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Moral TribesReview - Moral Tribes
Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them
by Joshua Greene
Penguin Press, 2013
Review by Christian Perring
Oct 29th 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 44)

Moral Tribes is sure to attract a good deal of attention from philosophers, and much of it will be critical.  Greene has made a name for himself with his work in experimental philosophy which scrutinizes the use of philosophical intuitions based on hypothetical scenarios, sometimes known as "thought experiments."  Greene has argued in much of his scholarly work that we can assess these intuitions and, using what we know about evolutionary psychology and neuroscience, we can give greater priority to some intuitions than to others.  In particular, he argues that the nineteenth century moral theory of utilitarianism is basically right, and that although we are drawn to Kantian ideas that prioritize the dignity of human life and the importance of human rights, it makes more sense to favor maximizing the happiness of society as a whole.  Here, he sets these ideas out to a more general readership, and he expands on them.  Distinctively, he aims to provide a way for society to navigate between respecting people's group beliefs that affect their moral outlook, these mainly being the ones stemming from their religious affiliation and group traditions.  Unsurprisingly, he argues for a liberal view that allows people to believe what they want and says that as a society, we should not constrain the whole of society with rules based on particular religious beliefs. 

More interesting than its defense of Utilitarianism is the fact that Moral Tribes is one of the first attempts to bring experimental philosophy to a wider audience.  It is a long (over 400 pages) and thoughtful book with some difficult, if not to say tedious, sections, but it is approachable and often intriguing.  There are 28 pages of footnotes, and the Bibliography is 17 pages, but it is possible to read and follow the main text without consulting those at all.  Making technical philosophy accessible to a wider group is something that academic philosophers have not done enough, although some public philosophers have managed to make themselves known outside of narrow professional circles -- Daniel Dennett, Ray Monk, Martha Nussbaum, Peter Singer, Arthur Caplan, and in the UK, Julian Baggini.  Moral Tribes has the potential to make Joshua Greene another public intellectual. 

The phrase "experimental philosophy" often elicits strong reactions from academic philosophers, who tend to be either strongly for it, or more often, vehemently critical of it, or at least, to certain aspects of it as they see it.  It is not a well-defined term, but it involves doing surveys on groups of people about their intuitive responses to philosophical questions, and being careful to see how responses vary from one group to another, and with different ways of posing those questions.  It also includes putting people in brain scanners and seeing how different parts of their brain activate when considering philosophical questions.  So there are close ties between psychology and experimental philosophy; indeed, Greene is now director of the "Moral Cognition Lab," housed in Harvard's Psychology Department.  The reason that many philosophers do not like experimental philosophy is that they think that philosophy and psychology should be kept separate at least to the extent that philosophical truth is not determined by what most people happen to believe.  They also very fond of arguing that arguments made by experimental philosophers do not show what they claim to show, even if one accepts the starting assumptions.  So Green may face a tougher audience among his peers than he does among the general public.

But what exactly are his arguments?  There is a lot to set out.  Greene defines morality in a psychological way: it is a system of beliefs, reactions, and feelings that evolved as a way to help people in groups to cooperate with each other.  It helps one group compete better with other groups for scarce resources, thus improving their ability to survive.  This helps what has been called 'The Tragedy of the Commons,' allowing altruistic behavior within groups, and overcoming selfishness.  However, once different groups acquired their own moral codes and then started living with each other, we came to what Greene calls 'The Tragedy of Common Sense Morality," which is that different groups or "tribes" have very different moral codes, and these differences lead to bitter disagreement and fights about who is right.    Much of Moral Tribes is aimed at resolving this second tragedy.  He emphasizes that it is a major problem.  Greene spends a lot of time setting out evidence that we do separate ourselves into 'us' versus 'them' and that many of our reactions to other people depend on whether we categorize people as one of us, or one of them.  As he puts it, we are hardwired for tribalism.  Our understanding of the world is very much dependent on what groups we identify with, not just in our values and traditions, but our factual beliefs.  This makes for vigorous debate between groups. 

