Joshua Greene’s “Moral Tribes”: The Minting of a New Morality

Joshua Greene is a professor of psychology at Harvard.  In reality, he’s not proposing an entirely new morality, but an updated version of John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism.  Greene refers to it as “Deep Pragmatism.” He describes his goal in writing Moral Tribes as follows:

This book is an attempt to understand morality from the ground up.  It’s about understanding what morality is, how it got here, and how it’s implemented in our brains.  It’s about understanding the deep structure of moral problems as well as the differences between the problems that our brains were designed to solve and the distinctively modern problems we face today.  Finally, it’s about taking this new understanding of morality and turning it into a universal moral philosophy that members of all human tribes can share.

I won’t go into too much detail about Greene’s version of utilitarianism, or his rationale for proposing it.  Suffice it to say that Greene is familiar with Darwin.  He knows that our moral emotions exist because they promoted our survival and procreation.  In other words, they evolved, as he puts it, as a solution to the Tragedy of the Commons, familiar to students of philosophy.  However, while they solved that problem by promoting cooperation within groups, they did nothing to solve the problem of hostility between groups.  In Greene’s words,

Our moral brains did not evolve for cooperation between groups (at least not all groups).  How do we know this?  Why couldn’t morality have evolved to promote cooperation in a more general way?  Because universal cooperation is inconsistent with the principles governing evolution by natural selection.

In other words, Greene knows about ingroups and outgroups.   He refers to this lack of universal cooperation as the “Tragedy of Commonsense Morality.”  As he puts it,

Morality did not evolve to promote universal cooperation.  On the contrary, it evolved as a device for successful intergroup competition.  In other words, morality evolved to avert the Tragedy of the Commons, but it did not evolve to avert the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality.

In proposing a solution to this problem, Greene introduces us to a metaphor that appears repeatedly throughout the rest of the book.  He compares the human moral machinery to a camera that has both an automatic, point and shoot mode and a manual mode.  It’s basically just a revamped version of the old reason versus untamed emotion dichotomy that has busied philosophers since Plato’s allegory of the chariot.  In general, the automatic mode is fine for dealing with problems within groups.  However, as Greene puts it,

…the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality is a tragedy of moral inflexibility.  There is strife on the new pastures not because herders are hopelessly selfish, immoral, or amoral, but because they cannot step outside their respective moral perspectives.  How should they think?  The answer is now obvious:  They should shift into manual mode.

In other words, we need to stop and think.  However, as he points out, “reasoning has no end of its own.”  I other words, he explicitly agrees with Hume, who wrote that reason is a “slave of the passions,” noting that “reason cannot produce good decisions without some kind of emotional input, however indirect.”  And what is that emotional input to be?  Basically, the desire for “happiness,” that sine qua non of utilitarians everywhere, combined with impartiality, which Greene claims is the “essence of morality.”  Now, of these two, impartiality is the only one that really has anything to do with human moral emotions per se.  Assuming for the sake of argument that happiness, and particularly the esoteric version in which utilitarians take such delight, is something we all want, it can hardly be said that people who are unhappy are also evil, and vice versa.  Focusing on impartiality, Greene writes,

First, the human manual mode is, by nature, a cost-benefit reasoning system that aims for optimal consequences.  Second, the human manual mode is susceptible to the ideal of impartiality.  And, I submit, this susceptibility is not tribe-specific.  Members of any tribe can get the idea behind the Golden Rule.  Put these two things together and we get manual modes that aspire, however imperfectly, to produce consequences that are optimal from an impartial perspective, giving equal weight to all people.

