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Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them

4.03  ·  Rating details ·  2,864 ratings  ·  357 reviews
Our brains were designed for tribal life, for getting along with a select group of others (Us) and for fighting off everyone else (Them). But modern times have forced the world’s tribes into a shared space, resulting in epic clashes of values along with unprecedented opportunities. As the world shrinks, the moral lines that divide us become more salient and more puzzling. ...more
Hardcover, 432 pages
Published October 31st 2013 by Penguin Press
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Matthew Green This assumes that you are attempting to integrate into another tribe willingly. The problem comes when tribes with differing traditions, perspectives,…moreThis assumes that you are attempting to integrate into another tribe willingly. The problem comes when tribes with differing traditions, perspectives, and values (say, Palestinians vs. Israelis or Republicans vs. Democrats) overlap in physical or virtual space. If you are a Southerner who is willingly working to integrate into Northern culture, that's fine. But if you're a Yankee living in Savannah, and those Southern values seem threatening to your way of living (say, how you should raise your children), you get conflict.(less)

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Infinite Jen
Feb 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Comrades, after having discovered the presence of radically lengthened telomeres in laboratory mice the other night, (for those of you not among the cognoscenti of biology, the length of telomeres (repetitive (TTAGGG) DNA–protein complexes at the ends of chromosomes) in a cell, to oversimplify, govern the number of cell divisions possible, short telomere’s = few, long = lots. Telomeres (and telomerase), as you might be able to surmise, play a crucial role in the formation of tumors and when/if t ...more
Joshua Stein
Jun 02, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: ethics, mind, science
There's a lot to be said about Moral Tribes but I will divide the comment roughly into two parts: (1) the smart commentary on moral psychology and (2) the weak commentary on ethics. It is worth noting that the strong points and weak points should be unsurprising given Greene's background; he's a renown neuroscientist. It seems to make sense that his recapitulation of his groundbreaking work would be terrific and engaging, and that the book would weaken in discussions of other domains.

The openin
David Rubenstein
Apr 16, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Humans have evolved the ability to be cooperative, in order to help our own survival in difficult times. This ability usually prevents us from being completely selfish. We cooperate with other members of our group, our "tribe", and solves the dilemma between "Me" and "Us". The problem is, that this same mechanism generates a different dilemma, a competition between "Us" and "Them". We find that we generally have the same moral outlook as others in our "tribe", and we do not even consider the mor ...more
I'm going to go ahead and assume that there are summaries out there that will tell you what this book is about, so I'm just gonna tell you why I think it was pretty great.

1. It's enormously readable - True to his affiliation as a utilitarian, Greene keeps his arguments clear and fairly concise. When he's gonna go more into depth on something that isn't crucial to understanding his overall point he tells you to go for it and skip ahead.
2. He summarizes the arguments of a lot of authors/books tha
Eduardo Santiago
Dec 25, 2013 rated it really liked it
As a fresh take on utilitaniarism it’s first-rate: new perspectives, new research, insightful questions. But ultimately he’s just preaching to the choir because the single most important question of our age is not even mentioned: how to reach those who don’t realize they are immoral? That is, people whose brains—through no fault of their own—consider Loyalty To Tribe and Obedience To Authority to be moral, rendering them vulnerable to charismatic psychopaths like Rush Limbaugh or evangelical pre ...more
Update, July 2019: As I noted in the review, Greene cemented his reputation (partially) by putting folks into fMRI machines and asking them Trolleyology–type questions. Well, if you find that interesting, you should check out the Kickstarter game Trial By Trolley: A party game of moral dilemmas and trolley murder. It’s offensively gruesome, so maybe it’s best to think of it as Trolleyology by way of Cards Against Humanity. Definitely not for the squeamish, but I’ve definitely ordered a copy.

Dec 18, 2013 rated it it was ok
4 stars for the science related material, a generous 2 stars for the philosophical goop, which comprises the bulk of the book. To deflect criticisms of utilitarianism, Greene qualifies its "rules" to such a degree that nothing is left save: think carefully about things and your obligation to help others. That's fine, but I don't need to read hundreds of pages to arrive at that dictum.

