ‘culture of honor,’ are more sensitive to insults and open about their anger; they’re more likely to support overseas wars. Our sense of fairness is biased toward self-interest; our perception of events is too, e.g. football fans perceiving a game differently depending on which team they’re rooting for. Why do conservatives deny the facts of climate change? Because they’re skeptical about collective efforts of every sort — that is, least likely to trust and work with other ‘tribes’. Attitudes may depend on your community; getting along with them may be your priority. [[ yes ]] It’s more important for conservatives to be good members of their tribe (95t). [[ Rather than acknowledge reality; as I’ve said again and again: don’t let groups or crowds or tribes do your thinking for you. ]]

Modern life is extremely good (c.f. Pinker); many problems, maybe 90%, are solved. But the last 10% look difficult: poverty, violent conflict, terrorism, global warming. How to solve these? We move beyond moral feeling, the heart, to moral thinking, the head.

Part II: Morality Fast and Slow

(Author doesn’t explicitly acknowledge this, but his basic notion here is analogous to Kahneman’s in THINKING, FAST AND SLOW. In each case, the fast is the intuitive first reactions, which in the ancestral environment were useful to save us from being eaten, while the slow is the more reasoned, reflective effort of coming to a rational conclusion about more complex situations.)

Ch4, Trolleyology, and following

Author discusses his past as member of a debate team, and his discovery of utilitarianism (a great idea with an awful name, he says). Which is basically, whatever policy that leads to the greater good. Or greatest amount of happiness, in some takes. Best illustrated by game theory and psychology, as in the famous Trolley Problem (which I won’t explain here; see link).

Much of the next several chapters involves paradoxes of the Trolley Problem — e.g. how what seems *intuitively* right in some cases but not others, are morally equivalent to each other, while some decision that would seem to lead to a ‘greatest good’ nevertheless seem morally repellent. Author proposes a “dual-process” theory of moral judgment. Our intuitive notion is to prioritize rights of the individual; thinking about the greater good is more difficult.

Author makes the analogy to cameras, which have automatic modes but also a manual mode. As our environments change, we need to make decision that may not resemble those in the past, where our automatic modes were refined.

(So, we can provisionally conclude so far: conservative thinking is the default, automatic mode of tribal behavior; it disputes the manual mode of progressivism, where decisions based on new experiences and new information are possible.)

Will pick up here in tomorrow’s post.

* Fun fact: I saw Garrett Hardin speak at UCLA, at least once, or perhaps over a series of talks (it was a long time ago), one summer in the 1970s while I was attending UCLA.

This entry was posted in Book Notes, Morality, progress, Science. Bookmark the permalink.