research institute for compassionate economics

New review of Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes in EPW

Written by Dean Spears on November 29th, 2015

This week, Economic and Political Weekly published my review of Joshua Greene’s book Moral Tribes.  The review begins by considering the arguments Greene makes for the implications of moral psychology for ethics: perhaps many of our ethical intuitions are as psychological explicable as our faulty responses to optical illusions (such as the one pictured) and are equally (un)creditworthy.

I then consider the special implications of Greene’s research for India.  Part of Greene’s argument is that we should expect people to have a posture of automatic cooperation with people whom they consider fellow members of an in-group, but not with people whom they consider to be part of an out-group.  Perhaps, because India is so thoroughly socially partitioned by caste, religion, gender, age, and hierarchical rank of all types, this psychological research gives reason to expect that many people’s automatic moral intuitions may be less cooperative or charitable in India, on average, than in less fragmented societies.   The exact same moral psychology could produce a different outcome if exposed to a different level of social fragmentation.

Beyond its implications for India, Greene’s project has considerable significance for some of the most important issues of our times.  For example (as Greene is certainly not the first to note) climate change may not tug at our emotions because many of the people who will suffer most will live decades or centuries from now, perhaps in different places (or, never have the chance to be born at all).  But that is no argument that their well-being should not be taken into consideration.

You can read my review here, on the r.i.c.e. research page.