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4.0 out of 5 stars
Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and the Gap Between Us and Them
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on 29 June 2015
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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on 18 January 2018
Good purchase
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on 22 March 2015
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.

But did all the major religions have this in mind when establishing the Golden Rule? Is Jew equal to Gentile? Christian equal to the Barbarian and the Muslim equal to the Kuffir? Furthermore, Greene quotes Peter Singer on plenty of occasions through the book, but does the principle of impartiality extend to non-human animals? If it not, why not? If it does, does Greene expect that the typical human, even in principle, will want to value the life of a stranger, or even the life on animal above the life of himself or his own family?

Evidently, Greene has not answered the problems associated with the concept of impartiality. As a result, he cannot demonstrate that utilitarianism provides the long-sought after 'common currency' which would be necessary for its role as a meta-ethical theory which transcends tribal boundaries. With these shaky foundations, the rest of the theory inevitably fails to persuade

In this sense, Greene's book fails in what it attempts to achieve
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on 21 November 2013
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 Amazon.com website with the title: An Interesting Work of Synthesis that Falls a Bit Short.
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on 6 May 2015
I bought this book as it was in a one day Kindle sale and I am very glad I did. The title is pretty clear in spelling out what the book is about. The basic thesis of the book is that if we all followed pure evolutionary behaviour we would die out, so mankind has evolved ways of establishing how to define right and wrong and to resolve disagreements, thereby enabling us to cooperate together. Dr Greene points out two problems with this. The first is that (similar to the kinds of thinking explained by Daniel Hahnemann and others), some of this is creates a kind of moral autopilot where our instinctive wiring can lead us to intuitive but faulty decisions. Secondly, Greene argues that while the systems we have evolved are better for resolving disagreement within the tribes we are born into, they are less useful for resolving disagreements with a tribe who have completely different moral bases for their code of living. So for example a group who cite the Bible as their authority for judging right and wrong will struggle to reach agreement with a group who only accept the Quran as authoritative. The strength of this book in my view lies in the excellent, clear and unpatronising explanations of difficult moral issues. As a child of the UK public health service, I found the discussion of the so called "Obamacare" issue very interesting, and could almost even understand how a US conservative could believe that it was morally acceptable to leave people to their own devices (but only almost!). Prof Greene is to be applauded for his clarity. My disappointment? I read it on Kindle and was surprised that when at about 55% complete I discovered I had actually reached the end, and that the rest was footnotes and references. More seriously, I felt that the book had laid out the problem masterfully, but only offered some sketchy outline approaches to inter tribe solutions. Nonetheless a great read, and I'd love to read an expanded edition with more discussion of possible solutions.
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on 21 February 2014
As a moral psychologist I study the kind of things discussed in this book, but it is rare to find them presented with such lucidity. This book is not just a learning experience, but a thoroughly enjoyable journey through our minds. Highly recommend.
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on 22 August 2017
Great read
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on 8 April 2015
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. Then again, on the moral front, a 'rule utilitarian' view of the world would accept that and could be combined with what Greene calls an Aristotelian 'virtue' based account of ethics. After all the objection to utilitarianism Greene discussed at length - that it might require us all to become 'happiness pumps' - is strangely other-worldly. The real practical issue is whether it requires us to use 'manual' mode all the time - rule utilitarianism says 'no', 'develop the customs round your way and stick to them other than when you come to consider the rules themselves from time to time'. And then on the 'fast' and 'slow' thinking, it isn't really quite like the Daniel Kahneman cases - because Greene says our 'manual' thinking is always involved and always telling us that five lives outweigh one…whereas in the Kahneman cases the question is very much whether we can 'wake up' our manual mode or keep it engaged (when e.g. we are starved of food) and get the right rather than the wrong answer to questions that are harder than they may seem….

Still, an interesting book, albeit the philosophical sections are a bit less gripping that then findings from psychology, and the whole is a little divorced from reality
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on 25 April 2015
Enlightening reading, I'm enjoying the analysis and reasoning of how people function and explanations of why and how we make the choices we do in life. Very informative for anybody interested in the psychology and functioning of the populations of the world, particularly in light of the current unrest, rebellion and conflict in certain areas.
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on 3 November 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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