We only get to the "Trolley Problem" after a hundred pages or so.  Here Greene uses this thought experiment to illustrate the conflict between Utilitarian approaches to morality and Kantian ones.  The basic question in the trolley problem is whether to sacrifice one person to save many, and it turns out that people's answers depend very much on how the problem is set up.  (The basic idea is set out in this video:  There is now a huge literature on different variations of the setup, trying to nail down exactly what it is about the different situations that leads people to change their answer.  Greene amasses evidence that when people are reluctant to sacrifice the one for the many, this is due to emotional reactions coming from specific parts of the brain that part of our most hard-wired feelings about not causing harm to others.  The longer we have to think about the case, the longer our rational mind has to overrule that immediate reaction, and the more people conclude it is permissible to sacrifice the one.  This part of his argument is a major step towards arguing that our Kantian intuitions are part of our evolutionary heritage but should be dismissed when taking a calmer more rational view of the situation. 

It is at this stage that Greene comes out with his advocacy for utilitarianism as a moral approach, and he starts on an examination of how we should go about determining what moral views to adopt.  That is, he starts discussing meta-ethics.  He calls his view "deep pragmatism."  He argues we have no way of accessing some deep metaphysical truth about what is morally right, but we do have to decide what to do, and given what we know about the world, it makes most sense to maximize happiness.  Whose happiness?  "Everyone's" he says.  (p. 163).  We should be impartial because there are no rational grounds on which to be partial, preferring some people over others. 

This raises one of the central problems for Greene, which he never addresses.  Why do we only consider human happiness?  Why isn't the happiness of other animals important, and indeed, why isn't it comparable in importance to human happiness?  At many points in the book, Greene seems to just assume that we only need to consider humans.  But if we are being impartial, then it would just be arbitrary to prefer our species over other species.  If on the other hand, it can be reasonable to draw a distinction between humans and other animals, then why isn't it equally rational to draw a distinction between different groups of humans, and prefer those who are in our own group?  This comes up again when Greene discusses abortion.  I return to the issue below.

In order for people with different values to be able to come to agreement about how their society should be run, Greene says that there needs to be a common currency of values, so that dialog is possible.  Without a common currency, there's no way to progress, Greene assumes.  Neither religion, science nor pure reason can deliver such a common currency, he argues, with skepticism that will be familiar to anyone who has taken a moral philosophy class.  Since we don't have direct access to the moral truth, the only option is to find common ground among the people who have to live together.  Greene proposes that utilitarianism provides this common ground.  In a carefully formulated (but still rather mysterious) sentence, he writes that "utilitarianism becomes uniquely attractive once our moral thinking has been objectively improved by a scientific understanding or morality." (p. 189).  Furthermore, referring to the distinction between the fast and slow brain common in neuroscience and set out recently by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow, he claims that "utilitarianism is the native philosophy of the human natural mode, and all of the objections to utilitarianism are ultimately driven by automatic settings." (p. 194)  So utilitarianism is the best moral theory simply because it is the one that everyone already believes, and this provides the shared values that we are looking for to run society. 

Of course, Greene's approach here is bound to be highly controversial.  If there is one shared morality, it would seem much closer to virtue ethics contextualized to a small group: the polis, the tribe, or the family.  That's what anthropology seems to point to.  As Greene himself spent a lot of space pointing out earlier in the book, people care about their own group, and often have no sense of obligation to distant peoples.  Greene is fully aware of this, but he argues that people come to recognize the importance of impartiality.  We all understand the Golden Rule, treat others as you would wish to be treated.  While this may not weaken his argument, it is odd that the Golden Rule is generally held up as a prime element of Kantian morality.  It suggests that ideas of fairness are at least as fundamental and shared among us as ideas of maximizing happiness.  Greene does bring this into his conception of utilitarianism, summarizing it as "maximize happiness impartially" (p. 203).  But there may be other ways to bring in ideas of fairness and impartiality, and he does not explore them. 

