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Tribal Wisdom in Modern Times

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

An ambitious new book grapples with some of the thorniest socio-moral questions ever to have bedeviled political philosophers, falling short when it attempts to apply its meta-morality to a practical issue.

Tribal warfare, broadly construed, has afflicted human existence since the beginning of recorded time. Figuring out how to resolve conflict among conflicting groups — be they actual warring tribesmen, geopolitical rivals, partisan adversaries, or cultural warriors — can rightly be described as the key challenge facing social scientists, both in theory and in practice.

In his engaging, persuasive book Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, Joshua Greene, a cognitive psychology professor and the director of Harvard’s Moral Cognition Laboratory, grapples with some of the thorniest socio-moral questions ever to have bedeviled political philosophers: When and why do we choose between “me” and “us”? When and why do we choose between “us” and “them”? How can we craft a common “meta-morality” that people of all different ideologies, religions, races, and cultures can share?

To call Greene’s project ambitious would be a massive understatement. “This book,” Greene writes, “is an attempt to understand morality from the ground up … It’s about understanding the deep structure of moral problems [and] … about taking this new understanding of morality and turning it into a universal moral philosophy that members of all human tribes can share.”

His framework for this analysis is a camera with automatic and manual modes, representing the reflexive and reflective capacities of the brain, our twin — and conflicting — abilities to act instinctually and think contemplatively in response to challenges we face. Greene skillfully maps these complimentary modes to particular portions of the brain that alternately process involuntary movements and purposeful thoughts.

Greene begins by exploring how “our moral brains evolved for cooperation within groups,” but not for cooperation between groups. He ably explains the Prisoner’s Dilemma and how a variety of different forces — direct and indirect reciprocity, concern for others, concern for one’s reputation, and commitments — enable two collaborators to find the “magic corner, where the aggregate outcome is optimal.

But these forces at times have nefarious consequences, as “some mathematical models indicate that altruism within groups could not have evolved without hostility between groups.” In his model, the human mind’s “automatic mode” applies to in-group interactions, where we instinctively protect and promote those within our tribe, including those outside of our nuclear families.

In order to overcome these inter-tribal differences, Greene maintains, we must turn to “manual mode” and carefully, actively, intellectually weigh the costs and benefits of any key decisions.

To illustrate this distinction, Greene turns to the “trolley problem,” a famous construct for examining moral reasoning. Imagine a runaway trolley hurtling down the tracks toward five workmen who, it’s assumed, will die instantly unless you flip a switch that will send the trolley onto a side-track, where it will kill a single workman. In both cases, someone will die; the only question is will it be one person or five? Repeated studies have shown that an overwhelming majority of people would flip the switch.

Utilitarianism, Green contends, requires that we maximize aggregate long-term happiness.

Now imagine a similar scenario: a runaway trolley hurtling down the tracks toward five workmen who, it’s assumed, will die instantly. But this time, you can save their lives by pushing another workman onto the tracks, thereby stopping the train and killing the workman. Same trade-off here: one life for five. But in this case, a large majority would not push the workman.

Greene explains that our automatic mode easily allows us to sense the benefit in flipping the switch in Case No. 1, and it just as easily prevents us from directly, personally shoving the workman in Case No. 2, even though our manual mode — thinking about the problem objectively — reveals no difference of consequence between them.

This serves as a helpful segue into Greene’s preferred avenue of philosophical thought: utilitarianism, which the author describes as “the most underrated and misunderstood idea in all of moral and political philosophy.” Utilitarianism, Green contends, requires that we maximize aggregate long-term happiness: the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people over the longest period of time.

Greene adroitly defends utilitarianism against its most potent and popular Kantian and Rawlsian challenges, explicating why his philosophical approach would never condone slavery, is not utterly impracticable, and does not sanction inflicting punishment upon the innocent.

His slavery analysis is the cleverest of the three. This seminal objection to utilitarianism suggests that Greene’s dogma would tolerate forcible servitude if it resulted in higher aggregate utility. But while Greene acknowledges this theoretical possibility, he retorts that, as a matter of practical necessity, slavery would never maximize societal happiness.

How so? Imagine a society divided more or less in half between slaves and slave-owners such that each free person owns one slave. “For slavery to maximize happiness” in this situation, Greene contends, “each slaveholder must, on average, gain more happiness from having a slave than his slave loses by being a slave.”

He elucidates why this would never be the case, as the modest benefits accruing to a slave-owner would never outweigh the suffering endured by the slave. In essence, this explanation boils down to the simple fact that no person in their right mind would choose to live half their life as a slave in order to live the other half as a slave-owner.

