Moral Tribes

Joshua Greene

Emotion, Reason and the Gap Between Us and Them

Published by Atlantic Books 2 January 2014, UK

Penguin Press 31 October 2014, US

432pp, hardback, £14.52

Reviewed by N.J. Cooper

Anyone who writes serious crime fiction must have a fundamental interest in right and wrong and the means by which individuals judge their own and other people’s actions. I was therefore intrigued to read Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes, which he has subtitled Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them.

Greene is a Harvard philosopher, neurologist and psychologist, and he uses all these disciplines in his exploration of the ways in which human beings balance the needs of me v. us and us v. them. Demonstrating the ways in which different parts of our brains are engaged in the various processes that lead to every judgement we make, he arrives at the conclusion that ‘deep pragmatism’ (his version of utilitarianism) is the ultimate good. Using theories and practical experiments, he shows that we can switch our brains from their instinctive reactions of revulsion or attraction (all of which have served evolutionary purposes) to what he calls ‘manual mode’ in order to achieve ‘a realistic consideration of the consequences’ of any action we take, which, for me, is a wholly admirable and wholly appealing ideal.

Occasionally Green lapses into a kind of folksiness that grates – ‘What’s the one hundredth prime number? You don’t know, but, gosh darn it, you could work it out if you wanted to’ – but some of his jargon is even worse: ‘Happiness is the ur-value, the Higgs boson of normativity, the value that gives other values their value.’ ‘Normativity’? But it’s all easy to forgive in any writer who includes in his funny, illuminating and thought-provoking book the magnificent open letter from J. Kent Ashcraft to Dr Laura Schlessinger, which is quoted in full on pp.180-81.

Moral Tribes should be required reading for anyone who has – or believes s/he should have – authority over anyone else, and certainly for everyone involved in the development of any strategy, policy or law that will have an impact on other human beings.


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