Moral Tribes | Joshua D. Greene

Summary of: Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them
By: Joshua D. Greene


In ‘Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them,’ Joshua D. Greene delves into human cooperation and conflict, exploring the tragedy of the commons and the tragedy of commonsense morality. Drawing on thought experiments, such as the prisoner’s dilemma and the footbridge dilemma, Greene introduces utilitarianism as a philosophy that prioritizes happiness in moral decision-making. However, he acknowledges the importance of not dismissing individual rights in the pursuit of greater overall happiness. Greene continues by examining the automatic and manual modes of moral thinking and how empathy is influenced by physical distance and personal connection.

The Tragedy of Human Cooperation

Humans have evolved to be capable of cooperation within groups but struggle with cooperation between groups. The tragedy of the commons, which is the conflict between self-interest and collective interest, is the clearest threat to mutually beneficial cooperation. This conflict is demonstrated through a story of two travelers in the Wild West. The tragedy can be avoided if individuals act cooperatively. The tragedy of commonsense morality is a second threat to beneficial cooperation, where one group sets its values against another. This is illustrated through the story of the Danish political newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which published cartoons satirizing the Prophet Muhammad. The conflict between Danish journalists and Muslims was a result of commonsense morality, leading to tragic consequences.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

Art and Bud paired up for bank robberies and got caught. The sheriff split them up and presented a moral puzzle called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. If one accused the other and kept quiet, they received different sentences, and if they both accused each other, they received the same sentence. The dilemma hinged on their moral principles and relationship with each other. If they cared, they would remain silent, but if they didn’t, they would confess. However, the outcome would still favor confession, leading to an eight-year sentence each. This posed a problem for the League of Tight-Lipped Bank Robbers, where every member swore to keep to a strict code of silence. In this case, Art and Bud wouldn’t be singing any time soon.

Utilitarianism: Balancing Happiness and Individual Rights

Utilitarianism places happiness first, but individuals should not be sacrificed along the way.

Why do people work? For money, obviously, to buy food, to live and be happy. Happiness is the ultimate goal, and according to utilitarianism, the most crucial factor in making moral decisions.

Take, for example, the footbridge dilemma. Utilitarianism dictates that if sacrificing one life can save five, then it’s the moral choice. However, utilitarianism also fails to value individual rights, as the enslaved minority in a happy society would lose their freedom. Utilitarianism ignores the moral negatives of slavery, and it should not ignore the inalienable rights of individuals in the process.

Utilitarianism prioritizes overall happiness, but it should not come at the expense of individual rights.

Automatic vs Manual Thinking

The modern camera is a great representation of our moral thinking, having two modes: automatic and manual. In an experiment by Baba Shiv and Alexander Fedorikhin, it was shown that those under higher cognitive load were 50% more likely to make an unhealthy snack choice. This is because they were in automatic mode, where intuition and emotion guide decision-making. Our automatic mode is based on our accumulated responses shaped by genes, cultural experiences, as well as trial and error. On the other hand, our manual mode involves reasoning and thinking, considering both short- and long-term benefits. The main lesson is that automatic thinking can lead to more errors but allows for easy decision-making without overloading the conscious mind, while the manual mode is necessary for critical thinking and risk management.

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