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Read Joshua Greene's Moral Tribes

Blog Post1 min read

I haven’t been able to write much because we have been training surveyors and traveling. But in the evenings at our training center along the Sitapur-Lucknow highway, I’ve just finished reading Joshua Greene’s new book Moral Tribes. He outlines the evidence for the dual process theory of moral psychology that he has been documenting over the last decade: our automatic, emotional moral intuitions serve us well in interactions within our in-group (especially of the sort that our ancestors would have had) but serve us poorly in other situations, and especially among out-groups.

This is an important book, and part of an important project. Many people – maybe including you – should read it, think about it, and talk about it. Now, to preserve my credibility, I am rhetorically obligated to note that the book is probably not perfect:

  • perhaps too many of the examples deal with U.S. politics;
  • in a side plot, it strikes me that – like other philosophers whom I respect – Greene is too optimistic about the marginal product of donations to the sort of non-profits and international organizations with which I regularly interact (helping people at a distance and learning what will work in any specific case can both be very hard, although there may be easier ways to help people up close);
  • the proposed solution to the problem of “happiness pumps” (that richer people might be required to give quite a lot to poorer people is too much to ask of our species) feels, at a first reading, more like a restatement of the problem* (Greene offers a similar attempt at resolving the so-called repugnant conclusion);
  • and although Greene takes the difficulty of promoting utilitarianism seriously, perhaps he still underestimates it (perhaps strategically).

But a key lesson of the book is not to let the search for perfect ethics be an enemy of good behavior. I am hoping to write a more complete reaction to this book soon (presumably while watching surveyors in Bihar), focusing on its application to human development in India, where complex social fragmentation and hierarchy put many of the people one encounters in an out-group. But don’t wait for me – read it now!

* I am beginning to suspect there may be an answer in Derek Parfit’s discussion of our Kahneman-Tversky-like difficulty dealing well with small probabilities in ethics in Reasons and Persons.


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