Here I can but wonder what species Greene is talking about.  It certainly isn’t ours.  I could cite dozens of passages in his own book that demonstrate that he himself has anything but an “impartial perspective.”  In any case, the result of brewing together happiness and impartiality to create what Greene refers to as a new “metamorality” is predictable.  It stands human morality completely on its head.  Divorced completely from the reasons it evolved to begin with, this new utilitarian morality, which Greene likes to refer to as “Deep Pragmatism,” insists that we reject the “inflexible, automatic mode, moral gizmos” that belong to the normal human complement of moral emotions whenever they don’t promote “happiness.”  We are not referring to our own happiness here.  Rather, we are to become servants of the happiness of all mankind.  As Greene puts it,

Utilitarianism is a very egalitarian philosophy, asking the haves to do a lot for the have-nots.  Were you to wake up tomorrow as a born-again utilitarian, the biggest change in your life would be your newfound devotion to helping unfortunate others.

We can excuse Mill for promoting such a philosophy.  He wrote before his philosophy could be informed by work of Darwin.  As a result, even though he was aware of contemporary theories claiming an innate basis to moral behavior, he rejected them.  In other words, he was a Blank Slater, though certainly not in the same sense as the ideologically motivated Blank Slaters who came after him, or the religiously motivated Blank Slaters, like Locke, who came before him.  As a result, he believed that the human mind could adopt virtually any morality, and concluded that the best one would be that which was also most useful.  Clearly, he realized that, if morality were innate, it would have profound implications for his theories.  As I have written elsewhere, I think it highly probable that, if he had lived in our times, he would have put two and two together and rejected utilitarianism.

Not so Greene.   As he puts it,

We can, for example, donate money to faraway strangers without expecting anything in return.  From a biological point of view, this is just a backfiring glitch, much like the invention of birth control.  But from our point of view as moral beings who can kick away the evolutionary ladder, it may be exactly what we want.  Morality is more than what it evolved to be.

Kick away the evolutionary ladder?  Turn morality on its head?  Such notions are delusional unless you believe in some kind of objective “moral truth.”  Greene claims that he’s “agnostic” when it comes to the idea of moral truth, and it doesn’t really matter as far as utilitarianism is concerned, but that’s nonsense.  There has to be some reason for rejecting normal human “automatic mode” moral emotions in favor of some “meta-morality” that serves purposes that are diametrically opposed to the reasons that moral emotions evolved to begin with, and I can think of no other reason than an irrational faith in some kind of objective moral truth.  And in spite of his disclaimers, one can cite dozens of passages in his book that demonstrate that he does embrace what Mill referred to as “transcendental morality.”  For example,

(referring to someone in a fine Italian suit that will be ruined if he wades into a pond to save a drowning child) Is it morally acceptable to let this child drown in order to save your suit?  Clearly not, we say.  That would be morally monstrous.

Utilitarianism says that we should do whatever really works best, in the long run, and not just for the moment.  (Implies that there is a universal standard of what is “best.”)

Happiness is the ur-value, the Higgs boson of normativity, the value that gives other values their value.

We’ll dispense with the not especially moral goal of spreading genes and focus instead on the more proximate goal of cooperation.

In other words, dangling before Greene’s imagination is a Morality that has nothing to do with the reasons that led to the evolution of moral behavior to begin with.  I have different goals.  I don’t hide them behind a smokescreen of “meta-morality.”  They are, first, to promote the survival of my own genes, second, to promote the survival of my species, and third, to promote the survival of terrestrial life.  I do not consider my conscious mind anything but a transitory, evolved aspect of my phenotype, but to that mind there is something sublime and majestic in being the link in a chain of life that has existed for billions of years.  The idea that I will be the last link in that chain is repugnant to me.  Serving as a “happiness pump” for a huge colony of happy ants that has no perceptible reason for existing except to “flourish” and be “happy” is completely repugnant to me.

