Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them

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9781480538726: Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them

Moral Tribes is a masterpiece—a landmark work brimming with originality and insight that also happens to be wickedly fun to read. The only disappointing thing about this book is that it ends.” —Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology, Harvard University; author of the international bestseller Stumbling on Happiness

Our brains were designed for tribal life, for getting along with a select group of others (Us) and for fighting off everyone else (Them). But modern times have forced the world’s tribes into a shared space, resulting in epic clashes of values along with unprecedented opportunities. As the world shrinks, the moral lines that divide us become more salient and more puzzling. We fight over everything from tax codes to gay marriage to global warming, and we wonder where, if at all, we can find our common ground.

A grand synthesis of neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy, Moral Tribes reveals the underlying causes of modern conflict and lights the way forward. Greene compares the human brain to a dual-mode camera, with point-and-shoot automatic settings (“portrait,” “landscape”) as well as a manual mode. Our point-and-shoot settings are our emotions—efficient, automated programs honed by evolution, culture, and personal experience. The brain’s manual mode is its capacity for deliberate reasoning, which makes our thinking flexible. Point-and-shoot emotions make us social animals, turning Me into Us. But they also make us tribal animals, turning Us against Them. Our tribal emotions make us fight—sometimes with bombs, sometimes with words—often with life-and-death stakes.

An award-winning teacher and scientist, Greene directs Harvard University’s Moral Cognition Lab, which uses cutting-edge neuroscience and cognitive techniques to understand how people really make moral decisions. Combining insights from the lab with lessons from decades of social science and centuries of philosophy, the great question of Moral Tribes is this: How can we get along with Them when what they want feels so wrong to Us?

Ultimately, Greene offers a set of maxims for navigating the modern moral terrain, a practical road map for solving problems and living better lives. Moral Tribes shows us when to trust our instincts, when to reason, and how the right kind of reasoning can move us forward.

A major achievement from a rising star in a new scientific field, Moral Tribes will refashion your deepest beliefs about how moral thinking works and how it can work better.

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About the Author:

JOSHUA GREENE is the John and Ruth Hazel Associate Professor of the Social Sciences and director of the Moral Cognition Lab in Harvard University’s Department of Psychology. His research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the MacArthur Foundation. He’s appeared on Charlie Rose and Scientific American Frontiers, and his work has been featured in the New York Times, Discover Magazine, WNYC's RadioLab, and NPR's Morning Edition.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

 The Tragedy of Commonsense Morality

To the east of a deep, dark forest, a tribe of herders raises sheep on a common pasture. Here the rule is simple: Each family gets the same number of sheep. Families send representatives to a council of elders, which governs the commons. Over the years, the council has made difficult decisions. One family, for example, took to breeding excep­tionally large sheep, thus appropriating more of the commons for itself. After some heated debate, the council put a stop to this. Another family was caught poisoning its neighbors’ sheep. For this the family was severely punished. Some said too severely. Others said not enough. Despite these challenges, the Eastern tribe has survived, and its families have prospered, some more than others.

To the west of the forest is another tribe whose herders also share a common pasture. There, however, the size of a family’s flock is deter­mined by the family’s size. Here, too, there is a council of elders, which has made difficult decisions. One particularly fertile family had twelve chil­dren, far more than the rest. Some complained that they were taking up too much of the commons. A different family fell ill, losing five of their six children in one year. Some thought it unfair to compound their trag­edy by reducing their wealth by more than half. Despite these challenges, the Western tribe has survived, and its families have prospered, some more than others.

To the north of the forest is yet another tribe. Here there is no com­mon pasture. Each family has its own plot of land, surrounded by a fence. These plots vary greatly in size and fertility. This is partly because some Northern herders are wiser and more industrious than others. Many such herders have expanded their lands, using their surpluses to buy land from their less prosperous neighbors. Some Northern herders are less prosper­ous than others simply because they are unlucky, having lost their flock, or their children, to disease, despite their best efforts. Still other herders are exceptionally lucky, possessing large, fertile plots of land, not because they are especially wise or industrious but because they inherited them. Here in the North, the council of elders doesn’t do much. They simply ensure that herders keep their promises and respect one another’s property. The vast differences in wealth among Northern families have been the source of much strife. Each year, some Northerners die in winter for want of food and warmth. Despite these challenges, the Northern tribe has sur­vived. Most of its families have prospered, some much more than others.

To the south of the forest is a fourth tribe. They share not only their pasture but their animals, too. Their council of elders is very busy. The elders manage the tribe’s herd, assign people to jobs, and monitor their work. The fruits of this tribe’s labor are shared equally among all its mem­bers. This is a source of much strife, as some tribe members are wiser and more industrious than others. The council hears many complaints about lazy workers. Most members, however, work hard. Some are moved to work by community spirit, others by fear of their neighbors’ reproach. De­spite their challenges, the Southern tribe has survived. Its families are not, on average, as prosperous as those in the North, but they do well enough, and in the South no one has ever died in winter for want of food or warmth.

