Moral Tribes by Joshua Greene: a review by John C.

Moral Tribes

I enjoyed what the hard work of reading this book can provide – a clearer insight into the ‘tribal’ problems that seem to beset us constantly today (Reclaim Australia and their opponents are clashing in King George Square as I write this). That is not to say that its utilitarian-based proposed metamorality is a complete answer. Rather I read it as a promising conjunction of ‘ologies’ that arose from Mathematics and Logic in the 19thC feeding back into that original science of Phillosophy. The work of those fields needs to be incorporated into modern thinking for modern scientifically-educated individuals to participate in its evolution.

I cannot do justice to the 350 pages of close argument presented and I cannot combat some of the severe criticism it has earned from some more mainstream philosophers. All I can do is to recommend it on a trial basis to see if provides a fit for your personal position.

Here is Greene toward the end of the book when he is promoting the concept of ‘Deep Pragmatism’

We modern herders have strong moral feelings, and sometimes very different feelings. Unfortunately, we can’t all get our own way. What to do? The first step, as Haidt tells us, is to understand each other better, to understand that we come from different moral tribes, each sincere in its own way. But that’s not enough. We need a common moral standard, a metamorality, to help us get along. The idea that we should aim for maximum happiness is not the arbitrary glorification of a single moral flavour, or the elevation of one tribe’s values over others. It’s the implementation of a common currency, a metric of value against which other values can be measured, enabling not just compromise but principled compromise. According to Haidt “human beings are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee,” meaning that we are mostly selfish, but also and partly tribal – guardians of our respective hives. I think that this accounting of human nature is incomplete. Which part of us believes that we should maximise global happiness? This is neither chimp nor bee. This metamoral ideal is a distinctively human invention, a product of abstract reasoning. Were we limited to our selfish and tribal instinct, we’d be stuck. But fortunately, we all have the capacity, if not the will, to shift into manual mode.’

I was also struck by the quote Greene offers from the possibly Asperbergers’ affected Jeremy Bentham on gay sex in 1785.

I have been tormenting myself for years to find if possible a sufficient ground for treating [gays] with the severity which they are treated at this time of day by all European nations; but on the principle of utility I can find none.’


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