Medical Tuesday Blog

Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason And The Gap Between Us And Them, By Joshua Greene

May 29

Written by: Del Meyer
05/29/2017 1:15 PM 

CURRENT BOOKS: More Happiness, Less War

Brien A. Seeley, MD

Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and the Gap Between Us and Them, Joshua Greene, 432 pages, Penguin (2013).

Think about your mom and dad. Remember their unconditional loving-kindness, their memorable storytelling and their exemplariness. Tenderly whisper your thanks to them for your precious morality, your compass for navigating life. Your morality runs deep, etched into your heart. It is the cornerstone of who you are and is used in decision-making every day. It evolved from the sum of your life experiences as a perfect fit for your culture, your tribe. Though it is not infallible, it provides your first, fastest and usually best assessment of what to do. Even though it was formed from sayings as simple as “because Mommy said so,” your morality is your surest tool for achieving happiness.

The above paragraph states the basic premise on which Harvard brain scientist and sociobiologist Joshua Greene builds a more expansive view of morality in his new book, Moral Tribes. Greene views morality as our human capacity for solving five basic types of social conflict: “me vs. you,” “me vs. us,” “us vs. it,” “us vs. us” and “us vs. them.” If we look at some memorable examples of these conflicts, we can better appreciate Greene’s prescription for happiness.

Me vs. you. In a 1960s television skit, Red Skelton plays a hungry hobo on a park bench (Freddie the Freeloader) who sees a cake fall out of a passerby’s grocery bag. As Freddie gets ready to cut the cake, the other hobo on the bench insists that Freddie share the cake with him, saying, “If we are to split the cake fairly, you should let me cut the cake.” Freddie shrugs and hands him the cake, which he cuts into a big piece and a little piece, keeping the big piece for himself. Freddie objects, saying, “That’s not fair. Why, if I had cut that cake I would have given you the bigger piece.” The sly hobo indignantly retorts, “Well, what are you whining for? That’s exactly what I did.” The issue here is clearly individual selfishness.

Me vs. us. After the famous mutiny on the Bounty in 1789, the mutineers set Captain Bligh and 18 loyal crew adrift in the Pacific Ocean in a 23-foot boat with meager provisions. Bligh and his crew soon faced a classic potential “tragedy of the commons” in which selfishness by some can lead to disastrous results for all. Miraculously, aside from one crewman killed by natives of Tofua, all of the Bligh loyalists cooperated well enough to survive an arduous 47-day voyage to the island of Timor in the Dutch East Indies.

Us vs. it. In the movie All Is Lost, Robert Redford plays a single-handing sailor who awakes to find that the hull of his sleek ocean-going sailboat has been fatally gashed by a large metal shipping container floating in the middle of the Indian Ocean. As the bobbing sailboat’s cabin floods and ruins his high-tech equipment and water supply, the solitary Redford realizes his desperate plight against a relentless, amoral opponent, the sea. A violent storm sinks the sailboat, leaving him in a flimsy raft. His only real hope is to raise the awareness of strangers to his plight, but crew on the containerized cargo ships in the area pass unaware of him. This allegory about the peril of disregard for the environment presents a cautionary tale about us vs. it.

Us vs. us. George Washington’s farewell address is devoted to warning about the divisive perils of factions and party politics. It is read ceremonially each year to Congress and bears repeating here:

[Parties] serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; … [parties] are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government; destroying afterwards the very engines, which have lifted them to unjust dominion.

Amazingly, Washington’s prescient words foretell such momentous events as the Civil War and Hitler’s rise to power. Even today, our staunchly partisan Congress fiddles myopically while major problems continue to burn. Greene points out that, unlike the world’s major religions, the diverse tribes that make up the American public lack a single unifying moral code, an “us.” Instead, our polarizing two-party system, recurring re-election campaigns and the Citizens United decision provide a perfect nest for amoral corporate lobbyists who fulfill the role of the “enterprising minority” described by Washington.

Us vs. them. These are the titans of conflicts, occurring usually between nations and religions. Examples abound, and include all wars, genocide and terrorist group activity. Greene gives these conflicts the most attention, reminding us that political and religious strife tragically killed 230 million people in the last century.

Of the five types of conflicts, Greene admits that the lower-stakes “me” types are usually solved by our innate moral compass, our gut feelings, our heart. But the larger “us” type, he says, urgently demand a different moral compass, one with a mindset toward utilitarian solutions–solutions that impartially seek the greatest happiness for all. This dual-process approach to morality is the main message of Moral Tribes. Greene presents extensive results from psychological thought experiments and brain imaging to support the dual-process approach as the best one available.

