Moral Tribes: A book review by Bob Morris

Moral TribesMoral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them
Joshua Greene
The Penguin Press (2013)

How and why “we can improve our prospects for peace and prosperity by improving the way we think about moral problems”

When I was a child growing up in Chicago, adults in my family respected and trusted decisions based on what they called “horse sense.” I recalled that as I began to read this book in which Joshua Greene discusses what he calls “common sense.” Two different phrases that have essentially the same meaning: judgment that is sound, fundamental, basic, sensible, etc. He acknowledges that moral problems divide people and views consequent problems as a tragedy. “This book is about understanding and, ultimately, solving those problems.” How? First, by understanding what morality is and isn’t, “how it got here, and how it’s implemented in our brains.” Next, it’s about “understanding the deep structure of moral problems as well as the differences between the problems we face today. Finally, it’s about taking this new understanding of morality and turning it into a universal moral philosophy that members of all human tribes can share.”

Greene invokes three organizing metaphors: The Parable of the New Pastures, the dual mode camera (actually presented as a simile), and Common Currency. All three are best explained within the narrative, in context, but I feel comfortable indicating now that Greene makes brilliant use of figurative language (a) to suggest the nature and extent of a cause-and-effect process by which “the tragedy of common sense morality” as well as (b) to explain how effective use of utilitarianism can transform that process with a series of principled compromises that transcend what had previously been “tribal gut reactions,” what he calls “point and shoot morality.”

These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Greene’s coverage.

o The Function of Morality (Pages 22-25)
o The “Magic Corner” (29-30)
o Minimal Decency (35-39)
o Members Only (48-55)
o The Psychology of Conflict, and, Tribalism (66-69)
o Biased Fairness (83-97)
o The “Trolley Problem” (113-121)
o Emotion Versus Reason, and, The Dual-Process Brain (134-141)
o A Splendid Idea (149-150)
o (Mis)understanding Utilitarianism (156-171)
o Does Science Deliver the Moral Truth? (185-188)
o Why Aren’t We Psychopaths? (225-228)
o Utilitarianism Verus the Gizmo (245-253)
o Justice and the Greater Good (284-285)
o “Heads I Win, Tails You Lose”: Rights as Rationalization (301-305)
o Six Rules for Modern Herders (350-353)

This book is by no means an “easy read” but it generously rewards those who read it with an alert mind and open heart. I share Joshua Greene’s concerns about what he characterizes as “the tragedy of common sense morality” and wish I shared his optimism that his quite sensible proposals not only can but [begin italics] will [end italics] enable a sufficient number of people to question the laws written in their hearts and replace them with something better. Perhaps he is correct that “something new is growing under the sun: a global tribe that looks out for its members, not to gain advantage over others, but simply because it’s good.” I doubt if I will live long enough to see that happen but can at least hope my ten grandchildren will.

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