The science portions of the book could have been better directed. The author goes into great detail regarding th
Finally, finished this review, started last month, and abandoned due to some ambiguities of my condition.
Okay , you can translate it as lazyness.
Greene writes that anger would be useful, not to me, but to us, humans, as a species. And not just anger, but also other uplifting feelings such as contempt, shame or guilt, and he draws a very interesting theory of the benefits and limitations of the moral compass made up of emotions. Here is what he claims, in short :
Mankind got where it got becaus
Riku Sayuj
Apr 25, 2016 rated it liked it
The most detailed book-length treatment of Trolley-ology I have read. The best remains Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?. Looking for any recommendations on Morality and its origins in humans. ...more
Jason Furman
Joshua Greene, an experimental psychologist, neuroscientist and philosopher, sets out to “use twenty-first-century science [neuroscience] to vindicate nineteenth-century moral philosophy [utilitarianism] against its twentieth-century critics [Rawls and other deontological ethicists].” And he succeeds admirably. This book persuasively and creatively tied together several strands of literature that interest me and will have an enduring impact on the way I think about ethical issues.

Greene’s core a
Jun 04, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a powerful blend of neuroscience, psychology, and sociology. The first third or so is probably the most fascinating, with ideas about Individualism v/s Collectivism taking a front seat in the discussion. This is worth reading as it could fuel discussion around a variety of areas, including values-based decision making, inherited perspective, biases, bystander-intervention, and responding to the controversy.

It points out that 'Reason is an evolved trait, like bipedalism. It emerged on the
Kelsey Mulherin
Feb 21, 2016 rated it did not like it
The first half of the book was somewhat interesting and not terribly written. The second half is a long plea by the author for the reader to accept his philosophy. Even the author seems to not really support it, he constantly is saying things along the lines of "well even though this seems awful and unworkable, just over look that & agree with my philosophy". The second half of the book is just terribly, terribly written. I finished it because of my own masochistic tendencies, but I would recomm ...more
Kaj Sotala
Dec 22, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The moral psychology felt top-notch; however, the author's defenses of utilitarianism in the later chapters felt like they were showing the same rationalization biases that he had spent several chapters warning his readers about (and I say this as someone who's generally sympathetic to utilitarianism). Still worth reading for at least the early chapters, though. ...more
Ariel Pontes
Jul 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A great contemporary defense of utilitarianism against the accusations of deontologists, virtue ethicists, and more recently of authors like Rawls, Nozick, and Jonathan Haidt. Essentially, its central argument is: if we want cooperate at the global scale, the widespread adoption of utilitarianism as a universal standard for public policy is the only available solution at this moment. The book adopts a pragmatist approach, avoiding metaethical questions such as "but is this really the right thing ...more
Nov 22, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: philosopy
So when my mom got this book I was sure it was going to be either about how Group A is right, and everyone else should GTFO, or about how really dead down we all agree on everything and conflict is really the vault of insert group name here. It turned out to be neither of those things. Instead, it's an extremely interesting look at why some actions make humans uncomfortable, why that impulse isn't always correct, and how to make ethical decisions without completely relying on "gut feeling". ...more
Morgan Blackledge
Mar 07, 2014 rated it really liked it
I started writing this review by trying to list and explain all of the cool constructs covered in the book. But there are so many amazing points to Greene's argument that the review was beginning to approach book length. So I said fuck it.

Just read the book. But read Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind first. Moral Tribes stands alone, but is best taken as a retort to Haidt's work.
Teo 2050

If you're into all three of these, relevant background reading for, and referenced in, Moral Tribes might include The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Haidt) and Thinking, Fast and Slow (Kahneman). I agree that utilitarianism (or 'deep pragmatism') basically is what we do when trying to find common ground (weighing harms and benefits), and I'm sympathetic to these kinds of 'Morality, Fast and Slow' trains of thought and research. (It's go
Duncan McLaren
Jun 05, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
For a book described in its jacket quotes as 'a landmark', 'brilliant' and 'a masterpiece', this was a big disappointment. It is no such thing, and that Steven Pinker and Peter Singer should make such comments about it is - I suspect - testament to the power of confirmation bias.