Greene wants us all to become moral thinkers. Like Damasio, Kahneman and Claxton before him, Greene recognizes that we need both fast and slow thinking to ideally sift our choices from our enormous decision trees. The fast thinking is our knee-jerk parental morality. The slow, deliberate thinking is how we cooperate on more complex issues. It is the tool one uses in chess to plan moves ahead, to foresee outcomes and consequences.

Green gives cooperation the highest respect: “From simple cells to supersocial animals like us, the story of life on Earth is the story of cooperation. Cooperation is why we’re here, and yet, at the same time, maintaining cooperation is our greatest challenge”. Morality, writes Greene, evolved because “cooperation by individuals conferred a survival advantage to their group” or tribe. The problem came when such tribes grew large and began to interact and selfishly compete. (Oddly, Greene makes no mention of Harvard’s E.O. Wilson, the pioneering authority on the evolution of social cooperation.)

Selfishness–that abomination to Aristotle, yet the engine of progress to Adam Smith and Ayn Rand–underlies each of the five types of social conflict. It is how each of us inherently perceives the world. The Golden Rule, for most of us the touchstone of morality, works because selfishness can be seen in others better than in oneself. If we had a selfishness thermometer whose spectrum ran from greedy to supremely generous, most of us could place people we know somewhere along that spectrum. Greene presents research to show that one’s place on that spectrum is closely related to which “tribe” we are from. . .

Greene enumerates 16 human factors that guide our moral impulses, ranging from empathy and love to embarrassment and righteous indignation. These factors collectively determine our sense of decency and our innate reactions to cheaters in our tribe. The human tendency to gossip and rumors, says Greene, extends these reactions widely across a tribe or community, and ensures effective accountability for everyone in the tribe.

Our sense of decency makes us care that people have rights to things that were unjustly taken from them. We do what we can to atone for past sins; but Greene would have us shorten the scorecard for past wrongs by employing another moral principle: forgiveness. Our tendencies for forgiveness, he writes, “are adaptive strategies in a world where mistakes happen.” He suggests that all legacy rights must be tempered with an overriding rule to seek the greatest future happiness.

Greene devotes a good deal of space to discussing the goodness of utilitarianism and defining its goal of happiness as being far more generic than smiles and plenty. Greene wants utilitarianism to be embraced as everyone’s common moral currency. He makes this seem reasonable and acceptable at first blush. However, philosophers like John Rawls point out that utilitarianism can violate the rights of the individual, rights that many philosophers and religions consider sacrosanct. Greene dismisses the sanctity of individual rights as an annoying impediment to negotiating best-case solutions to titanic problems. When an opponent objects that a solution violates some right(s), Greene says, that opponent is seeking to effectively end the argument by inserting an ingredient that cannot be decided by evidence. To many, this will be a key weakness in Greene’s approach. Again, the innate moral compass runs deep. . .

Greene communicates well, with a just-right mix of formality and jargon. He personalizes in places and confronts current events with his own frank views. This approach makes the book flow with understandable meaning.

He concludes with six rules for solving moral problems. The rules can be paraphrased as follows:

• For “me vs. us” disputes, use your fast, innate moral compass–what your parents taught you as right and wrong.

• Do not use “rights” in arguments or disputes. Though they feel like a trump card, rights are abstract and not amenable to reason by evidence.

• Focus on facts and evidence regarding the actual consequences of proposed policies. Include both primary and secondary consequences.

• Beware of insidious and obvious “biased fairness” in all positions taken.

• In “us vs. them” disputes, use the common moral currency of maximizing happiness by employing the common factual currency of science.

• Give. The affluent need to make sacrifices to help the less fortunate.

Greene’s comprehensive treatise to develop a scientifically supported, universally accepted set of rules for negotiating maximum happiness is heroic, if naive. Such rules, like Robert’s Rules of Order, would be a great help if widely ratified by diplomats, elected officials, school boards and church councils. It remains to be seen if these rules can win the kind of commitment necessary for resolving deep conflicts about abortion, evolution, climate change or the distribution of wealth. One hopes that Greene’s next book will map a way to win such commitment.

Dr. Seeley, a Santa Rosa ophthalmologist, serves on the SCMA Editorial Board.


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