Joshua Green’s book, “Moral Tribes,” examines the origins of modern-day morality and the bridging of the gap between “us’ and “them.”

Green describes “tribe” as any group that by its attitudes and actions defines itself as “we” and “us.” Examples of “tribe” include my country, my political party, my religion, my race, my gender, etc.

Green recognizes the disharmony within the brain and within the “tribe” between self-interest and concern for other people, noting that many of the world’s problems can be ameliorated if we can ever get collective interest to triumph over an individual’s interest or the “tribe’s” interest.

That triumph would be a victory for morality — often defined as a sense of what is right or wrong, required, or permitted.Green’s research, however, leads him to see morality as a set of human predispositions, intuitions, and gut reactions that teach otherwise selfish individuals how to tolerate, even value the interests of other individuals. 

“If we were limited to our tribal instincts, we’d be stuck,” says Green, but thankfully we have the capacity to shift into a more cooperative mode, and “nothing that is rightly praised as ‘moral’ would exist on earth were our brains not designed for cooperation” (by “designed,” Green means “evolved”).

Evidently, like other advantageous traits remnant from a pre-agricultural Ice Age, the evolved cooperation within certain prehistoric human populations allowed them to out-compete their neighboring, less cooperative brethren (to wit: survival-of-the-fittest).

In all probability, the prehistoric, inherent human capacity for morality thus gained an ancient foothold, increasing the survival success of our species and tagging along with us into historic times.

Our brains apparently evolved for “cooperation within groups…not because it’s ‘nice’ but because it confers a survival advantage.” That survival advantage makes it relatively easy for us to cooperate with members of our in-group, the challenge is to extend that cooperation to outsiders.

 Green credits human nature’s capacity for empathy — our ability to identify and understand other peoples’ emotions – as being essential for one “tribe” to be able to cooperate with another. “Empathy,” he maintains, “may be the most quintessentially moral feature of our brains,” enabling humans to cooperate not just with one of our own, but even with one of “them.”

 The result of empathic cooperation, according to Green, is utilitarianism — sometimes described as the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people — something like the first responders to a catastrophe, who have to make a quick life-and-death decision in attempting to rescue three victims over here at the expense of not having the time or equipment to attempt to rescue a lone victim over there — who perhaps might die because of the rescuers’ decision.

The life-saving action by those rescuers is admirably altruistic, in the risking of their lives to save others, but the sheer mathematics of three lives saved instead of one life saved also personifies utilitarianism.

Therefore, utilitarianism can be altruistic, empathic, and pragmatic (practical, commonsensical) all at the same time.. Green encourages us to expand our circle of individuals for whom we have empathy and for whom we behave altruistically, from our small circle of relatives and friends, expanded out as far as we can to the “others.”

Practicing altruistic, empathic, pragmatic utilitarianism would impel us to become morally better — better, by caring more than we do about people outside our “tribal” circle.

That kind of utilitarianism expects a lot from us, to put aside the ideologies of our immediate “tribe,” and instead to “figure out what actually works best…to make the world as happy as possible.”

Ken Metz


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