Greene, of course, is of a different opinion.  I agree that it may be possible to sort out such differences in “manual mode,” but one that is based as much as possible on reason and that takes as little account of morality as possible.  As far as I’m concerned, nothing could be more selfish than attempting to tart up my own whims as a “meta-morality.”  The result of such attempts in the past should serve as a sufficient deterrent from trying it again, even with a philosophy as transparently impractical to implement as utilitarianism.  Greene is well aware of these potential drawbacks.  He writes,

History offers no shortage of grand utopian visions gone bad, including the rise and (nearly complete) fall of communism during the twentieth century.  Communists such as Stalin and Mao justified thousands of murders, millions more deaths from starvation, and repressive totalitarian governments in the name of the “greater good.”  Shouldn’t we be very wary of people with big plans who say that it’s all for the greater good?  Yes, we should.  Especially when those big plans call for big sacrifices.  And especially, especially when the people making the sacrifices (or being sacrificed!) are not the ones making the big plans.  But this wariness is perfectly pragmatic, utilitarian wariness.  What we’re talking about here is avoiding bad consequences.  Aiming for the greater good does not mean blindly following any charismatic leader who says that it’s all for the greater good.  That’s a recipe for disaster.

So Greene thinks that the whole Communist debacle, with its gestation period of well over a century, during which time its development was carried forward by a host of convinced theorists, many of whom were neither charismatic themselves nor particularly attracted to charismatic leaders, could have easily been avoided if its adepts had just been “pragmatic,” and had been more circumspect in their choice of leaders?  Sorry, but I think a better way to avoid such catastrophes in the future would be to stop cobbling together new “meta-moralities” altogether.

We cannot dispense with morality, at least at the level of individual interactions.  We’re not smart enough to do without it.  That said, we can at least attempt to understand its evolutionary roots and the reasons for its existence, and, in the realization that the traits we associate with moral behavior evolved at times utterly unlike the present, do our best to keep our moral emotions from blowing up in our faces.  Greene’s utilitarianism will never be a miraculous solution to the “Tragedy of Commonsense Morality.”  There will always be ingroups and outgroups, and they will always be hostile to each other, manual mode or no manual mode.  What could possibly be more manifest than the furious hostility of Greene’s own liberal tribe to their conservation outgroup?  If we are to survive, we must learn to manage this hostility, and creating yet another new moral system seems to me an extremely unpromising approach to the problem.



Atheism and the Virtue of Deceit; Musings on the Purpose and Meaning of Life

According to fellow atheist Bart Ehrman, whose books are an excellent tonic for the true believers, there are many clergymen who are no longer believers themselves.  I suppose they have many ways of rationalizing their behavior to themselves, one of which is the belief that by deceiving their flocks they are actually doing “good.”  Journalist David V. Johnson recently defended this point of view in an article he wrote for 3 Quarks Daily entitled, “A Refutation of the Undergraduate Atheists.”  “Undergraduate Atheists” is one of the many pejorative terms used by philosophers with delusions of grandeur in referring to the infidel triumvirate of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris.  An atheist himself, Johnson, takes issue with what he calls the “Undergraduate Atheist Thesis,” or UAT, which he states simply as the belief that, “Humanity would be better off without religious belief.”

Johnson begins by giving a highly distilled version of “San Manuel Bueno, Martir (Saint Manuel the Good, Martyr),” a novella by Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno.  The action takes place in the village of Valverde de Lucerna, where the spiritual needs of the people are ministered to by Don Manuel, a saintly Catholic priest.  He has a run in with Lazaro, a local who has returned from a sojourn in America as a confirmed atheist.  The two spar for a while, until the scales finally fall from Lazaro’s eyes, and he concludes that Don Manuel is right when he advises, “Leave them alone, as long as it consoles them.  It is better for them to believe it all, even contradictory things, than not to believe in anything.”  But wait, there’s a twist.  It turns out that, like Lazaro, Don Manuel is also an atheist.  However, convinced that they must preserve the “happiness” of the villagers, they continue ministering to their spiritual needs, never revealing the truth about their own unbelief, until both die in the odor of sanctity.

