The Human Journey
Thinking Big

Creating a Sustainable Future

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

NY: Penguin Books, 2014

Pages 12

Social Relativity cartoon

Understanding how our minds work will help make wiser decisions, but resolving “Us vs. Them” conflicts also requires a way to mediate among competing tribal values and interests. Green says we could base intertribal cooperation on a universal morality—if we had one. But since no universal moral truth has been identified, we must all develop our own by identifying shared values to use as common currency. As we have said, this task is more difficult than it might seem because moral abstractions (family, freedom, equality, justice, etc.) may be shared rhetorically but interpreted differently by different tribes and individuals within tribes.

Greene proposes that utilitarianism—doing whatever action promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people—may help in this. Espoused by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Utilitarian’s thought that all actions should be evaluated by their effects on happiness, not happiness as a collection of things that please us—these specifics are where we inevitably differ—but as the total quality of experience, including family, friends, love, character, avoidance of suffering, etc. Utilitarianism is impartial—no one’s happiness is more important than anyone else’s—meaning not that everyone will be equally happy, but that decisions and actions should aim at maximizing everyone’s happiness. By combining the impartiality of the Golden Rule with the common currency of human experience, utilitarianism provides a means to acknowledge and adjudicate moral trade-offs, so that “happiness” encompasses other values and ultimately means the same thing to everyone. It may not be universal moral truth, but the author feels that this philosophy could be a useful aid to our moral thinking.

All else being equal, we prefer more happiness not only for ourselves, but for others too. But “all else being equal” is a big qualifier: we favor increasing everyone’s happiness, but not if it means accepting the unacceptable (like pushing people onto trolley tracks). Our manual mode may lean toward utilitarianism, since it is designed for flexibility and allows us to consider larger, longer-term goals. It also enables us to weigh consequences, trade-offs and side effects to determine which action will provide optimal consequences, as we seek to identify what policies tend to increase or decrease happiness.

“Optimal” involves two aspects: for whom it is optimal and what optimal means for a particular individual. Although we are not naturally impartial, we can recognize that all people are essentially alike, even to caring most about themselves, their families, friends, and so on. This recognition does not create impartiality but can enable a theoretical preference for impartiality, at least as an ideal. In other words, we do not live perfectly by the Golden Rule, but we understand its appeal, emerging from our automatic moral emotions, our concern for others, or empathy. But we can approach impartiality only through our manual mode, using reasoning and quantitative manipulation to transform our group values into something more objective.

Unfortunately, we often follow the guidance of our automatic emotional morality on critical personal and policy issues like bioethics, end of life decisions, capital punishment, mandatory vaccination, organ donation, abortion, torture, environmental degradation, and war. We tend to reject actions that serve the greater good on such issues not because we have thought carefully and made wise moral decisions, but because our moral alarm bells over—or under—react to actions or omissions.

Experiments uncover a further limitation of moral emotions: physical distance. We are morally obligated to save a child drowning right in front of us, but most of us feel it’s optional whether we contribute to save starving children somewhere else on the planet. This makes sense, given that the evolutionary history and purpose of our moral emotions was solving the “Me vs. Us” problem: no corresponding advantage accrues from universal empathy. In addition, we are victims of the “identifiable victim effect.” Joseph Stalin is reputed to have said: “The death of a single Russian soldier is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” And Mother Teresa, “If I look at the mass I will never act.” This aspect of our psychology may well have evolved in order to ensure the survival of our immediate kin, back when we were most likely roaming around in small groups. But in today’s world the consequences of giving in to what psychologists call “the collapse of compassion” and for that to lead to inaction, can be disastrous.

Obviously, this difference in response is not a reliable measure of difference in moral obligation: it is a product of our automatic moral intuition, which, as we have seen, lacks flexibility and perspective. Utilitarianism offers no clear formula for how we should allocate resources, but just as we would not consider complete selfishness an acceptable moral principle, we would also not find valuing only the welfare of our tribe acceptable. Valuing the happiness of all people equally is an ideal worth striving toward.