One summer, a great fire burned through the forest, reducing it to ash. Then came heavy rains, and before long the land, once thick with trees, was transformed into an expanse of gently rolling grassy hills, perfect for grazing animals. The nearby tribes rushed in to claim the land. This was a source of much strife. The Southern tribe proclaimed that the new pastures belonged to all people and must be worked in common. They formed a new council to manage the new pastures and invited the other tribes to send representatives. The Northern herders scoffed at this suggestion. While the Southerners were making their big plans, Northern families built houses and stone walls and set their animals to graze. Many Easterners and Westerners did the same, though with less vigor. Some families sent representatives to the new council.

The four tribes fought bitterly, and many lives, both human and ani­mal, were lost. Small quarrels turned into bloody feuds, which turned into deadly battles: A Southern sheep slipped into a Northerner’s field. The Northerner returned it. Another Southern sheep did the same. The North­erner demanded a fee to return it. The Southerners refused to pay. The Northerner slaughtered the sheep. Southerners took three of the North­erner’s sheep and slaughtered them. The Northerner took ten of the Southerners’ sheep and slaughtered them. The Southerners burned down the Northerner’s farmhouse, killing a child. Ten Northern families marched on the Southerners’ meetinghouse and set it ablaze, killing dozens of South­erners, including many children. Back and forth they went with violence and vengeance, soaking the green hills with blood.

To make matters worse, tribes from distant lands arrived to settle the new pastures. One tribe claimed the new pastures as a gift to them from their god. The burning of the great forest and the greening of the hills had been prophesied in their holy book, they said. Another tribe claimed the new pastures as their ancestral homeland, from which they had been driven many generations ago, before there was a forest. Tribes arrived with rules and customs that seemed to outsiders rather strange, if not down­right ridiculous: Black sheep must not sleep in the same enclosure as white sheep. Women must have their earlobes covered in public. Singing on Wednesdays is strictly forbidden. One man complained of a neighboring woman who, while tending her sheep, bared her earlobes in plain view of his impressionable sons. The woman refused to cover her earlobes, and this filled her pious neighbor with rage. A little girl told a little boy that the god to which his family prayed did not exist. The shocked boy reported this to his father, who complained to the girl’s father. The father defended his daughter, praising her fierce intelligence, and refused to apologize. For this he was killed, as required by the laws of the tribe he had offended. And so began another bloody feud.

Despite their fighting, the herders of the new pastures are, in many ways, very similar. For the most part, they want the same things: healthy families, tasty and nutritious food, comfortable shelter, labor-saving tools, leisure time to spend with friends and family. All herders like listen­ing to music and hearing stories about heroes and villains. What’s more, even as they fight one another, their minds work in similar ways. What they perceive as unjust makes them angry and disgusted, and they are motivated to fight, both by self-interest and by a sense of justice. Herders fight not only for themselves but for their families, friends, and fellow tribe members. They fight with honor and would be ashamed to do oth­erwise. They guard their reputations fiercely, judge others by their deeds, and enjoy exchanging opinions.

Despite their differences, the tribes of the new pastures share some core values. In no tribe is it permissible to be completely selfish, and in no tribe are members expected to be completely selfless. Even in the South, where the herd is shared, workers are free at day’s end to pursue their own interests. In no tribe are ordinary members allowed to lie, steal, or harm one another at will. (There are, however, some tribes in which certain privileged individuals are free to do as they please.)

The tribes of the new pastures are engaged in bitter, often bloody conflict, even though they are all, in their different ways, moral peoples. They fight not because they are fundamentally selfish but because they have incompatible visions of what a moral society should be. These are not merely scholarly disagreements, although their scholars have those, too. Rather, each tribe’s philosophy is woven into its daily life. Each tribe has its own version of moral common sense. The tribes of the new pastures fight not because they are immoral but because they view life on the new pastures from very different moral perspectives. I call this the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality.

The Parable of the New Pastures is fictional, but the Tragedy of Com­monsense Morality is real. It’s the central tragedy of modern life, the deeper tragedy behind the moral problems that divide us. This book is about un­derstanding and, ultimately, solving these problems. Unlike many authors of popular books, I make no promise of helping you solve your personal problems. What I’m offering you, I hope, is clarity—and with this clarity, the motivation and opportunity to join forces with like-minded others.

This book is an attempt to understand morality from the ground up. It’s about understanding what morality is, how it got here, and how it’s implemented in our brains. It’s about understanding the deep structure of moral problems as well as the differences between the problems that our brains were designed to solve and the distinctively modern problems we face today. Finally, it’s about taking this new understanding of morality and turning it into a universal moral philosophy that members of all hu­man tribes can share.

