Joshua Greene:
"Moral Tribes" (2013)

(Copyright © 2016 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
The US psychologist Joshua Greene sets out to explain three inter-related facts: what is morality, how it came to be, and how it is implemented in the brain. Greene believes that our brains evolved to solve the problems presented to us by our natural environment, and today we have a different set of moral issues. Next, he shows what we know about the brain structures that evolved to implement morality. Finally he combines the two to propose his own "global moral philosophy", a meta-morality based on a " common currency", which is a form of utilitarianism that he renames "deep pragmatism".

To start with, he notes that the machinery of our brains solves the selfishness problem (the natural tendency to be selfish at all costs) by making us (to some extent) an altruistic species, but at the same time it also creates another problem, the "us vs them" kind of tribal conflict Altruism is mathematically proven to benefit survival and to create prosperity, but cooperation evolved within groups: altruism conferred a competitive advantage on the altruists. Other groups responded with their own degree of altruism/cooperation. The results were competing tribes. The individuals who didn't cooperate and formed tribes most likely went extinct. Morality is the result of the evolution of altruism. Unfortunately, each group evolved its own kind of morality. There is no universal morality. The result is that human brains evolved tribalism. Ours are tribal brains. Within the brain the tribal morality is implemented by several circuits, from revenge to righteousness via empathy and gossip. These are all parts of the machine that makes us altruistic but tribal.

Competition between groups created a new order of conflicts. Over the millennia each group also evolved different values, which made it difficult to coexist even when there is no need to compete.

Luckily, moral thinking is shaped by both emotions and reason, i.e. by a dual process in the brain. Emotions make us fight others. Reason makes us stop and evaluate. Greene starts with rehabilitating utilitarianism (or, better, consequentialism), the philosophy that we should do what is best for the most. Critics argue that utilitarianism grants no rights to individuals: society might kill you at any time in the interest of the majority. By using a thought experiment devised by Judith Thomson entitled "The Trolley Problem" he shows the importance of emotion: depending on how you decide to kill a man, people approve or disapprove of killing him to save the lives of others. The US neurologist Jonathan Cohen explains this by showing that automatic/emotional and controlled/reasoned responses are caused by two different and sometimes competing circuits in the brain: respectively, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). Greene speculates that the emotional circuits exist because they are the ones that reinforce the impulse towards cooperation. We also have the metacognitive skill of deciding when to rely on our emotions and when to rely on reasoning.

So our brains are very good at fostering collaboration within groups but also very good at fostering competition between groups. We have been brainwashed by the group in which we lived all our lives. We are more committed to preserving our way of life than to improving it. His version of utilitarianism takes into account benefits for the majority over the long run, and he prefers to call it "deep pragmatism". The ultimate goal is to maximize happiness for everybody. He shows that historically the so-called utilitarian philosophers were pioneers in opposing slavery, defending free speech, recognizing women's rights, etc. Happiness is the "common currency" that Greene proposes: whatever history has led different groups to different moral dogmas, they all share the ultimate goal of happiness. The meta-morality that he advocates is one that maximizes everybody's happiness, and doesn't discriminate. "Experience is what ultimately matters, and impartiality is the essence of morality." He attacks religions (that cause tribal conflicts rather than eliminating them), logic (because you can never prove absolute truth in ethical matters) and biology (the "naturalistic fallacy" that whatever evolves in nature is good). None of these are viable sources of meta-morality that the whole world would agree upon.

Things get murky past this point. Greene voluntarily tackles the obvious question of how to measure happiness, but gives no answer. Because he doesn't have a metric for happiness, he then cannot answer the other question that he voluntarily asks himself: who decides how to maximize happiness. Representative democracy is obviously not a valid answer when it ends up electing people who cause a lot of unhappiness. The meta-morality that he advocates consists in identifying controversies and then shifting to a different mode of thinking, but, as much as he dances around this, we don't really grasp how this differ from the usual "debate" between people who have different opinions. He tells us that the brain has innate mechanisms for solving intracranial disagreements (when two regions of the brain reach conflicting conclusions about a perception) but not how we can implement the same strategy in resolving intercranial disagreements. Greene thinks that rights and duties stand in the way of his ideal meta-morality because they don't allow us to think freely. When he tries to apply his theory to the case of abortion, he cannot quite determine whether abortion is right or wrong, and i suspect that any other major moral issue would yield the same result.

Greene himself mentions human phenomena that stand in the way of mutual comprehension. Frank Keil in "Folkscience" (2003) showed that people are convinced of knowing how things work when in fact they don't know it. Greene suggests to ask people not why their theory is right but "how" their theory is implemented, because this would, in many cases, reveal their ignorance (and first of all to themselves). Then Greene mentions the mental disorder called "confabulation": that happens when we make up justifications for our actions and beliefs on the fly, and we literally convince ourselves that these justifications are true, and therefore our behavior is justified. We rationalize what we have done. Jonathan Haidt, author of "The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail" (2001), thinks that we are all confabulators, all the time. How can we collaborate in finding common ground if we are programmed to confabulate?

Greene proclaims himself a liberal and claims that liberals don't constitute a normal tribe, because they represent the post-tribal tribe, or the meta-tribe. Haidt, instead, thought that liberals are simple people who are not sensitive to moral issues. Haidt thought that humans have six moral receptors and that liberals cannot "taste" these six categories as well as conservatives. Haidt blamed the Enlightenment and the philosophy that came afterwards for depriving "enlightened" intellectuals of the ability to taste moral dimensions.

The book ends with six rules for modern meta-morality that sound naive and a bit irrational (no matter how well intentioned). For example, the sixth one is to "give". Having worked with the Peace Innovation Lab at Stanford, i am too aware of how many times "giving" has caused damage. When the United Nations gave food for free to starving Ethiopians, it caused the collapse of the local agriculture, a fact that made Ethiopians dependent on international charities for much longer than one season. There are many of these cases. Giving is not always the obvious solution because the second-order, third-order, etc effects are not easy to calculate.

There are also two major points that are not addressed in the book. The first one is very simple: brainwashing. People believe what they believe because the media brainwash them. Greene, a liberal, tries to understand conservatives without mentioning the powerful media that brainwash conservatives into believing that this or that policy benefits them (even when, glaringly, it doesn't). In some cases the very same media (Fox News) have promoted opposite policies at different times, and they still managed to convince their viewers that both policies, A and the opposite of A, were the right policy. These media do not represent morality but simply special interests (and sometimes the ego of the anchorman or anchorwoman). Secondly, Greene doesn't spend enough time talking about how morality changes. And it changes rapidly. I was in Uganga a few years ago. An older man told me how disillusioned he was with Western morality: "When i was a young man, you Europeans came to teach us that sex outside marriage was bad, that homosexuality was a horrible sin, and so forth. Now you guys come to teach us that we have respect people who do all those things. What will you come and teach us twenty years from now?" It was a perfectly good question. My answer is that i don't know. I literally have no idea about what future genertions will consider good, legitimate, appropriate, forbidden or mandatory. In previous centuries countless men (including the founder of a major religion) had sex with underage women: now this is called "statutory rape" and it is a very serious crime. On the other hand, until last century many countries punished homosexuals with death, while now they are protected and given equal rights. Morality changes. Whichever rational arguments you find today to determine good and evil, they will probably not work tomorrow.

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