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Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them [Paperback]

Joshua Greene
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
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Book Description

30 Dec 2014
Our brains were designed for tribal life, for getting along with a select group of others (Us), and for fighting off everyone else (Them). But modern life has thrust the world's tribes into a shared space, creating conflicts of interest and clashes of values, along with unprecedented opportunities. As the world shrinks, the moral lines that divide us become more salient and more puzzling. We fight over everything from tax codes to gay marriage to global warming, and we wonder where, if at all, we can find our common ground. A grand synthesis of neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy, Moral Tribes reveals the underlying causes of modern conflict and lights the way forward. Here the human brain is revealed to be like a dual-mode camera, with point-and-shoot automatic settings ('portrait', 'landscape') as well as a manual mode. Our point-and-shoot settings are our emotions-efficient, automated programs honed by evolution, culture, and personal experience. The human brain's manual mode is its capacity for deliberate reasoning, which makes our thinking flexible. Our point-and-shoot emotions make us social animals, turning Me into Us. But they also make us tribal animals, turning Us against Them. Our tribal emotions make us fight, sometimes with bombs, sometimes with words, and often with life-and-death stakes. Drawing inspiration from moral philosophy and cutting-edge science, Moral Tribes shows us when to trust our instincts, when to reason, and how the right kind of reasoning can move us forward. Moral Tribes is the work of Professor Joshua Greene, the director of Harvard University's Moral Cognition Lab, a pioneering scientist, a philosopher, and an acclaimed teacher. The great challenge of Moral Tribes is this: How can we get along with Them when what they want feels so wrong? Ultimately, Greene offers a surprisingly simple set of maxims for navigating the modern moral terrain, a practical road map for solving problems and living better lives. A major achievement from a rising star in a new scientific field, Moral Tribes will refashion your deepest beliefs about how moral thinking works and how it can work better.
--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (30 Dec 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143126059
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143126058
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 226,765 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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More About the Author

Joshua D. Greene is the John and Ruth Hazel Associate Professor of the Social Sciences and the director of the Moral Cognition Laboratory in the Department of Psychology, Harvard University. He studies the psychology and neuroscience of morality, focusing on the interplay between emotion and reasoning in moral decision-making. His broader interests cluster around the intersection of philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience.

Product Description


After two and a half millennia, it's rare to come across a genuinely new idea on the nature of morality, but in this book Josh Greene advances not one but several... Moral Tribes is a landmark in our understanding of morality and the moral sense. --Steven Pinker

More than a decade in the making, Moral Tribes is a masterpiece - a landmark work brimming with originality and insight that also happens to be wickedly fun to read. The only disappointing thing about this book is that it ends. --Daniel Gilbert

Brilliant and enlightening... This book should be widely read and discussed.--Peter Singer

A decade ago, the wunderkind Joshua Greene helped start the field of moral neuroscience, producing dazzling research findings. In this equally dazzling book, Greene shows that he is also one of the field's premier synthesists. --Robert Sapolsky

With wit and clarity, Greene steers the reader through a mountain of evidence… A challenging and fascinating read. --Independent on Sunday

This is an important synthesising work of great depth and breadth. Time and again Greene nails what is centrally important --Julian Baggini, Financial Times

There is a wealth of books in this area, but Greene has something new to bring to the debate… Thoughtful and thought-provoking --Times Literary Supplement --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

Joshua Greene is the John and Ruth Hazel Associate Professor of the Social Sciences and the director of the Moral Cognition Lab in Harvard University's Department of Psychology. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, engaging and powerful 3 Nov 2013
I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of this book (with no intention that I'd review it!). I enjoyed every minute of reading it.

It's on an extremely important topic - the nature of morality. And the contribution Prof Greene makes is an extremely novel one: based on his own psychological studies, he argues that our moral judgments are often a battleground between an intuitive, emotional reaction, and a slower, more deliberative and logical reasoning process. Suppose you can kill one person in order to transplant their organs to save five others. "Don't do it!" says your gut; "But doing so will save more lives!" says the slower, more deliberative part of your brain.

