Tribal Wisdom in Modern Times

March 19, 2014

By Michael M. Rosen, The American

An ambitious new book grapples with some of the thorniest socio-moral questions ever to have bedeviled political philosophers, falling short when it attempts to apply its meta-morality to a practical issue.

Excerpt: Tribal warfare, broadly construed, has afflicted human existence since the beginning of recorded time. Figuring out how to resolve conflict among conflicting groups — be they actual warring tribesmen, geopolitical rivals, partisan adversaries, or cultural warriors — can rightly be described as the key challenge facing social scientists, both in theory and in practice.

In his engaging, persuasive book Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, Joshua Greene, a cognitive psychology professor and the director of Harvard’s Moral Cognition Laboratory, grapples with some of the thorniest socio-moral questions ever to have bedeviled political philosophers: When and why do we choose between “me” and “us”? When and why do we choose between “us” and “them”? How can we craft a common “meta-morality” that people of all different ideologies, religions, races, and cultures can share?

To call Greene’s project ambitious would be a massive understatement. “This book,” Greene writes, “is an attempt to understand morality from the ground up … It’s about understanding the deep structure of moral problems [and] … about taking this new understanding of morality and turning it into a universal moral philosophy that members of all human tribes can share.”

His framework for this analysis is a camera with automatic and manual modes, representing the reflexive and reflective capacities of the brain, our twin — and conflicting — abilities to act instinctually and think contemplatively in response to challenges we face. Greene skillfully maps these complimentary modes to particular portions of the brain that alternately process involuntary movements and purposeful thoughts.

Greene begins by exploring how “our moral brains evolved for cooperation within groups,” but not for cooperation between groups. He ably explains the Prisoner’s Dilemma and how a variety of different forces — direct and indirect reciprocity, concern for others, concern for one’s reputation, and commitments — enable two collaborators to find the “magic corner, where the aggregate outcome is optimal.

But these forces at times have nefarious consequences, as “some mathematical models indicate that altruism within groups could not have evolved without hostility between groups.” In his model, the human mind’s “automatic mode” applies to in-group interactions, where we instinctively protect and promote those within our tribe, including those outside of our nuclear families.

In order to overcome these inter-tribal differences, Greene maintains, we must turn to “manual mode” and carefully, actively, intellectually weigh the costs and benefits of any key decisions...

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