The story is a lot more complex than the dumbed down version given by Johnson.  For example, Don Manuel is himself very unhappy, tormented by what seems to him the meaninglessness of life and the knowledge that he will die with no hope of the hereafter.  He is not so blithely convinced of the rightness of what he is doing as Johnson suggests, and agonizes over whether he is really serving the villagers best interests by deceiving them.  He has half convinced himself that Christ himself was also an atheist, etc.  It’s actually a very interesting read, and there’s an English version at the above link.

Be that as it may, Johnson embraces his simplified version as an antidote to UAT.  As he puts it,

…demonstrating the truth of UAT would require an enormous calculation of the two competing scenarios. It demands that we add up all the good and bad consequent on human beings being religious, from the beginning to the end of human history, and all the good and bad consequent on human beings not being religious. We are then supposed to compare the two totals and see which version of human history winds up better.

According to Johnson, such a calculation is hopelessly complicated, and we therefore “have reason to suspend judgment about UAT.”  In fact, what is hopeless is the notion that we shouldn’t make judgments until we know every fact that might have some bearing on the case.  Fortunately, Mother Nature knew better, and gave us the capacity to decide based on limited data as befits creatures with limited intelligence.  We would never make any decisions if we always waited until we were certain about their outcome.

I might add that this familiar wrangling over whether religion is “good” or “bad” is really neither here nor there as far as the question of whether God actually exists is concerned.  After all, what does it matter if the argument is decided one way or the other if there actually is a God?  Is anyone really going to risk frying in hell for quadrillions and quintillions of years, just for starters, by defying God and explaining to Him that he is “immoral” because, on balance, belief in Him hasn’t made mankind’s lot “better?”  If there is no God to begin with, then one isn’t likely to suddenly pop into existence merely because we have determined that things would be “better” that way.  In other words, the bearing of this whole argument on whether there actually is a God or not is nil.

Of course, all this is irrelevant to Johnson.  After all, he’s an atheist himself.  His “Anti-Undergraduate Atheist Thesis” is not that Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris are wrong about the non-existence of God.  Rather, it is that a self-appointed elite of atheists should bamboozle the rest of us into believing in God in spite of that “for our own good.”  Plunging ahead with his indictment of these “New Atheists” he writes,

Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and their followers have something remarkably in common with religionists: they claim to know something (UAT) that cannot, in fact, be known and must be accepted on faith. The truth is that we cannot know what humanity would be like without religious belief, because humanity in that scenario would be so much unlike us that it would be impossible to determine what it would be like in that alternate universe. Their inability to acknowledge the immense calculation that would be required is unscientific. Their conclusion is as intolerant and inimical to the liberal tradition as the ranting of any superstitious windbag.

Of course, based on his own logic, those who embrace Johnson’s Anti-UAT are also “claiming to know something that cannot be known,” and must hang their heads and join the ranks of the “ranting, superstitious windbags.”  However, he spares that faction such harsh judgment, apparently because he happens to belong to it himself.  As he puts it,

I suspect the scales might tip the other way.  Why? For the same reasons as San Manuel Bueno’s. The psychological consequences of religious faith — the deep satisfaction, reduction of existential anxiety and feeling of security and meaning it provides — would represent an enormous and underappreciated part of the calculation. Imagine the billions of believers that have lived, live now, or will live, and consider what life is like for them from the inside. Consider the tremendous boon in happiness for all of them in knowing, in the way a believer knows, that their lives and the universe are imbued with meaning, that there is a cosmic destiny in which they play a part, that they do not suffer in vain, that their death is not final but merely a transition to a better existence.

