Understanding Our Moral Tribes

A decade ago, I traveled to Princeton to spend some time with a young philosopher who had decided to start scanning people’s brains. I was working on a book about the history of neurology, called Soul Made Flesh, and I was fascinated by how the study of the brain had emerged from a scientific attempt to save souls. I wanted to end the book with a look at how scientists study the brain 350 years later, and during my research I discovered the work of Joshua Greene. He was taking the arguments that moral philosophers had developed over many years and testing them out on flesh-and-blood brains, monitoring neural activity as people worked through moral problems.

In addition to putting Greene into my book, I ended up writing a profile of him called “Whose Life Would You Save?” for Discover (which you can also read in a collection of my articles available at Byliner). Here’s how it starts…

Dinner with a philosopher is never just dinner, even when it’s at an obscure Indian restaurant on a quiet side street in Princeton with a 30-year-old postdoctoral researcher. Joshua Greene is a man who spends his days thinking about right and wrong and how we separate the two. He has a particular fondness for moral paradoxes, which he collects the way some people collect snow globes.

“Let’s say you’re walking by a pond and there’s a drowning baby, ” Greene says, over chicken tikka masala. “If you said, ‘I’ve just paid $200 for these shoes and the water would ruin them, so I won’t save the baby,’ you’d be an awful, horrible person. But there are millions of children around the world in the same situation, where just a little money for medicine or food could save their lives. And yet we don’t consider ourselves monsters for having this dinner rather than giving the money to Oxfam. Why is that?”

Philosophers pose this sort of puzzle over dinner every day. What’s unusual here is what Greene does next to sort out the conundrum. He leaves the restaurant, walks down Nassau Street to the building that houses Princeton University’s psychology department, and says hello to graduate student volunteer Nishant Patel. (Greene’s volunteers take part in his study anonymously; Patel is not his real name.) They walk downstairs to the basement, where Patel dumps his keys and wallet and shoes in a basket. Greene waves an airport metal-detector paddle up and down Patel’s legs, then guides him into an adjoining room dominated by a magnetic resonance imaging scanner. The student lies down on a slab, and Greene closes a cagelike device over his head. Pressing a button, Greene maneuvers Patel’s head into a massive doughnut-shaped magnet.

Greene headed off to Harvard a couple years later, where he’s now an associate professor of psychology. Over the years other scientists have also taken up the study of moral neuroscience, but Greene still stands out among them thanks to the philosophical rigor with which he thinks about the nature of morality. Over the years, he’s expanded his research from the basic biology underpinning morality to the different ways that it gets played out in human societies–and how, paradoxically, different forms of moralities bring people into conflict.

So I’m very curious now to check out a book he’s written about his research and ideas, called Moral Tribes, coming out next month. The Edge has a sneak preview of Greene’s ideas in the form of a video talk by Greene and a transcript. Check it out.

7 thoughts on “Understanding Our Moral Tribes

  1. A small correction: The moral conundrum quoted here was described and detailed by Peter Singer. It is in his book ‘The life you can save’. Mr.Greene’s ideas (especially his use of the ‘tragedy of the commons and the camera to elucidate them) are extremely interesting even if a tad idealistic.

  2. In regards to the dilemma I would say the baby in the pond satisfies 3 conditions we like when acting, it’s personal, immediate and definite. Kids around the world are impersonal, the problems are not immediately solved and you can’t be definite that what you do saves a specific life.

  3. I agree with Kudzu.

    It is not some big mystery or paradox. As kudzu said it is impersonal when they are half way around the world. Now if he is trying to figure out what part of the brain makes these decisions that is cool. But understanding human behavior is not some big mystery that people make it. All we have to do is look at human history to see the patterns. The old saying “there is nothing new under the sun” applies in a great way here. Human behavior has been the same for thousands of years.

    Why do I spend 20 dollars on a meal instead of sending it to Africa? I have used this same social experiment on my facebook page but asking a bit of a different question. I get a lot of people posting sick US children on my feed, I always reply with a photo of a child killed by US military action. I ask, what about these kids. The response is always the same ” I do care they are both tragic” but these people never again post on the children I showed. Why?

    For 1 obvious reason that does not need tons of grant money to answer and takes about 5 seconds of rational thought. The most important factor is they have never seen children killed by war, so it is impersonal to them. When we cannot personalize a subject we cannot empathize, it is also hard to truly sympathize with these people. I say sympathize also because we have no understanding of their situation. Were a child blown up right in front of us we could do these two very important emotional responses. We can’t even fully pity them or show them compassion. Nor do we feel need to because we are not confronted with the problem. This goes back to the commercials of starving children, why are they so successful? because it is confrontation with reality.

    So the next question is why do they even respond, this also has a very basic and simple explanation, it was made public and they had to respond in a positive way even though they previously did not show concern for the second group of children. Human thought and emotion is not some big huge mystery, it is very easy to see why people react the way we do. I think the more important question is why did we evolve these feeling, not why we act the way we do. Yes I made it seem very simple and basic, and that is because it is very simple and basic.

  4. Rdizzie Steven Pinker has written a book, The Better Angels of our Nature, which refutes your claim that human behaviour has not changed in thousands of years. We are getting better. We are learning to over-ride our base primate insticts and behave better towards each other. Understanding what we are, apes, and what drives us, mostly emotion, allows us to make better decisions by not depending on instinct so much as rational thought.

  5. It’s true that all it really takes is to make it personal. As an American college student that hadn’t been out of the country, I got a pretty big culture shock going to poor areas of Peru. It makes the rest of the world seem more real, which is something our culture lacks in general.

  6. I’m afraid I must wholly disagree with the post above.There is little evidence that we are getting better and behave better towards each other. One need only open a newspaper or your web browser for evidence of how we are the same as we were thousands of years ago.

  7. I’m with Kudzu and Rdizzie, too. One liberal professor’s book showing a per capita decrease in violence does not make a proof that human nature has changed. Certainly the simplistic formula that understanding that we are apes driven by emotion = more rational thought = more peace, morality, and a change in nature doesn’t hold up to critical examination. A number of great changes toward peace and equality were made before and apart from Enlightenment/Rationalist thinking, let alone before the concept that humans are “naked apes.” Likewise, a number of violent regimes, including the Nazis and various communist regimes, claimed to have their roots in such modern, “Enlightened” thinking. Purely rational thought can be used to justify all sorts of violence given the right circumstances. We scoff at the idea of someone refusing to save a baby to spare their expensive shoes, but many people are very passionate about defending a woman’s right to an abortion at any point, for any reason. Some have argued, rationally, that abortions should be extended to months after birth. It might even be argued, rationally, that our very concepts of such intangibles as morality, nobility, love, etc., are superfluous veneers generated as side products of the freak mutations that made us the bubble-brained threats to the balance of nature.
    The reasons for the drop in per-capita violence are probably numerous and interdependent (and I wonder what would happen if we included abortion, suicides and other forms of violence that aren’t traditionally included). I suspect much of it is simply mundane changes in circumstances — no “undiscovered” lands to claim, the ratio of disputed to undisputed territory greatly reduced, governmental power more distributed, capitalism leading to “others” becoming “customers,” religions becoming widespread rather than limited to specific tribes or exclusive groups, military strategy and technology allowing for limited strikes, etc.

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