On Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes

In summary: I think that he does a more convincing job than Jonathan Haidt in postulating how morality likely developed. I came into this book thinking that the problem with utilitarianism is that people don’t think on big enough scales. I am now thoroughly convinced it is a tool that can be used to figure out what’s best or a tool to aid in motivated reasoning and the user is unlikely to know which they are doing. Dr. Greene seems to wield it to add a veneer of reason to his sanctimony.

My favorite insights in the moral tribes book:

1. He shows that you’re being nonaggressive in many instances that are taken for granted, such as when you choose not to murder a stranger in situations where you’re both vulnerable.

2. He shows that morality binds us, but that it only would evolve if there’s a competition, which means that it has to evolve to do better than the neighbors, which means that it has to be binding us against them. However, I do wonder if there’s some way where it can be us against existential threats (pandemic, global warming, astroids, nuclear bombs, etc.) For instance, lions don’t just evolve to outcompete other lions, they must also be fast enough to catch some prey.

3. I like his rule against appealing to rights. I happened to read this only one day after listening to Congresswoman Jayapal give an hour long interview on medicare-for-all in which 95% of her justification was that she thinks health care is a right and she thinks that a majority of Americans think that it is a right. She gave an extremely weak and short case for those of us that don’t think so.

4. I like his point about how thin racism should logically be and demonstrably is. Haidt talks a bit about this, and I think Haidt makes better prescriptions about it (as in, wear uniforms and don’t dwell on it). Definitely checks out with my experience with the Navy. I doubt I ever met a racist on a submarine.

What I find wrong about the moral tribes book:

  1. His stated thesis isn’t new. 1a. He argues for utilitarianism when interacting in commons between people that don’t share morality, exclusively applies it to the societal, common morality level.
  2. If the physical act of doing violence is key to the decisions we make, is thinking about the physical act of doing violence in a lab truly proving anything?
  3. He claims that slavery is wrong due to utilitarianism, but refuses to ever reconsider. One of the flaws or virtues of utilitarianism (depending on how you see it) is that utilities of situations can change.
  4. Abortion as a case study. A harp on this for a long time because it is the only example of his reasoning in action and it strikes me as extremely flawed. It shows how bad using utilitarianism can be in practice.
  5. “Why I’m a liberal…” Similarly flawed reasoning showing how utilitarianism can be used for motivated reasoning as easily as it can be for finding what’s best.

1. He shows how a meta morality is needed for interacting in common pastures. He doesn’t seem to take this seriously enough. First of all, this has happened historically, and generally, utilitarianism, or something like it, has been the guide. Rules about how to engage in war, use of territorial waters, and trade negotiations, for instance. We have, as a species, had to do this stuff before, and we’ve historically found a way. Pollution, including greenhouse gases, is tricky, but is it substantially different from overfishing? The problem with green house gases compared to overfishing could be as simple as the fact that overfishing takes place, largely in exclusive economic zones whereas greenhouse gases happen in the truest of commons.

1a. if we take this seriously, then we shouldn’t enforce morality on anyone outside of our own tribe. Maybe we all agree no slave trading on the ocean or something, but I don’t see how, using his book, it is right to prohibit slavery in Africa, or to say that Nigerian women and Afghan women get to go to school.

I don’t believe this. I believe that slavery is inherently wrong. I believe in a right to life, liberty, and property, at a minimum. But his book seems to demonstrate the utility of utilitarianism for solving disputes between tribes with different moralities and then conflates it with choosing morality within a tribe. However, I can’t remember specific examples that demonstrate this complaint, so I may be wrong. But, for instance, I can’t think of any reason that he has articulated that Mississippi can’t have abortion prohibitions and Massachusetts can allow abortions. The two don’t affect each other at all. If anything, there’s a case to be made that you need to defer to the more restrictive preference, if it is easy to go between the two states. If you don’t like this argument for ideological, rather than philosophical reasons, then you can probably substitute gun access for abortion access and see my point. If Indiana likes gun rights and Illinois doesn’t, but people can smuggle guns from Gary to Chicago, then that is a good reason to restrict Indiana’s gun rights (whether or not it is good enough to do so).

2. I like his use of trolly problems for parsing out exactly what is going on in our brains, but I have a problem with lab versus reality in this case. His point that one component of our restraint is based on doing violence with force is probably true, but is taking a bunch of experiments asking people to imagine stuff and then inferring from percentage differences really that conclusive? (This is a genuine question. I haven’t read his studies, only his book. Maybe there’re reasons to think that it is.)

