Joshua Greene, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. NY: Penguin, 2013. $29.95U.S. ISBN: 9781594202605
How does one serve to the American public, half of whom don’t believe in evolution or are anti-intellectual (viz Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution is True), cognitive and evolutionary theories about morality, from experimental psychology no less? Such ideas need to be made palatable in a casual tone riddled with references, mostly political, to contemporary American life. Moral Tribes takes the difficult and abstract philosophical ideas of Joshua Greene’s research and serves them up in an easy-to-read fashion. To see some of Greene’s academic papers, visit his academia.edu site. On the one hand, Greene’s book is admirable since it will reach and educate a much wider audience than his papers, but, on the other hand, some academics might find the commercialized packaging of such ideas disheartening. For instance, at the end of chapter 8, we find: “Readers, be warned: The next two chapters are a heavy lift . . . . If you’re satisfied that utilitarianism is a good metamorality . . . you can skip the next two chapters . . .” (208). As it turns out, chapter 9, which covers the experimental research concerning intuitive and cognitive moral reactions to runaway trolley scenarios, is worth the price of the book. Why would the editors or publisher ask Greene to prompt his non-academic readers to skip it?
Without question, Moral Tribes is not only an important but a valuable book, and it will go a long way in helping the general reader understand the important neural mechanisms and biology that underlie emotional response and decision making. However, Greene grounds his entire thesis around establishing a “metamorality” housed in Utilitarianism, difficult for the average audience he seems to be targeting. But maybe that’s the point, and Greene certainly deserves credit for bringing this philosophy into the public arena.
The book opens with a tribal fable to which the author returns repeatedly, and he wastes no time shifting gears to Obamacare and the controversy over the current state (circa 2012-13) of the American economy. While politics and the economy are important issues, this reader would prefer an academic text, even one written for a general audience, to eschew reams of references that will grow stale quickly. Christopher Boehm, for example, who does field research, can reference real tribes; but one who works in an experimental lab, perhaps, needs to reference politics. Nevertheless, Greene’s points about the tribal mentality, “our interests and values versus theirs,” (14) comes across clearly. Throughout the book Greene nobly strives to establish via Utilitarianism an over-arching morality that will attend to and care for all. But if our core biology and history are tribal, and if tribes have very different values, how is that going to change? Parts of the book are distracting – there is a long section on abortion, and some parts seem more about Greene than anything else. The simplest solution to many of the world’s problems is not to philosophize and seek a meta-morality that will cover all the tribes like a warm blanket but, rather, find a tribe that can act as a go-between for the dangerously competing tribes, a meta-tribe, which we have already in the United Nations and NATO.
There are twenty-five pages of notes in small, almost hard to read print. One suspects that some of Greene’s finer points of research (the papers on his academia.edu site) have been relegated to these pages. This reviewer guesses that this shift of emphasis from scholarly to popular was an editorial decision (and not necessarily Greene’s). For instance, to mention a few, in a note (to page 76) that runs about one page of fine print, Greene delineates scholarly prejudice; another, on axioms (to page 194) runs about two pages of fine print; and then a note on Rawls (his book A Theory of Justice to page 333) is over two pages of fine print. While notes might be the bread-and-butter of academics, one wonders why such important information has been literally and figuratively reduced and minimized.
Although natural selection equates to self-interest, morality (Greene’s word) is tied to cooperation, since through cooperation even selfish individuals can gain an advantage. The key point here is that cooperation evolved as an advantageous contrivance only among certain people in a group, a tribe. According to Greene, our brains “did not evolve for cooperation between groups . . .” (23). Of course some groups who learned to compete advantageously with other groups had the upper hand, so that competition underlies cooperation. Those who cooperate can be more successful, and Greene suggests he does not endorse group selection (24), but with his overriding concern for the greater good and his sweeping generalizations about people this seems doubtful. In other words, what we call morality is really in-group cooperation, which evolved to help one group overcome another. At this point Greene expresses his optimism, a positive attitude that encourages him to call for what he terms a metamorality.
