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Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and the Gap Between Us and Them Paperback – 2 Jan 2014

4.3 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Books (2 Jan. 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1782393374
  • ISBN-13: 978-1782393375
  • Product Dimensions: 15.3 x 3.1 x 23.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,252,140 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


This is an important synthesising work of great depth and breadth. Time and again Greene nails what is centrally important --Julian Baggini, Financial Times With wit and clarity, Greene steers the reader through a mountain of evidence... A challenging and fascinating read. --Independent on Sunday 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 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 an alternate Paperback 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.

Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Firstly, I would like to say that book is exceptionally well-written, probably one of the most well-constructed piece of popular science writing I have read in quite a few years. As well, as being well-written it is also a very informative book, providing clear and concise explanations of relevant theories within the domains of psychology, neuroscience, philosophy and ethics. Of particular note, is Greene's account of moral duel process theory and his own modular myopia hypothesis which has the benefit of appearing to be both coherent and feasible.

However, make no mistake, the real purpose of this book is to, from the perspective of a moral psychologist and philosopher provide a 21st century defence of utilitarianism or 'deep pragmatism' as Greene prefers to call it. The goal of the author is to develop a meta-morality which transcends local tribal values.

To achieve this, Greene postulates that any candidate meta-ethical theory must provide a 'common currency' which is universal for people of different tribes with different values. For Greene, utilitarianism meets this condition because it i) maximises happiness and ii) has the property of impartiality.

The problem is that whilst Greene does a fairly good job of justifying the idea that generally happiness should generally be maximised, his defence for the second axiom of 'impartiality' is very poorly discussed and defended: According to Greene, all religions support the 'golden rule' and hence adopts the principle of impartiality. But the question remains - between which groups does this impartiality exist? Greene assumes that impartiality extends to everyone - with no respect to family, race, religion, profession, class and all the other categories which have defined human relations throughout millennia.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book makes a good case for using a nuanced version of utilitarianism as a guiding principle for public discussion of policy that could be considered to have a "moral" dimension. He makes the very frequent error, which goes right back to Plato, of assuming that once you have sorted out the public realm you can then dictate that morality to the individual. In a cold, uncaring, impersonal universe this is, of course, completely untrue and personal conduct can only be guided by what satisfies the individual, and what they can get away with without bringing down the wrath of society upon their heads. His worked example (using the American controversy over abortion law) of how an "objective approach" can be applied is an inadvertent demonstration of how difficult this is. Without necessarily disagreeing with the outcome it is rather remarkable that it is perfectly in line with his self-defined membership of the "liberal" tribe.
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Format: Paperback
Greene starts with a fable - about four different tribes who've found a way to live that suits them internally but who then quarrel as their ways of life come into conflict around new resources and how they should be exploited. Greene goes on to discuss experiments in playing games - how 'tit for tat' works best in prisoner's dilemma type games and how 'punishing' helps in most cultures to bring people into line in 'us against me' games (though there are some cultures such as Greece where some people start off the game by punishing the 'us' players), that in some culture people turn down gifts (too much obligation goes with them) and that we all go in for 'biased fairness' in our interpretation of the world.

Greene then goes on to discuss moral philosophy and some of the objections to utilitarianism based around 'trolley' dilemmas, which occupies several chapters of the book. His view is that different parts of the brain come into conflict in some of the difficult dilemmas, a 'fast' system that looks for immediate harms down a straight line of causation (on a 'me vs us' basis), and a 'slow' or 'manual' system that uses utilitarian reasoning - the only way tribes can come together when their ways of life conflict in Greene's view.

There's much of interest here - and I'd recommend this book to all comers. There's also much I'd like to have seen discussed that is passed by in silence. From the off, the issues about tribes is stylised - in the real world, what makes for a successful society is maybe not so much 'north' against 'south' ideology as having a strong central state so that rules and enforced and individual banditry ruled out, and maybe different ways of life suit different circumstances.
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