A pathbreaking neuroscientist reveals how our social instincts turn Me into Us, but turn Us against Them — and what we can do about it
The great dilemma of our shrinking world is simple: never before have those we disagree with been so present in our lives. The more globalization dissolves national borders, the more clearly we see that human beings are deeply divided on moral lines - about everything from tax codes to sexual practices to energy consumption - and that, when we really disagree, our emotions turn positively tribal.
The acclaimed director of Harvard’s Moral Cognition Laboratory, Professor Joshua Greene is a rising star in the exciting new field of ‘moral neuroscience,’ very much in the footsteps of Daniel Kahneman, Steven Pinker, and Jonathan Haidt. Greene’s pioneering research reveals that “morality” evolved from the human need to navigate between two different competing brains, the calculating rational brain and the more tribal, emotional one. Greene’s great scientific breakthrough is that the brain’s disagreements with itself are the root cause of fierce moral divisions across cultures today - and in Moral Tribes he offers an answer for healing our divided minds and bridging a divided world.
Despite our evident differences, Moral Tribes reveals, all humans express themselves in similar ways. We feel anger at injustice and shame at censure; we seek good living and fear losing what we have; we assert ourselves defending our communities and would be ashamed to do otherwise. This is because these emotions - what we call morality - are cooked into human beings at the neurological level, an evolutionary development that enables generally selfish individuals to value others and reap the benefits of cooperating together. Emotions are shortcuts the brain uses to ensure an individual doesn’t lose out on any potential profit in cooperating.
But the neurological tools humans use to turn “I” into “Us” yields a secondary outcome, turning “Us” against “Them.” Our emotions quickly and effectively handle situations with friends or colleagues or neighbors within our own ‘tribe.’ But we’re neurologically handicapped when dealing with groups outside our own, in finding common ground with the tribe just over the horizon. It’s not that we can’t compromise with someone we don’t agree with - it’s that it takes a lot of mental effort, and it goes against many of our instincts, pitting our emotional and our rational brain against each other. Greene’s challenge in Moral Tribes lies in answering the question, “how can we rationally compromise with our rivals when it feels so emotionally wrong?”
Like Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, Greene demonstrates how the rational brain and the emotional brain compete for attention when we make decisions. But Greene takes this concept crucially forward, demonstrating that our modern moral tribes are truly divided not by reason but by emotion: the emotions that evolved to promote cooperation between our ancestors are the same that stop us from critically evaluating such modern problems as health care, climate change, and taxation. In today’s shifting world, Moral Tribes demonstrates that the only recourse we have is to overcome our emotional brain and rely on our rational moral calculus, on uncomfortable decisions that nonetheless positively shape the real world.
A grand synthesis of cutting-edge neuroscience and moral psychology, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them is at its heart a guide for confused individuals in these troubled times. By showing us how the emotional brain disrupts the rational brain from controlling decision-making, Greene charts a new path forward for critical moral deliberation. What emerges is a surprisingly simple set of maxims that individuals can deploy in untangling their daily moral crises, a pragmatic roadmap for solving problems and living a better life. A major achievement from a rising star in a new scientific field, Moral