Book review: 'Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, And The Gap Between Us And Them' by Joshua Greene


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The Independent Culture

Joshua Greene, an associate professor in social sciences at Harvard, attempts to answer the question of how conflicts between people can be resolved.

Specifically, he wishes to find ways of tackling disagreements between members of differing “tribes”, be they religions, supporters of political parties or dissenters over single issues. His erudite book is packed with detailed research from the fields of psychology, social science and neuroscience.

Greene’s idea is that all human minds operate a little like sophisticated cameras, in that they have an automatic mode, which is efficient but not flexible; and a manual mode, which is flexible but not efficient. The automatic mode involves emotional responses and instincts. The manual mode is able to override these feelings. Research has shown that the former are mediated in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex of the brain while the latter result from activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

With wit and clarity, Greene steers the reader through a mountain of evidence. His proposal is that the solution to inter-tribal warfare is a variant of the utilitarianism advocated by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 18th century. The aim of this could be said to be to provide maximal happiness as judged from an impartial position. From here, he takes the reader to “deep pragmatism”, a related theory.

He is punctilious about relying only on evidence-based data. Much of the research presented will be mesmerising to anyone interested in psychology, neuroscience, dispute resolution, philosophy or ethics – for example, that six-month-old babies prefer to look at speakers who lack foreign accents; or that when adults are asked their views on six controversial policy proposals, if they are simply asked for reasons for their views their strong opinions are left intact, whereas if they are asked to explain in detail how the policies work, their estimates of their own understanding falls, as does the strength of their convictions.

In an interesting section, Greene explains why talk of “rights” and “duties” is not helpful in attempting to solve disputes, as they are “the modern moralists’ weapons of choice, allowing us to present our feelings as non-negotiable facts. By appealing to rights, we excuse ourselves from the hard work of providing real, non-question-begging justifications for what we want”.

A challenging and fascinating read.