The early parts of the book offer an excellent primer on, for example, the prisoner’s dilemma (competing individual and group interests); the dictator’s game (anonymous control); the ultimatum game (fair division); and tit-for-tat (reciprocity). Such competitive strategies rely more on cognition rather than feeling. However, extensive research and experimentation show that we tend to be concerned about others, even in some cases strangers, to the effect that we exhibit sympathetic visceral responses to their misfortunes or misery. While we can and at times do help others, we’ll do so if the cost to us is not great: these findings are groundwork for later parts of the book where Greene will attempt to convince us that the Utilitarian perspective is the best approach since by helping others we create an overall better environment.
Greene recapitulates research (such as Paul Bloom’s on the so-called moral life of babies) to show how infants are capable of evaluating behavior and favoring cooperation and ignoring non-cooperators. In terms of tribalism and more so parochial altruism (individual sacrifice to help one and to harm another group), research demonstrates, Greene notes, that we use accents and other speech cues to make judgments about our willingness to engage the trust of others (50). However, simply because we can be tribal does not ultimately mean, Greene stresses, that we are “hardwired for tribalism” (55). There are a number of factors on the personal, parental, peer, group, and social levels that can influence the neuroplasticity of tendencies to adhere to a group.
In other words, only the human brain has evolved what we label morality as a means to permit group-to-group cooperation. We have, on the one hand, emotions that motivate us to care for those close to us and yet, on the other hand, emotions that dispose us to avoid and even punish others, especially those we feel as uncooperative. Nevertheless, Greene says, we’ve also adapted feelings that permit us, for strategic reasons of cooperation, to forgive transgressors. Even as infants we tend to judge according to loyalty and reputation, how someone behaves nicely or not to another, which implies that we, too, know our reputations are at stake. Such self-consciousness and ability to be embarrassed tie in with how we fit into a group or not. We are concerned about our own status and are free to punish those who do not reciprocate. So there are many traits that have evolved on an emotional and not necessarily on a cognitive level to help otherwise selfish creatures cooperate.
Tribalism or cooperative partnerships is a given, evident from research and studies on human infants and monkeys. That is, hostility towards outsiders is part of the evolution of cooperation. At this point Greene seems to suggest, beyond tribalism and groups, cultural differences, noting how, whether right or wrong, true or false, members of a group will adopt the group culture. He also seems to suggest that severe global issues such as extreme poverty, local violence, and climate change could escalate into inter-country problems. The reason we have conflicts between tribes, Greene says, is that some societies favor individual rights over the group, some have an obscure honor code, and some value religious beliefs more than others. In spite of, or perhaps because of, our inherently selfish tendencies, our moral problems tend to escalate into an attitude of us versus them.
At this point Green gets into a very detailed and rich chapter (the one he or his editor suggests readers skip) on the variations of the runaway trolley scenario. For readers unfamiliar with this moral problem, see Wikipedia; one can also search for trolley at the Stanford Encyclopedia page. Essentially, the trolley problem involves the question of switching the track of an oncoming train to kill one rather than five, or pushing a man onto the tracks to stop the train and so save five. Bottom line: “our intuitions tell us that the action . . . is wrong” (117). Emotionally, in what Greene calls our automatic mode, we know that we should not harm someone else; but on another level that involves higher cortical regions, in what he calls our manual mode, we understand that harming one for the greater good is not only necessary but morally justifiable. There is a difference between hitting a switch to kill one and save five as opposed to pushing one off a footbridge to stop a train to save five: our moral intuitions are such that we are very reluctant to engage in physical force on a personal level to help others, but we will. With Utilitarian decisions there almost seems to be ventromedial prefrontal damage in that there is only cognition without feeling (118). The crux of the book, then, is on what Greene calls our dual-process brain, for if we acted on instincts alone we’d not be able to think through alternative situations or scenarios (132).
In the control or manual mode we are able to look in all directions, consider, and weigh options, as opposed to the automatic or instinctive mode which simply reacts quickly. This is not to privilege, Greene goes on, the manual mode over the automatic – we have evolved instinctual responses and have retained them since they serve important survival and social functions. Moreover, different parts of the brain balance decisions, so that while one might strive to act for the greater good, visceral emotions might interfere.
