Book Review: Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them

Different people. Different values. Can't we all just get along?

Pro-lifers yell “Right to life!” Pro-choicers yell “women’s right to choose!” End of discussion, right? This book is an attempt to solve that problem. From conservatives to communists, from Jews to Jehovah Witnesses, we need a way to make decisions together — especially about public policy — if we are to get along. We need a “metamorality,” a universal language, a “common currency,” says the philosopher/neuroscientist Joshua Greene. We need an ethical code that transcends each particular ethical code.

And his answer is…drumroll please….utilitarianism! (I can feel your excitement). A moral philosophy invented by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 1700’s, utilitarianism is amazingly simple: maximize happiness and reduce suffering, as much as possible. That's it. Instead of talking about rights, principles, commands or duties, perhaps we can all agree on this one thing: happiness is good; suffering is bad. Act accordingly.

Can we agree on that?

Probably not. That’s why the book is 300+ pages. And still, probably not. Nice try though., right?

As for me, I must say, I am convinced...in theory at least. This book has fundamentally changed some of my opinions. This is one of the most important books I have read this year, perhaps in my entire life. It has certainly brought together several intellectual strains that have been floating around in my head for decades now; specifically, Kant and John Stuart Mill. Kant I named my son after. Kant's morality is a strict, rule based, "no exceptions" kind of system (never lie, never kill, never cheat, never steal). You can think of it as a religious ethics with a rational foundation. Kant also didn't think that happiness was the most important thing (Mill did). John Stuart Mill, on the other hand, founder of Utilitarianism, I have admired from a distance. His system, as I mentioned, is very simple: morality has one rule: in all your actions, reduce suffering the most and maximize happiness the most impartially (counting yourself as only one person). It's hard to disagree with that. Finally they come together in a harmonious embrace. This book says that Kant is right and Mill is right, depending on which context you find yourself in. Within groups, Kantian morally works the best. Which means that when dealing with your family, friends, and church, you should be a strict Kantian. Never cheat on your wife. But when it comes to dealing with "others," with global issues, public policy -- then you should put on your utilitarian hat and start calculating, weighting, crunching the numbers. Sometimes you have to break an egg for the greater good.

I was so blown away by this conclusion, I emailed the author and told him so. He emailed back right away said “that makes it all worthwhile.” Whether you hate utilitarian thinking or not, this book is amazing on many different levels: brain science, psychology, philosophy, politics, and religion. A bright, interdisciplinary guy and a good writer.


The end of the book, which is supposed to apply the theory to actual cases (conflicts between groups), is very deflating and depressing. He only talks about abortion in detail, and that discussion was painfully abstract and intellectual (after making a strong case for pro-life and pro-choice, he falls on pro-choice). You can tell he is trying to make everyone happy. Does he really expect normal people to be able to philosophize in this way? The tree is good, but not its fruit. It almost feels like he built up all my expectations, and then, at the end when it really counts, he quits. Utilitarianism, which on the face is very simple and powerful,  ends up being very complex, abstract, and subtle - a puff of smoke. Worse, his version of utilitarianism ends up being very close to what everyone already believes: punishment is good, inequality is okay (some), buying presents for your kid is good, capitalism is just fine. All things that, on the face of it, are not utilitarian. The message, at the end of the day: just be a little less selfish, a little more altruistic, okay? He even calls himself a hypocrite at one point for not being a “true” utilitarian. C'mon Greene, where's your balls? That's why I have such respect for guys like Jesus or Gandhi. They set the bar extremely high and put their life into it, they make no excuses and make no accommodations for the morally weak. They say: love your enemies. Yes, it's hard. Yes, it goes against human nature and how our brains are wired. Do it anyway. And they did. And you can too.

1 comment:

  1. Nice write up; Kantian with those you consider family and utilitarianism with the general public. Makes perfect sense. I think in general people follow the ideology of two core belief systems.