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Kirk Houghton

Author of The Dividing Lines and Bad Things to Good People

Kirk's Book Reviews

Kirk's Book Reviews

Review of Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and the Gap Between Us and Them by Joshua Greene

Posted on March 29, 2016 at 5:10 PM

Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and ThemMoral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them by Joshua Greene

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Harvard Professor aiming at the hearts and minds of anoraks and airport-dwellers everywhere is a publisher’s dream and will often result in that rarest of phenomenon – a Philosophy text that shifts tens of thousands of units in the English-speaking world. No wonder Atlantic seized the chance to get a High Brow work into the all-important book stands at Hudson and WH Smith on both sides of the pond. Give the book an eye-catching title and a monumental subject and watch the sales roll in. But is commercial success a useful indicator of intellectual success?
Drawing on the latest developments in Social Biology, Moral Psychology and Cultural Anthropology, Moral Tribes is a thoughtful book that is destined to receive wider currency amongst policymakers and large sections of civic society. At the very least it will confirm Joshua Greene as a superstar in academic circles. Yet one cannot help feeling this is a commendable but flabby effort littered with superfluities.
At 353 pages in length, Moral Tribes is a strong defence of Utilitarianism, the nineteenth-century philosophical creed of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham; but is that enough to justify such a vast undertaking? A constant reminder that humans are tribal creatures that are good at solving the ‘Me versus Us’ problems of cooperation but weak at tackling the ‘Us versus Them’ urgencies of modern life is not exactly new, but Greene is wise to structure his argument around this theme with the aid of the ubiquitous ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ scenarios beloved of his profession. So what is he saying beneath the onslaught of empirical science?
In a nutshell, human brains work like dual-process cameras. We have an Automatic mode (the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex) that has evolved over millions of years to help us overcome the problem of inter-tribal cooperation, and a Manual mode (the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex) that is used when our gut feelings and emotions fail us. Morality is, in Greene’s words, ‘a series of psychological adaptations that allow otherwise selfish individuals to reap the benefits of cooperation.’ But morality evolved ‘to promote cooperation within groups for the sake of competition between groups.’ In other words, the tension between these two competing forces is the source of our tribalism. Having more faith in our Manual mode is the key to developing larger outer-group cooperation and expanding beyond parochialism. Greene hopes a better understanding of this juxtaposition should allow us to re-appraise the benefits of utilitarian thinking and frame our cooperative decisions and moral choices in pursuit of policies that promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.
Yet devoting two chapters to the dual process brain is a lot of effort for the sake of making a classical Liberal philosophy essential once again. And herein lies the fundamental weakness of the book – despite a succinct title and ambitious topic this really is more of a patchwork concoction of ideas lacking a coherent direction. The intellectual scope is not in doubt, nor is the warm and engaging tone that makes this such an enjoyable read. But at the core of Moral Tribes is a chasm between the reader’s expectation and the author’s delivery.
Nevertheless, you will still get a lot out of this study. Part One of Moral Tribes is a masterful summary of how morality has evolved in human decision-making, including the emotions that dictate our actions and how we’ve developed complex feelings such as empathy and indignation at perceived injustices enacted against people we don’t know. Likewise, Part Five is a skilled attempt to argue the case for John Stuart Mill. For all his greatness, Aristotle gives us parochial morals codes that cannot answer universal truths; Kant’s belief that morality is quantifiable, like mathematics, is still found wanting. We need Utilitarianism just as much as ever.
But in Greene’s view, Utilitarianism is a misleading term that ought to be replaced by ‘Deep Pragmatism.’ And he is right in one observation: the misguided belief that Bentham and Mill’s utility calculus fetishizes rationality above all other considerations to the point of undermining the core of humanity is blinding us to the reality of its benefits. Even more alarming, the few philosophers that still look to Kant for guidance receive more intellectual approbation than the lonely Benthamites of this world. No wonder moral relativism (the idea that no culture or morality is superior to others) reigns supreme in our current politics.
It’s therefore refreshing to hear Greene challenge the status quo by daring to suggest there might be a universal morality that is worth striving for in pursuit of a better future. In his view, hiding behind ‘rights’ in public debate is a cowardly way to close off our Manual brain settings when they are most needed. And his thorough examination of the abortion debate in contemporary America is easily the most sober and iconoclastic examination I’ve read to date. As one experiment shows, people often have a strong opinion on something when they don’t understand the full complexities; ask them to explain their understanding of a topic and they are more likely to moderate their stance and consider alternatives. This being the case, the answer is staring us in the face: our democracy needs more ‘deep pragmatists’ in public office. What a surprise!
Though an underwhelming conclusion, don’t let this discourage you from reading Moral Tribes. Greene’s writing is clear and engaging, considerate yet incisive, and intelligent enough to infuse complex scientific topics with humour. If there’s one thing you’ll get out of this, it’s a desire to enrol on one of his undergraduate courses or download the podcasts.
Perhaps the next book will make him an undisputed star in his field, but for now we have an implicit plea to improve our democratic decision-making with utilitarian reasoning instead of the rationalisations we now use to justify our emotional prejudices.
Unfortunately, with Donald Trump on the verge of winning the Republican Presidential nomination, this looks further away than ever.

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