Book Review: Moral Tribes

Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and The Gap Between Us and Them, by Joshua Green, is a book about science, morals, philosophy, psychology, how we make decisions, how the brain works, and how we “should” make decisions. I have always been interested in brain science since my senior year in college with my first seminar on the subject, with newly minted Ph.D., Robert Baron. Brain science would seem to have little to do with election integrity, yet when it focus on a discussion of how we make decisions and make moral choices, then it is relevant. We will leave the election integrity discussion for future post(s).

There is a lot in the book that will hold the interest of many readers. It does not require a background in brain science, philosophy, or psychology. The main theme centers around why we tend to cooperate with our own group (tribe), yet fight with other groups, or as the book says “The Tragedy of the Commons” – why can’t we work things out between different groups, between pro-live, and pro-cho ice or between religions or races?

How do we make moral decisions and cooperate or not? It is the result of two systems, thinking fast and slow – a fast intuitive system and a slower logical system. Much of the book and the interesting aspects center around how these systems work, studying the brain, often by experiments in ‘trolleyology‘ – we can save five people who will be killed a trolley by sacrificing one, either by throwing a switch, throwing a fat man onto the tracks, or by other variations. Why do we make different choices based on the method of sacrifice? Research reviewed in the book provides an answer, and demonstrates the two modes of moral choice, their flaws, and their limits – limits we are challenged to transcend.

The book makes a case for ‘utilitarianism’, blaming disrespect for the term on an unfortunate name and misunderstandings of its implications, calling for using the name ‘deep pragmatism’. As we often say “a rose by any other name would be just as thorny”.  The case is strong, yet in our agreement we remain uncomfortable. We are left adrift wondering, beyond hope that their might be an alternative or a better formula to apply deep pragmatism.

The author attempts to reconcile pro-choice and pro-life morals, yet is unable to provide a fully convincing argument. That should not be taken as a reason to discredit the book or its contributions. We are human creatures with brains shaped by evolution, imperfect, with some tough dilemmas, limitations, and imperfect, perhaps irreconcilable morals.

Finally, the book ends with six moral rules we may well all agree on.

Despite the limitations of the science, so far, we highly recommend this book. The science is powerful, and fresh. Joshua Green’s heart is in Moral Tribes, making it all accessible and engaging.

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