This is an ambitious book. I started developing these ideas in my late teens, and they’ve taken me through two interwoven careers—as a phi­losopher and as a scientist. This book draws inspiration from great phi­losophers of the past. It also builds on my own research in the new field of moral cognition, which applies the methods of experimental psychology and cognitive neuroscience to illuminate the structure of moral thinking. Finally, this book draws on the work of hundreds of social scientists who’ve learned amazing things about how we make decisions and how our choices are shaped by culture and biology. This book is my attempt to put it all together, to turn this new scientific self-knowledge into a practical phi­losophy that can help us solve our biggest problems.


Two issues dominated Barack Obama’s first presidential term: healthcare and the economy. Both reflect the tension between the individualism of the Northern herders and the collectivism of the Southern herders. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, established national health insurance in the United States. Liberals praised it, not as a perfect system but as a historic step in the right direction. The United States had finally joined the rest of the modern world in providing basic health-care to all its citizens. Conservatives—many of them—despise Obamacare, which they regard as a step toward ruinous socialism. The recent healthcare debate has been awash in misinformation,* but amid the lies and half-truths there can be found an honest philosophical disagreement.

At its core, this disagreement, like so many others, is about the tension between individual rights and the (real or alleged) greater good. Universal health insurance requires everyone to buy in, either through an individual purchase of health insurance or through taxes. Conservatives mounted a legal challenge to Obamacare, culminating in a landmark Supreme Court decision. The Supreme Court upheld Obamacare on the grounds that it’s funded through a combination of voluntary purchases and taxes (which are both constitutional) rather than by the government’s forcing people to buy something (which is arguably not constitutional). But the tax-versus- forced-purchase distinction is really just a legal technicality. The people who hate Obamacare don’t hate it because they believe that it’s funded by forced purchases rather than forced taxes; what they hate is the forcing. Obamacare might not be socialism, but it’s certainly more collectivist than some people care for, restricting individual freedom in the name of the greater good.

During the 2012 Republican presidential primary, candidates de­nounced Obamacare as loudly and often as possible, calling it social­ism and vowing to repeal it. During one of the primary debates, journalist

*This is the only footnote in this book, but the endnotes are packed with supporting material, in addition to source citations. Nowadays, many books leave endnotes unmarked in the main text. I don’t want to clutter your view with hundreds of little numbers, but I want you to know when you may be missing something of interest, and how much you may be missing. I’ve therefore devised the following notation system, analogous to the chili pepper heat index used on Asian food menus: Asterisks are used to indicate additional material in the notes (* = sentences; ** = para­graphs; *** = pages). Notes that simply list sources are unmarked in the main text. (For more on “awash in misin­formation,” please see the endnotes for the introduction.)

Wolf Blitzer had the following exchange with Texas congressman Ron Paul.

BLITZER: A healthy 30-year-old young man has a good job, makes a good living, but decides, you know what? I’m not going to spend $200 or $300 a month for health insurance because I’m healthy, I don’t need it. But something terrible happens, all of a sudden he needs it. Who’s going to pay if he goes into a coma, for example? Who pays for that?

PAUL: Well, in a society that you accept welfarism and socialism, he

expects the government to take care of him. BLITZER: Well, what do you want? PAUL: But what he should do is whatever he wants to do, and as­

sume responsibility for himself. My advice to him would have a major medical policy, but not be forced— BLITZER: But he doesn’t have that. He doesn’t have it, and he needs intensive care for six months. Who pays? PAUL: That’s what freedom is all about, taking your own risks. This

whole idea that you have to prepare and take care of everybody— [applause] BLITZER: But Congressman, are you saying that society should just

let him die?

As Paul prepared his hesitant answer, a chorus of voices from the crowd shouted, “Yeah! Let him die!” These are the Northern herders. Paul couldn’t quite bring himself to agree—or disagree. He said that neighbors, friends, and churches should take care of such a man, implying, but not explicitly stating, that the government should let him die if no one else is willing or able to pay. As you might expect the more Southerly herders disagree.

(Note: In the Parable of the New Pastures, the Southern herders are extreme collectivists, communists, and are thus far to the left of contem­porary mainstream liberals, despite frequent accusations to the con­trary. Thus, as we discuss contemporary politics, I refer to contemporary liberals as “more Southerly” rather than “Southern.” Contemporary U.S. conservatives, in contrast, resemble more closely their fictional Northern counterparts.)

Along with healthcare, the miserable state of the U.S. economy took center stage during President Obama’s first term. When Obama took of­fice in 2009, the economy was in free fall, thanks to a housing bubble that burst after a decade of inflated growth and a financial sector that p...

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