In addition, Greene nicely rebuts the objection that utilitarianism turns its practitioners into “happiness pumps,” or unfettered givers who contribute to others virtually all of their time, money, and energy.

After all, the objection goes, if it’s unjust to buy your children an iPod and an iPad when, with the same money, you could quite literally save a life in the developing world, why should you be permitted to lavish either device upon your offspring? How can a true utilitarian possibly justify a family vacation, a restaurant dinner, or 200-thread-count bedsheets? What about a mountain bike, a car, or even a home with a yard?

Asking financially comfortable people to immiserate themselves, Green rejoins, is a recipe for disaster that would set the utilitarian cause back significantly. Almost nobody wants to be a happiness pump, and nobody wants to emulate the few who do. On the other hand, “if you improve the lives of hundreds of people every year through your charitable donations, but your life remains happy and comfortable, you’re a model that others can emulate.” Inspiring others in your community to give, even modestly, creates a multiplier effect that an unhappy happiness pump does not.

Inspiring others in your community to give, even modestly, creates a multiplier effect that an unhappy happiness pump does not.

The nice thing about utilitarianism is its easy ability to resort to practicality when challenged. “Say what you will about utilitarianism in principle,” Greene writes. “As a practical matter, making the world as happy as possible does not lead to oppression.”

Greene then attempts to bridge the gap between tribes by using utilitarianism, his “meta-morality,” as the manual mode that transcends intertribal differences. “When tribes disagree, it’s almost always because their automatic settings say different things, because their emotional and moral compasses point in opposite directions.” We need, in other words, to work hard to transcend our deeply rooted, finely tuned moral sensibilities in order to elevate the conversation about policy differences.

All fine and good in theory. Alas, somewhat ironically for a “committed empiricist” like Greene, his analysis goes off the rails when he attempts to apply his meta-morality to an actual, practical issue: abortion.

He sets up this debate nicely, noting that a rights-based approach to the thorny issue leads to illogical extremes. Morally consistent pro-choicers, for instance, rooted as they are in notions of women’s reproductive rights, should not oppose third-trimester abortions, or even infanticide. But they do. Likewise, ethically coherent pro-lifers should oppose contraception and even abstinence.

So if a philosophy grounded in rights cannot produce a fruitful methodology for understanding abortion, how about a utilitarian approach? Here, Greene tallies up the good, the bad, and the ugly that would result from a ban on abortion, and while he concludes that, on balance, the benefits of babies existing may very well outweigh the costs to women’s freedom, he inexplicably deems this argument “too good.”

In other words, Greene reckons, “if we’re opposed to abortion because it denies people their existence, then we should be opposed to contraception and abstinence too, since both of these practices have the same effect. This, however, is an argument that almost no pro-lifers want to make.”

On the other hand, Greene contends, “the pro-choicer’s utilitarian arguments are not too good. They’re just plain good. Disrupting people’s sex lives, disrupting people’s life plans, and forcing people to seek international or illegal abortions are all very bad things that would make many people’s lives much worse, and in some cases much shorter.”

Yet Greene fails to explain why these arguments, also, are not too good. After all, if we’re opposed to an abortion ban because it disrupts sex lives and life plans and makes people’s lives worse and/or shorter, then how can we justify a ban on late-term abortions or infanticide?

Unfortunately, abortion represents the only realm where Greene tests out his meta-morality, and it fails the test. It would have been fascinating to see how a Greene-ian utilitarianism might engage and resolve complex issues such as redistribution, capital punishment, and same-sex marriage.

In addition, at times, Greene can’t resist the lure of shopworn liberal nostrums, as when, in criticizing those who fail to be alarmed about global warming, he contends that “it is definitely in our collective self-interest to face the facts on climate change and act accordingly.”

But these flaws, significant as they may be, detract only slightly from Greene’s creative and thought-provoking project. He concludes, simply and impressively, by urging his readers to give: “By making small sacrifices, we in the affluent world have the power to dramatically improve the lives of others.” Even if our automatic modes are ill-suited to aiding those outside of our tribes, we must, Greene rightly enjoins us, enlist our manual modes in the battle to broaden the horizons of charity and understanding. Amen to that.

Michael M. Rosen, a contributor to The American, is an attorney and writer in San Diego.

FURTHER READING: Rosen also writesThe Real Problem with Government Employee Unions” and “Steal This F&$#ing Book!”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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