Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and the Gap Between Them and Us by Joshua Greene; book review
Joshua Greene, a Harvard psychologist turned moral philosopher, gets it right about at least one thing in Moral Tribes. “This is an ambitious book,” he tells us on page five. Its goal? To find “a metamorality, a global philosophy that can adjudicate among competing tribal moralities”. So, an answer to all conflicts between the world's nations, cultures, religions and factions? As a reader, you can't help but wish him luck.
Unfortunately Greene's prose suffers from an uncanny ability to make the most profound things sound clinical – love is “a highly specialised piece of psychological machinery” - and he also appears to have a narrow understanding of politics and history beyond the shores of the United States.
The Israel-Palestine conflict is a “political dispute...bedeviled by competing claims to specific parcels of land, grounded in the authority of various proper nouns.” Already it's hard to imagine that the people who really need a book about overcoming triablism will give it the time of day.
But then, Greene can claim to have done something older moral arbiters could not. Thanks to modern brain imaging, he can see what goes on in our minds when we make moral decisions. His main assertion is that our brains, beautifully shaped by evolution to foster cooperation between individuals, have an in-built tendency to produce “automatic” moral judgements – what we know as gut feelings.
This becomes a problem, he contends, when our brain's automatic setting tells us, for instance: 'this person is not a member of my tribe and therefore I feel hostile toward them'.
The motivating idea behind Moral Tribes is to help us overcome such thoughts when they lead us astray. His solution involves dusting down the old moral code of utilitarianism: the greatest good for the greatest number – regardless of tribe.
According to Greene, utilitarianism has struggled to win supporters because the “automatic” part of our brains makes us naturally inclined to reject certain utilitarian judgements simply because they don't “feel” right. But there is another section of the brain – the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – which is very good at working out the drawbacks and benefits of an action in a utilitarian manner. Greene's conclusion is that we should listen to this, our brain's “manual mode”, when tackling society-level problems, rather than following the gut feelings created by our brain's more automatic settings.
It all amounts to a plea to think a bit harder about what's best for everyone when tackling complex moral debates. It's a worthy message, but one suspects that the world's tribes might require something more persuasive than the academic reasoning of a Harvard psychologist before they swap their holy books and manifestos for Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham.
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Cyclist who knocked down three-year-old girl says his life has been 'destroyed'
- 2 A politically correct lefty goes to see Top Gear live – you'll probably believe what happened next
- 3 Isis burns woman alive for refusing to engage in 'extreme' sex act, UN says
- 4 Puerto Rico, island of lost dreams: People are leaving the debt-hit territory in droves as near neighbour Cuba's star rises
- 5 Snoop Dogg on why he doesn't regret displaying misogyny towards women
Stolen Instagram photo sells for $90,000
Art Garfunkel calls Paul Simon a 'monster' with a Napoleon complex
Eurovision 2015 winner: Sweden beats Russia and Italy to take the title from Conchita Wurst
Dheepan, film review: Palme d'Or prize goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Game of Thrones, The Gift, Season 5, Episode 7: Why two of the show’s most iconic characters just met
As a white man, I'm surprised more women aren't tweeting the hashtag #KillAllWhiteMen
Scotland may have to leave the EU even if it votes to stay in, David Cameron confirms
The day that Britain resigned as a global power
Almost a third of school pupils believe 'Muslims are taking over our country', study claims
SNP fury as HS2 finds 'no business case' for taking fast train service to Scotland
Gay marriage 'Bert and Ernie' cake bakery found guilty of discrimination in Northern Ireland