I think that a great opportunity for learning more about this in reality could be to figure out how Americans became so good at doing violence. A century ago, almost no one deliberately shot enemies in battle. Now, by the time you get trained soldiers or marines to the battlefield, you can take it for granted that they will try to kill people they are told to shoot. Could one look at their brains and and see what changed since they started training?

3. I appreciate his reasoning through why slavery is almost certainly prohibited under any reasonable scenario by utilitarianism. I agree with that. But to then say, I won’t consider anything else is pretty scary to me. I think that it’d be perfectly reasonable to say, “I’m done thinking through the slavery stuff. It’s likely not worthy of my time to continue to justify its prohibition. There is nothing on the horizon that could change things enough to reevaluate.” But that doesn’t seem to be at all what he is saying. Couple this with his “why I’m a liberal” chapter (more complaints on that later) and he seems like someone that is not open to new evidence and new arguments. This is not good for a utilitarian, since the utility of things changes depending on circumstances. I genuinely can imagine future cases where the old testament versions of indentured servitude is not all that objectionable. And in all the ways I do object to my imagined future slavery, I also object to Android OS and to Facebook right now and if you’re an American liberal, you probably have the same objections to Chinese factory labor conditions right now.

4. The case against abortion. I dwell on this one because it’s the only time he shows his system in action and it disappointed me. 

He does, in my opinion, do a decent job of showing some common weak arguments for why abortion should be prohibited or allowed. Then he walks through, what I think he thinks is, a reasoned utilitarian argument for each side but with enormous errors that illuminate his biases.

a. He proves that if you count everyone, including the not-yet-conceived, that abortion is bad

b. He states that this proves too much, that we’d then have to become conception machines.

c. Therefore, the pro-life argument is bad in the same way the Singer, give-every-last-extra-penny-away argument is bad.


His earlier retort to Singer’s question wasn’t that you don’t give any money away, it was that you don’t have to give it all away. If we go off his analogy, this would mean don’t become a conception machine, but at most margins, pro-er life would be better than not, just like at most margins, being more charitable would be better than not.

This only demonstrates the flaw in the extreme case of counting the utility of all potential souls. (And while we’re on the topic, I highly recommend taking that idea seriously for a moment. Steven Landsburg does that in one of his books and gave a lecture on it that you can see here. It still does nothing to answer the question of who should count at all. There must be a cutoff for when humans count as people and when they don’t. When do you count? Is it before conception? At conception? When you are sentient? Can feel pain? Viability? Birth? 18 months after birth? There are arguments, some good, some (in my opinion,) bad, for each of these. If we’re trying to make a policy for maximum utility, then perhaps prohibiting abortion after a certain point would be a good start. He never does this. He only demonstrates that if you count all the way to unconceived souls that it yields a nonsensical result so prochoice all the way!

And I can’t emphasize enough, the dominant pro-life argument is that life begins at conception. There are reasons catholics and, presumably, other religions don’t like masterbation and contraception, but they have nothing to do with killing. The catholic position on abortion, for instance, has always been that there is some point where a new human life is created, after which, ending that life is murder. And while that point has been pushed up to conception as science has filled in our understanding, it was always considered wrong to abort the pre-person, post conception thing. His nitpicking around at what point during conception does life begin strongly suggests that he’s never had this conversation with anyone that is pro-life, nor anyone that has thoughtfully considered when the cutoff might logically be. Because if one was to say preconception is okay but post conception is not and then he says, “while, conception isn’t instantaneous, but actually a multistep process that takes place over a fraction of a second,” any reasonable person would then ask, “is there a way to end the pregnancy during that process? No? Then what’s the difference?”

He then says, with no rational, that he then thinks where we’re at is good. What does “where we’re at” even mean? In his state, that means only if medically necessary when under 24 weeks, and after 24 weeks, not unless the life of the mother is threatened or substantial risk of grave impairment to her health. Does he really support no abortion ever unless at least “medically necessary?” 