Greene is concerned to defend utilitarianism from the standard objections to it that most philosophers consider to be crushing.  I will not consider them all here, but the central ones are that utilitarianism does not defend the rights of individuals, and that it is too demanding a theory, requiring people to sacrifice their own happiness to help others.  His take on rights is relatively straightforward, even if unconvincing: we should not take out intuitions about rights seriously, because they come from our "automatic settings," the fast brain.  The moral distinction between what we intentionally do and what we allow to happen is based on a cognitive by-product of our evolutionary history, and thus, does not need to be taken seriously, at least in the form that it takes in Kantian moral reasoning.  He reduces these intuitions as coming from what he calls an "antiviolence gizmo" (p. 250) and says while they are often useful because they prevent violence, they should not be taken to mean that we should never engage in violence for the greater good. 

In response to the criticism that utilitarianism is too demanding, Greene says that we can't be perfect, and that it would in practical terms, it is impossible to be perfect.  We can't completely sacrifice our quality of lives for others because we would make our lives unlivable.  Our brains are not set up for such concern for strangers.  We would soon become exhausted and miserable.  It would be good to help others, even distant strangers, even if we don't really much are about them.  Greene's central message here is that utilitarianism does not require to completely turn around our lives for the sake of strangers: we can be content with doing what feels comfortable to us.  It is part of our evolutionary nature to have family and friends, living in communities, and to abandon this nature cause unhappiness.  We can and should still give money and support to those who need help, but not at great personal sacrifice. 

Greene's argument here is odd because he provides no evidence for his claims.  Is it really true that people who devote their lives to helping others have to give up family, friends and community?  It is not clear that it is.  People who do live a life of service often seem unusually contented with their lives.  Maybe it would be difficult at first to live a life with less space and no luxuries, but billions of people do it and achieve a good amount of happiness.  Even if he is right that we would be unhappy in devoting our lives to the happiness of others, it is far from clear why utilitarianism does not demand it anyway. When he says that it is not a practical suggestion, that just seems to mean that it would be difficult, not that it is impossible to accomplish. At points he seems to accept this, and he says that we are just selfish and hypocritical, and being only human, there's nothing to be done about it.  But if we don't feel guilty, then in what sense can Greene claim that utilitarianism is our native moral philosophy or that it is uniquely attractive?  The idea that we have responsibility to help others seems just one of the many competing moral ideas that we use.  Maybe Greene would do better with a strong pro-capitalist answer, arguing that we do more good by working hard in our jobs, creating wealth and employment for others through our own work, and if we gave up buying gifts for others and luxuries for ourselves, we would be taking away employment from people who make those goods.  But again, that would require some substantial evidence. 

There are similar issues regarding Greene's discussion of punishment.  The standard debate between utilitarianism and Kantian approaches is straightforward.  Utilitarians say that we should only punish people when it is for the social good.  Kantians say we should punish wrong-doers for what they have done wrong: they are paying their price for their crime, and they are getting what they deserve.  On the Kantian approach, justice demands punishment even when it is not for the social good.  Most people feel that while it is true that punishment should do social good, it is also true that wrong-doers deserve to be punished: that is, they like some combination of utilitarianism and Kantianism, and then the debate that follows is whether we can make theoretical sense of such a preference.  Greene's approach is to discount the Kantian intuitions, saying we should be less fond of punishment.  Our Kantian intuitions are socially useful most of the time, he concedes, but we should not take them to be moral universals.  Again, using a little evolutionary psychology (or at least an imagined version of what it would look like if it could be a science) and some studies of people's responses to imagined scenarios, he claims that our Kantian intuitions about punishment are produced by our "punishment gizmos" so that our taste for justice is  a useful illusion (p. 274).  Greene's suggestion that utilitarianism provides a shared moral system about punishment while our values of just deserts can be discounted is unconvincing.  If anything, the ideas about just deserts are probably more widely shared among different groups.  Furthermore, there are many careful arguments made for Kantian approaches which Greene doesn't even address.  So we end up with a great deal of hand-waving towards a sketch of how a detailed approach to this would go.  It's interesting, but it isn't going to change anyone's mind. 

