Transcending our moral tribes


Our capacity as a society and individuals to deal with novel, complex problems can be hampered by our tribal groupishness. That’s a key claim made by some psychologists who argue that our brains were designed for a tribal way of life. They argue that our capacity for moral reasoning developed to enable within-group cooperation (dealing with Me versus Us problems, i.e. conflicts between individual interests and group interests), and, secondly, to aid group survival (i.e. enabling Us to compete with Them). However, tribalism can result in less flexible thinking – due to routinised, highly tribal reactions to a social issue or situation – and can also contribute to entrenched conflict/disputes.

Lately I’ve been pondering the prominence of tribalism in environmentalism, environmental politics and broader issues related to sustainability. For example, there are various energy transition tribes ranging from the energy descent tribe (e.g. see the transition town movement) to the ecomodernist tribe, each of which claims that the evidence is on their side. What gets presented as objective analysis is often a rationalisation of the intuitive beliefs/convictions of tribe members.

Like some moral psychologists, I’ve come to see that what’s often needed are ways of transcending tribal moralities (as seen, for example, in analysis of energy transitions) and, potentially, also a “metamorality” (higher-level moral thinking and rules) to help adjudicate between competing claims.

If this topic interests you then I recommend Joshua Green’s book Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and The Gap Between Us and Then. Green is a psychologist and neuroscientist at Harvard University – he runs the “moral cognition” lab which explores moral judgement and decision-making.

What makes Moral Tribes such a unique book is Green attempts to synthesise neuroscience, psychology and moral philosophy. The latter part of the book develops a new perspective on utilitarianism termed “deep pragmatism”. I briefly summarise a few of the core ideas below.

A central metaphor used by Green is the idea that moral cognition is like a dual-mode camera. That is, such cognition can be automatic (like the automated processes on modern cameras that enable a good photo) and it can be manual (like a photographer who tweaks camera settings to enhance their photos).

The automatic settings “are heuristics – efficient algorithms that get the “right” answers most of the time, but not always” (p.328). These automatic settings include our emotional moral intuitions and related “gut” reactions which are the product of evolution (e.g. our social impulses), as well as other intuitive convictions which are specific to particular groups (i.e. members of a tribe learn to see the world through a moral lens). These automatic settings can result in inflexibility.

In contrast, manual-mode thinking involves shifting to a controlled form of cognition in which metacognitive skills are used to go beyond automatic or automated thought processes.

Green defines this perspective on human psychology as the “dual-process moral brain”. Green argues that people can transcend tribal reactions when engaging their manual mode. To do so effectively to solve problems he also argues for the identification of common moral currency (another metaphor) so that the trade-offs between competing moralities can be analysed.

A second key idea I’ll briefly summarise is deep pragmatism.

Moral Tribes contains one the clearest overviews and defenses I’ve seen of utilitarianism as a moral philosophy.  Green argues that “properly understood, and wisely applied, utilitarianism is deep pragmatism” (p.292). Deep pragmatism is commitment to “do whatever works best” (understood in terms of the ultimate goal of impartially maximising happiness) even if what works goes against tribal instincts. What “works” is an empirical question focussed on consequences.

The latter part of the definition – doing what works even if it goes against tribal instincts – is crucial given the automatic settings which influence moral cognition. As Green sees it, utilitarianism, in practice, often requires us to consciously switch to manual-mode thinking in order “to transcend the limitations of our automatic settings” (p.329, emphasis in original).

A third key idea in Moral Tribes is the claim that modern moral problems are problems of inter-tribal disagreement: i.e. moral tribes who cannot agree on what is right and wrong.

A few related ideas are discussed, including: (i) the need to better recognise our tribalistic nature, ii) the need to recognise that tribal biases and related biases frequently occur unconsciously (e.g. biased sense of fairness), and (iii) the claim that we can define common moral standards/values (as per the utilitarian emphasis on the quality of experience) and use manual mode reasoning to assess alternatives according to shared standards.

More controversially, Green argues that “our gut reactions were not designed to form a coherent moral philosophy. Thus, any truly coherent philosophy is bound to offend us… we’ve mistakenly assumed that our gut reactions are reliable guides to moral truth” (p.349). Thus, Green is arguing for more humility and a self-critical view that questions our moral intuitions. This is a tough path – certainly far tougher than accepting the morality of a given tribe we are a member of and/or our intuitive convictions – but it is likely to be essential for addressing many contemporary environmental problems. 

The experimental evidence and other research findings presented in Moral Tribes makes a strong case regarding the need for such an approach.

However, whether progress in moral philosophy and moral reasoning can produce the common moral currency and higher-order metamorality that Green seeks to overcome inter-tribal disagreements is another question. This seems both worth striving for and, potentially, too utopian. Green’s analysis and goals may be an example of what Jonathan Haidt terms the “rationalist delusion in moral psychology” (link, link).

Deep pragmatism – as defined by Green – is an important and useful philosophy. However, care is needed given what the word ‘pragmatic’ often brings to mind, and how the term is often used, which often (at the very least) implies a practical approach that avoids moral judgement.

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