So in terms of brain evolution and function as related to moral decisions, we can handily manage cooperation in a group, Greene says, but not between groups. Certainly because of kin altruism (see, e.g., Hamilton and Trivers) this observation is not startling. There is a conflict between what our viscera makes us feel and what our rational mind makes us see (148). Darwin works on an individual level, but for the Utilitarian the collectivist v. individualistic thinking is supposed to, in spite of radical differences, have the same result – doing what is best for all concerned (150). While Greene is very accomplished at explaining Utilitarianism with long asides on Bentham, Mill, and happiness, he should not expect as he does, readers to become Utilitarian. But what could we expect from a thinker who operates on the group level, whose entire discussion is filled with generalities about the group to the exclusion of the individual.
Certainly there is a distinction to be made between the individual acting for the greater happiness of many and the more ancient notion of excellence (arête) where the individual strives to sharpen her own wits, intelligence, strength, or moral virtue and so be happy. This concept of excellence is essentially driven by individual character, not the group. Not everyone is equal or wants exactly the same things, ideas, or types and quantities of, to use Greene’s Utilitarian word, happiness. Additionally, from a non-teleological Darwinian perspective, there is no progress or goal to happiness, since all is a diurnal combination of variation, competition, and inheritance for the individual. Greene optimistically wants “to encourage people to behave in ways that maximize happiness” (163), but such thinking is a recipe for disaster considering our inherent self-interest and competitiveness. Whose happiness? Greene says the Utilitarian ideal is impartiality (166) and “avoiding bad consequences” (168), but this reminds us of Adam Smith who paradoxically pits sympathetic caring (Moral Sentiments) against self-aggrandizement (Wealth of Nations).
Greene goes on to say that happiness is the bottom line and should apply across the board (170). But it appears Greene’s equation for happiness is in high moralistic terms – saving some lives at the expense of one – and not in the more diurnal, routine, basic functions or character issues. Granted Greene is not writing a self-help book, but yet in his last chapter he indeed directs readers to embrace certain practices.
Greene says objections to Utilitarianism come from automatic settings (194). Surely, since we are first and foremost emotional beings. We do not act with reason but first react, and then later (quickly or slowly) employ other brain areas related to reason. Schopenhauer, cutting across Western philosophy, famously saw human beings not as rational but as irrational creatures, and so we are. We have moral emotions (Haidt) and a moral sense (Hume) which, depending on whom one reads, is either a faculty (Hutcheson) or not. Our default mode is selfishness (excepting kin), but we can be sympathetic. Yet even in deliberation we might think away (rationalize) the concerns of others, not favor them or their so-called need for happiness. Who cares? While Utilitarianism might make sense on some high, idealized plane, it is not working in reality, in spite of what Pinker calls (borrowing from Lincoln) our better angels. There might be less overt statistical violence, but that does not preclude aggressive or violent urges, to say nothing of an entire entertainment industry that thrives off our visceral desire to consume violence virtually through various media.
The Utilitarian says, “no one is objectively special” (204). If Francis or Claire of Assisi were to be on the side-track, we should hit the switch to kill either one of them to save the gang of thugs congregating down below and getting ready to attack Albert Einstein? Utilitarianism seems too clinical, without gut, appears superficial, minimizing a basic truth about being human, that not only does each one of us think he or she is special, but we most likely also hold some others as special. If according to Utilitarianism everyone is equal across the board, then why not kill the five and save the one? Where is it written that quantity trumps quality?