Which reminds me, his bringing up the life of the mother concession is another thing that no prominent pro-lifers believe. The pro-life position is that it is okay to treat the mother in a way that will kill the baby, but you need to try to wait till after birth if possible or do whatever you can to try to save the baby as well. And how is this not a reasonable position? If you’re in a spot where not killing the baby will kill the mother, it’s a life either way. Unborn babies are way more vulnerable than adult mothers. Not only would I sacrifice a 30% chance of a healthy baby for a 90% chance at a healthy mother. I might even sacrifice the baby if the odds were reversed. Babies are vulnerable. Call me old fashioned, but I’d sacrifice almost any random non-fertile human for a random fertile woman.

And that 24 weeks is a much different spot than states that say anytime. After 35 weeks, the only thing the baby is doing in utero is gaining weight. Nearly zero even need help breathing. At 35 weeks, you could get a c-section and cart the baby off to an adoptive family. Or you could wait till 39 weeks, kill the baby in utero, then push it out. Point is, there are many ways to draw the line than just saying, obviously the extreme pro-life position is nonsense, so anything goes.

He also takes for granted a lot in his prochoice side that doesn’t have to be. It is really easy to not get pregnant ever. In New York State, there are more abortions than births. I get that when millions of people are having sex and doing their best to not get pregnant, it’s still going to happen here and there, but more times than people getting pregnant and giving birth? No way. And he’s ignoring the fact that a lot of these harms from unwanted pregnancy are psychological, and therefore, largely cultural. If you live in a culture where sex outside of marriage is bad, forgiveness is good, life is good, adoption is good, let’s call it, “Fantasy Texas,” then these costs are miniscule. Very few have sex in situations that will give them babies they wouldn’t want to have. Of those, many will now get a shotgun wedding. Of the remainder, many will now live with the support of their parents. Of those that still remain, there will be support systems to help the mother through adoption. Yes, in the UWS, this isn’t going to happen. And now we’re back to the non-utilitarianism of respecting the locals with their local things. Christian-rural place does things in the fantasy way and it works. UWS does things in the UWS way and it works. One side sees the other as hillbillies that could have been physicists instead of mothers and slaves to their children. The other sees a bunch of baby-killing, soul crushed uterine husks that are slaving away for a man other than their own. As long as they’re both happy with their own setup, who cares?

His whole thing seems to be an exercise in motivated reasoning. From the pro-life arguments he presents, it is obvious that he hasn’t explored this idea with the strongest pro-lifers he could find (or maybe any). And to use the same reasoning as he does in the Singer argument but come to a different conclusion makes no sense at all.

He does say that a deep pragmatists would agree with him, but would be open to changing to another opinion if presented with new evidence. And that’s cool, but there’s so much stronger versions of the straw men he knocked down that I don’t think he, when writing a fucking book on the matter, bothered to look into it. Are you a “deep pragmatist” if, when considering two positions, you don’t even seek out the best version of the position you don’t like? Couple this with his refusal to ever reconsider slavery and I fear that he’s not as mature and reasonable as I think that he thinks he is. For example, would another hundred years of widely available abortion not solidify his opinion as one that shouldn’t be reevaluated? What if a technology was invented tomorrow that made the prochoice position untenable. What if instead of tomorrow, it was invented in 2200 AD but nothing else has changed, other than what was considered normal? Whatever we pick will get baked into the cake anyway and will determine what society we’ll have, so long as it can stay relatively static.

5. “Why I’m a liberal and what it would take to change my mind.” This is the name of the chapter and he literally never says what it would take to change his mind. He also throws out a number of editorializations and mischaracterizations that he presents as facts. I also strongly disagree with his assertion that you look around at the world, see the results you get in different countries health wise, and infer from that what’s best. Denmark is a tiny ethnostate that is bewildered by what to do with cheap Polish labor trying to come in and work. It is extremely hard to break into that culture as an immigrant. Everyone has to fit the same lifestyle, more or less. I could look to them and say, “hey, they have a longer life expectancy and cheaper healthcare!” and then infer that we should copy their healthcare system. I could also infer that we should copy their diet. Or that we should ban overtime and stay-at-home mothers. Or that we should eject Mexican labor and Indian H1-Bs to drive up wages. Or that we should reduce regulations and tax breaks. Or all sorts of things. And if a Danish style health system is so great regardless of circumstances, Massachusetts could do it right now rather than having a dozen presidential candidates insincerely promise to make it a priority at a national level (with a couple sincerely promising to try). Heck, they’ve already led the way to radically different payment systems once in the past decade.