The kicker comes in the final part of the book where he argues that we should normally trust that slow deliberative process over our intuitive judgments. His work in psychology therefore impacts moral philosophy, providing a grand argument for utilitarianism - the idea that one should always do whatever will maximise the sum total of wellbeing in the world.

Greene is a stellar psychologist who's precipitated a massive debate in moral philosophy. And he's managed to present his research in a clear, friendly and engaging way. If you want to learn about cutting-edge research on the nature of morality - and have your own moral views challenged! - then read this book.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
By Annika
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A superb summary and fusion of 2,500 years of moral philosophizing and the scientific advances in evolutionary sciene of the past 150 years. Surely, this must represent the conclusions drawn by any thinking person regarding ethical questions in politics? Deep pragmatism as the ultimate philosophy of the Last Man. Steven Pinker has called this 'a landmark in our understanding of morality', and one cannot but agree!

Greene carefully debunks all the false and superficial objections to utilitarianism (most of the time based on misinterpretations of 'extreme case scenarios, such as the so-called 'trolley problem'), as well as the fallacies of the rule worship of deontogical theories. (Eg those still clung to by Haidt and others.)

There is also a nuanced and comprehensive discussion of the scientific advances in evolutionary psychology/ economic psychology of recent years. A must read for all utilitarians and those interested in economic psychology!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
By Robert Morris TOP 500 REVIEWER
When I was a child growing up in Chicago, adults in my family respected and trusted decisions based what they called "horse sense." I recalled that as I began to read this book in which Joshua Greene discusses what he calls "common sense." Two different phrases that have essentially the same meaning: judgment that is sound, fundamental, basic, sensible, etc. He acknowledges that moral problems divide people and views consequent problems as a tragedy. "This book is about understanding and, ultimately, solving those problems." How? First, by understanding what morality is and isn't, "how it got here, and how it's implemented in our brains." Next, it's about "understanding the deep structure of moral problems as well as the differences between the problems we face today. Finally, it's about taking this new understanding of morality and turning it into a universal moral philosophy that members of all human tribes can share."

Greene invokes three organizing metaphors: The Parable of the New Pastures, the dual mode camera (actually presented as a simile), and Common Currency. All three are best explained within the narrative, in context, but I feel comfortable indicating now that Greene makes brilliant use of figurative language (a) to suggest the nature and extent of a cause-and-effect process by which "the tragedy of common sense morality" as well as (b) to explain how effective use utilitarianism can transform that process with a series of principled compromises that transcend what had previously been "tribal gut reactions," what he calls "point and shoot morality."

These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Greene's coverage.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Definitely worth reading 21 Nov 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
If you enjoy books such as Thinking Fast And Slow and The Righteous Mind you should definitely read Moral Tribes. Its author, Joshua Green, is a moral psychologist who directs the Harvard University Moral Cognition Lab. The book covers a lot of recent research into how we make 'moral' decisions, but its main focus is on how to resolve inter tribal disputes where each tribe has different ideas about what is right, just and fair. For example disputes between a collectivist based society and one organized on neoliberal principles.

Green's main point is that the (often subconscious) mechanisms that we have evolved to handle local (inter tribal) conflicts do not work at the intra tribal level, and that for these we need to adopt a cognitive based meta-morality. This he suggests should be based on utilitarianism, because maximising happiness is something that most of us can agree on as a common goal.

I did not find his arguments in favour of utilitarianism totally convincing, but to be fair to Green he is aware of the criticisms that can be made of it. He puts utilitarianism forward not as the universal solution to all moral questions, but as the most pragmatic tool available for resolving conflicting between tribes as what is the most moral outcome.

For another (more detailed) review I suggest that your see the one on the website with the title: An Interesting Work of Synthesis that Falls a Bit Short.
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