Using our manual mode in the right way, means that we recognize and overcome our unconscious bias (our tendency to select and value evidence supporting our position over other evidence). Certain “rules” can help with this

Greene’s concluding “Six Rules for Modern Herders:”

1. “In the face of moral controversy, consult, but do not trust, your moral instincts.”

In personal life, moral instincts can guide us to favor Us over Me. But in controversy, only our manual mode can help in “Us vs. Them” conflicts.

2. “Rights are not for making arguments; they’re for ending arguments.”

Rights and duties rationalize moral intuitions; they have no objective existence, so there’s no arguing over them. “When we appeal to rights, we’re not making an argument; we’re declaring that the argument is over.”

3. “Focus on the facts, and make others do the same.”

To evaluate whether an action is good or bad, we must understand how it’s supposed to work and what its likely effects will be. If we don’t know the former, we must acknowledge our ignorance. The latter we can understand only through evidence.

4. “Beware of biased fairness.”

Even when we think we’re being fair, we unconsciously favor our point of view.

5. “Use common currency.”

Happiness and absence of suffering are what we all seek from our experience, through one means or another, and if we value everyone’s experience equally, we have a common currency of value. Observable evidence is our common currency of fact.

6. “Give.”

Making small, reasonable sacrifices can help others—even those far away—in dramatic ways. Recognizing that we are more responsive to those nearby than to distant, “statistical” strangers, we can make conscious efforts to counter our inherent selfishness, help those less fortunate, and increase the quality of everyone’s experience.

Climate Summit header
The climate conference in Paris sought to align politics and policy with science. It set a goal of holding the increase in the global average temperature to 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels. “The Paris Agreement is a death sentence for many people,” says Pablo Solón, former climate negotiator for Bolivia, in December 2015. “A world with temperature increases more than 3 degrees Celsius is a world where not everyone will survive.”

We often hold strong opinions on complex issues without expertise on these issues. We think we understand things that, in fact, we don’t. Experiments show that trying and failing to explain how a policy or course of action would work, makes us realize we are out of our depth and moderates our views. So addressing “Us vs. Them” conflicts should start with explaining how different policies are supposed to work, rather than begin with reasons why one is better.

For example, when debating single-payer healthcare or cap-and-trade carbon emissions, if we start with an explanation of the mechanics of the system’s operation, rather than why it is a good or bad idea, we may well temper strong opinions and foster an atmosphere more conducive to negotiation.

Rail tracks approaching Auschwitz
One of the greatest examples of rationalization gone horribly wrong was the wholesale extermination of Jews and other “undesirables” by the Nazis. The railway line leading to the death camp at Auschwitz II (Birkenau).

Another tactic is avoiding rationalization. Remember that automatic responses are just that—automatic. We don’t understand why we have a particular automatic emotion, but if asked, we will come up with a reasonable-sounding explanation. We don’t use reason to arrive at the moral emotion; we use it to justify having arrived there. Rationalization won’t help determine the best course of action; it will further polarize us. To use manual mode properly, we must recognize rationalization for what it is.

A third tactic is not arguing by appeal to rights or duties. This approach avoids real argument by claiming an action is required by an underlying principle (i.e., “right to life” vs. “right to choose”). Duties are the mirror image of rights: duties say what is required and rights what is prohibited. But appeals to rights or duties end discussions, rather than furthering them. They pretend “the issue has already been resolved in some abstract realm to which you and your tribespeople have special access.”

Yet rights do have a place in moral disputes: when a debate is not needed, rights and duties assert the primacy of common sense moral judgments—provided they are truly settled issues. For example, all civilized tribes agree slavery is unacceptable. So, if someone were to argue for slavery, we don’t engage in analysis; we simply assert slavery violates fundamental human rights, ending the discussion. But these situations are rare. Real controversies are not solved through appeals to rights or duties but through careful thought about what results can be expected from what actions.

Moral reasoning is difficult, and possibly ineffective, in the face of moral emotion, but over time it can prevail, eventually even changing what moral emotions encompass. Consider that, in 1785 Bentham argued that the law punishing gay sex with death had no utilitarian basis. And in 1869 Mill argued that reason supported women’s rights, despite strong, entrenched feelings to the contrary. Today, these positions are unquestioned parts of our automatic moral emotions.