The final section of the book, 65 pages long, goes into more detail about how to use Greene's approach to address particular moral issues.  It is here that he gives his most sustained attack on the idea of rights, but he is also ready to endorse talk of fundamental rights in our ordinary moral language, because it is useful to do so.  So for example, he is happy to endorse the idea that slavery violates fundamental human rights as a way of expressing his basic moral commitment against slavery, because it causes such deep unhappiness.  He argues that this is a good expression of moral conviction; presumably if it were useful, he would also endorse appealing to God-given rights in public moral expression, even if we don't believe in God.  While consistent, it is hard to see why this does not count as deceptively using moral language to manipulate others.  But maybe the use of the phrase "fundamental right" is at least vaguer in its metaphysical commitments than "God-given right" and so is less problematic.

Greene examines the morality of abortion to show how his approach goes.  It is not an easy issue for utilitarians because it means resolving whose happiness counts.  On a standard utilitarian approach, killing a person is wrong because it deprives them of future happiness and it also makes their family and friends unhappy, as well as causing a more general sense of anxiety about safety in the population.  If we are to count a fetus in the same way that we count as a person who has been born, then of course killing the fetus is as bad as murder.  But it also seems that a couple who has sex and uses contraception to prevent pregnancy is also stopping the development of a future human, and this is also nearly as bad as murder.  Indeed, it seems that women have a responsibility to bring in as many humans into the world as possible to increase the amount of total happiness, at least until we get to the stage where adding more people starts to reduce the total happiness of the world.  But if we don't want to go down this list of conclusions, we need to work out when we have no obligation to maximize the number of individuals in the world, even when that would increase the total happiness.  The problem is compounded when we realize that if happiness is what matters, and humans are not the only creatures capable of happiness, then we should be maximizing the numbers of other creatures in the world too, and we should not be killing them when doing so reduces the amount of happiness in the world. 

Of course, Greene does not believe that we can use rights to solve the problem: he believes neither in the "right to choose" nor the "right to life."  He spends some time boiling down what he takes to be the actual positions of the pro-choice and pro-life groups with their different commitments about the status of the fetus as deserving protection.  Then he considers what a moral pragmatist solution would be.  Naturally he looks at the social effects of making abortion legal or illegal, although his discussion is inevitably vague, since it is hard to predict and quantify what the effects would be.  Nevertheless, the future existence of people who would otherwise have been aborted is a large factor that gives abortion opponents a strong argument.  But Greene says that it is too much to ask of nonheroic people (p. 325).  As with his earlier defense of utilitarianism against the criticism that it demands too much of people, Greene says that it is unreasonable to expect people to bring new humans into the world when they don't want to.  He doesn't say much about why, but presumably his idea is that it goes against our basic selfishness.  We can't expect people to disrupt their lives that much, and so we can't take that prolife argument seriously.  Greene's position here is really puzzling, as it was before.  It is hard to see why it is unreasonable to expect people to make deep sacrifices when it will be good for society.  To say that it would be hard for them to do so doesn't explain much.

His ultimate position is that the prochoice argument makes more sense since it doesn't rely on supernatural metaphysical commitments, and that it is plausible that existing people are happier on the whole when abortion is legal.  He concedes that the prochoice argument relies on some criterion of what makes people worthy of moral consideration, and that they are not able to give any simple answer to what that is, even if they don't rely on any supernatural claims.  But it is here that his neglect of non-human animals comes in.  If we need to take account of non-humans, then wouldn't we similarly need to take account of early-stage fetuses?  Both have the capacity for present and  future happiness, so it is hard to see why they would not deserve moral consideration.  If fetuses don't deserve moral consideration, then presumably non-humans don't either, but that's hard to square with our ordinary practices and the utilitarian valuation of happiness as a fundamental value.

As my discussion has indicated, Moral Tribes is provocative and frustrating.  Greene provides a fascinating glimpse of what it might be to do scientifically informed moral philosophy, but most of his discussions are more like suggestions of how the argument might go, rather than a detailed and convincing set of steps to a conclusion. His approach does pose an interesting challenge to opponents of utilitarianism regarding what they will say about the evolution of our intuitive reactions and what that means in terms of how seriously we should take those reactions.  But right now they can just say that the science is pretty speculative at this stage, and we would do well to hold off until we are more confident about the details.


© 2013 Christian Perring


Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York


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