However, Greene’s findings, including work of others outlined in chapter 9, are compelling in terms of killing the one (the pushing scenario) to save five: thirty one percent approved. And yet if we have pretty much the same scenario but have the man fall through a trap door activated by a switch (reminiscent of the original trolley scenario), sixty-three percent approve. The killing of one is collateral damage to save the five since the one even when physically pushed is in the way (so to speak) for the person to save five. Eighty-one percent approve of killing one to save five if they see the death of one not as a means with the use of personal force but as a side effect (219). In this way, we are “emotionally blind” but not “cognitively blind” since from our deep past our ancestors premeditated actions, including violence (225). Reciprocity is also in our distant past, dictating an emotional reluctance to engage in close, physical contact of harm since any hurt might return to us. We are nonetheless blind to “foreseen” side effects of violence (an action that does not fully account for consequences) and so can push a man off a footbridge in order to save five (228).
We sense harm to another as a means (pushing) but not so much as a side effect. We tend to be Utilitarian in more cognitively complex cases, where side effects are not necessarily visualized clearly, such as flipping a switch, as opposed to simpler and more straightforward causality, such as pushing a man onto the tracks. Greene refers to the emotional response in these cases as an alarm call, but as a Utilitarian fails to consider the wide differences in amygdala reactivity, temperament, or sensitivity (see Jerome Kagan and Elaine Aron). In the psych lab these results are solid, but even Greene admits that a lab is not reality. Brain scan machines in a controlled environment indicate which regions get hot, but this does not measure outcomes. At least Greene says although we might push the man off the footbridge to save five we feel that such an action is wrong. We sympathize with and act on helping tendencies for people we can see or know, what we might call an identifiable victim.
Toward the end of the book, there are more approvals about Utilitarianism, how it asks us “to be morally better” (284). Such an assertion, though, seems empty. Does this mean than any philosophy that urges one or a group to act more morally (can morality be quantified?) is Utilitarian? No other moral system, biological or religious, stimulates one to be good? Does Greene mean purely good without any self-interest, if that is at all possible? But Greene’s point is not lost, for he says that the more we think about a moral problem the more we tend to gravitate toward our core, tribal, biased beliefs (296). That is, we tend to rationalize our behavior, and such self-interested psychological posturing is not precisely moral. In this way tribal differences can increase since so-called rights are established and asserted at all costs. Greene, then, moves into a discussion about abortion, finally, since he has already covered slavery, rape, and genocide. By his own admission, Greene cribs much of the abortion section from Pinker, and as with other sections of the book, the focus on contemporary, hot-button issues infused with references to ephemeral political trends (and even some politicians) is distracting. Perhaps that is why chapter 9 seems so inviting, even though we have all read about the trolley problem before. Writing about politics in this context takes academic issues down to a journalistic level.
Moral Tribes is not about the evolutionary roots of moral tribes (morality or tribalism) but more about how, in Greene’s opinion, Utilitarianism can solve many societal and worldly dilemmas. For instance, in a sentence here is the upshot of the sixteen pages on abortion: While we know that abortion is morally wrong, it serves an important societal function. If Utilitarianism is such a moral pot of gold, why then do we have so many political problems, social strife, and world misery? Surely we can be and are cooperative on a grand level at times, but from an evolutionary perspective, Utilitarianism seems to have been selected out in favor of, more mildly, benevolence and definitely self-interest.
This book could easily, and perhaps more accurately, have been called Tribal Politics with its emphasis on how various groups “have different moral intuitions” (335). Interestingly, this book does not mention or references (as far as this reviewer could see) the former Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser. Greene is the John and Ruth Hazel associate professor of the Social Sciences and the director of the Moral Cognition Lab in Harvard’s Psychology department. If you go to the site of the College of the Holy Cross, you will find a conference where both Greene (talking about trolleys) and Hauser share a panel that covers the sources of moral reasoning. Hauser no doubt would disagree with some of Greene’s presentation in this book, i.e., Greene’s emphasis more on cognition and less on sensation. Greene says, simply, that while we experience such sensations, we will override (rationalize, ignore) them to accommodate our group beliefs, and here he differs, too, in terms of what is emphasized, from Jonathan Haidt.
Notwithstanding any such uninformed quibbles made here, Greene’s book is timely and important, and will go quite far in helping not only general readers but graduate students and academics in multiple disciplines understand the complex cognitive and neural workings of, and differences between, moral emotions and moral reasoning.
- Gregory F. Tague