This the triumphant vindication of life in The Matrix.  Far be it from me to attempt any judgment of which of these two competing atheist world views is “better,” or whether either of them is even “good.”  As my readers know, I don’t admit the possibility of making an objective judgment one way or the other.  However, I certainly do have some thoughts concerning my own subjective opinion of what’s “good” for me.  I might add in passing that the Spanish “villagers” did as well, because they expressed their fury at those who were “enlightening” them by destroying churches in Barcelona and other parts of Spain at the start of the Spanish Civil War.  I don’t care to have anyone feeding me a pack of lies based on their conclusion that it’s for my own good.  I’ve found that most of us, regardless of how ignorant we might appear to those who imagine themselves our intellectual betters, are very astute at deciding for ourselves what’s “for our own good,” and certainly better at it than any self-appointed intellectual elite.  Furthermore, it seems to me that, regardless of what ends we happen to have in mind, we are a great deal more likely to achieve them if the actions we take in pursuing them are based on the truth rather than on pleasant lies.  Indeed, the very ends we seek will vary strongly depending on whether we choose them based on facts or illusions.  That will be the case regardless of how good we are as a species at ascertaining the truth, and regardless of whether we can ever have a certain knowledge of the truth or not.  Certainly, the truth is illusive, but we are more likely to approach it by actually seeking it than by promoting illusions that are supposed by the self-anointed guardians of our spiritual well-being to be “for our own good.”

As for the notion that our fundamental goal in life should be the pursuit of some kind of illusory and drugged happiness, I consider it absurd.  Why is it that we are capable of being happy to begin with?  Like almost everything else of any real significance about us, we can be happy because, and only because, that capacity happened to increase the probability that we would survive and reproduce.  It follows that, to the extent that we can even speak of an “objective” end, happiness is purely secondary.

What, then, of the purpose and meaning of life?  I can only speak for myself, but as an atheist I find a purpose and meaning and grandeur in life that seems to me incomparably preferable to the tinsel paradises of the true believers.  All it takes to come to that conclusion is to stop taking life for granted.  Look at yourself in the mirror!  It’s incredibly, wonderfully improbable that a creature like you, with hands, and eyes, and a heart, and a brain, not to mention all this “stuff” around us are even here.  As a “purpose” and a “meaning of life” it may only be my subjective whim, but I have a passionate desire that this little flicker of life in the middle of a vast universe, a flicker that may very well be unique, will continue.  For it to continue, it is not necessary for me to be happy.  It is necessary for me to survive and reproduce.  Beyond that it is necessary for me to seek to insure the survival of my species, and beyond that to seek to insure the survival of life itself.  Are these things objectively necessary?  In short, no.  In the end, they are just personal whims, but I’m still passionate about them for all that.  Why?  Perhaps because virtually everything about me exists because it happened to promote those goals.  If I failed to pursue those goals, I would be a sick and dysfunctional biological entity, and it displeases me to think of myself in those terms.  Hence, my, admittedly subjective and personal, purpose in life.

But why should “I” have a purpose in life?  Don’t “I” blink into existence, and then back out of it in a moment?  What could possibly be the point if I’m only going to be here for a moment, and then cease to exist forever?  I think that question is motivated by a fundamental confusion over who “I” am.  After all, what is really essential about “me”?  It can’t be my conscious mind.  I am quite confident that it really has just popped into existence for a moment, and will soon die forever.  It follows that my consciousness can only be ancillary and secondary to what is really essential about “me”.  It would be absurd, and quite unparsimonious of Nature, if everything about me were to suffer the same fate.

So the question becomes, what is it about me that won’t necessarily suffer that fate?  It is, of course, my genes.  In three and a half billion years, they, and the precursors that gave rise to them, have never died.  That have all been links in an unbroken chain of life stretching back over an almost inconceivably long time, and that can potentially stretch on an inconceivably long time into the future.  “I” am the link in the chain that exists in the here and now, and that will determine whether the chain will continue, or be snuffed out.  I know what my choice is.  It is a choice that, as far as I am concerned, gives an abiding meaning and purpose to my life.  It is also, of course, a “selfish” choice, and I have nothing to say about what others “should” do, because there is no objective answer to that question.  You must decide for yourself.

UPDATE:  Jerry Coyne’s reaction to Johnson’s article may be found here.