So why I am I still awarding it 3 stars? Because it is in many ways two books woven into one, and one of the two books is indeed stimulating, challenging and innovative (sadly the other is almost entirely without logica
Oct 27, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Greene takes pains to source philosophy, social and cognitive sciences, psychology, and other material pertinent to having a reasoned conversation about why different groups of people can disagree about things each is so sure is moral and right[eous]. By chapter 5 he's plainly depicted the landscape of our biological proclivities, inherited perspectives, decision making, and biases. He's set upon that landscape metaphysical and reasoning tools with which you expect him to construct and reveal gr ...more
Leif Denti
Dec 29, 2014 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this book. It is generally well argued and lays out a pretty clear map over the moral philosophy and psychology field as of today. Greene does a good job in arguing for the distinction between the Tragedy of the Commons (within-group moral reasoning), and what he calls the Tragedy of Common Sense Morality (between-group moral reasoning). In essence: we are good at cooperating and empathizising with each other when it comes to our own in-group, but bad at cooperating and empathizising w ...more
Aseem Kaul
Jan 01, 2014 rated it it was amazing
There's a great deal to love about Moral Tribes, which is just about the most intellectually stimulating book I read in 2013.

Here's my brief (possibly somewhat inaccurate) summary of what Greene is saying:

1 Human beings face two types of moral problems: the problem of small-group cooperation (Me vs. Us) and the problem of global cooperation (Us vs. Them). Where small-group cooperation fails we end up with the Tragedy of the Commons. Where global cooperation fails we end up with what Greene call
Joseph Stieb
Mar 26, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: psychology
I listened to this book as a follow up to Jonathan Haidt's excellent "The Righteous Mind." I didn't enjoy this book as much even though I probably would agree with Greene on more things than with Haidt. Haidt just had the advantage of going first and introducing me to the field of moral cognition. Greene is still a great read, and I recommend it to people even if they've already read Haidt.

This book centers around the quest for a universal moral currency that can adjudicate disputes between mora
Oct 25, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: grey
I really wanted to like this book a lot, because it is aiming at a very important question, and the author has done his research. Unfortunately, just because you have the right weapon and the right target, doesn't mean you hit the mark.

The target, in this case, is what happens when numerous tribes whose morality systems (largely intuitive), which work fine within their own societies, impinge upon each other (as with globalization).

The weapon, is all the science that's been done in the last 20 ye
John Schwabacher
Apr 30, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: the-mind
Joshua Greene is the director of the Moral Cognition Lab at Harvard. Cool job title!

He starts by arguing that many of our emotions developed as moral instincts designed to help individuals deal with society, addressing the "tragedy of the commons" problem.

Next he points out that different societies can develop different workable tradeoffs: more or less indivuality, collectivity, etc. A higher level problem then arises when these societies collide: each has built up structures to help individuals
Jun 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2019
I wnated to read "Moral Tribes" beause of Robert Saposly, who cites this books several times in his "The behave". Joshua Greene's explanations of moral judgements and other really interesting ideas fit my view and I accepted them without any complexities. However, the heavy content of the book and its tone is really difficult to understand. What's more, this book is totally essential in our contemporary society. Perhaps, after a certain time I will re-read it due to ideas are very crucial and ev ...more
Bob Nichols
Aug 31, 2015 rated it liked it
Greene places moral theory on a biological foundation. His focus is our tribal nature. It’s a point that Darwin covered in “The Descent of Man” and Greene brings this topic back to life. He argues that we are able to overcome our tribal morality that operates more or less automatically to merge us with our group, but not beyond. Greene argues for a utilitarian approach that involves (following a camera metaphor) “manual control” where we intentionally direct our behavior to promote the happiness ...more
Apr 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Brilliant! Every time I read something of Josh Greene's, I love him more. He provides some of the most exciting aspects neuroscience has to offer. Malcolm Gladwell is very popular, but people who majored in neuroscience and those practicing in the field find him frustrating because he promotes sexy science (that is just how researchers refer to neuroscience because of how it has been portrayed in the media) at the expense of actual, solid, careful science. But, Josh Greene provides all the sexy- ...more
Kent Winward
Jun 07, 2016 rated it really liked it
At first, when I was reading this book I felt that I was treading on well-ploughed ground. How many times can I read about the tragedy of the commons or the trolley dilemma? (Apparently at least one more, although I can't say I'm confident that it won't come up again.)

Greene does try to freshen things up a bit with a new tragedy of the commons -- a tragedy of common sense morality. His analogy and metaphor were strained at best, but the idea is one we are dealing with in our current political en
Feb 19, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Really, really excellent—though challenging in parts. This book follows closely on the heels of three other social-science screeds it cites heavily: Jonathan Haidt's "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion," Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast & Slow," and Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined," all of which I've read and highly recommend.

Greene's main assertion is that our moral instincts are pretty good at keeping us in lin
Zach Toad
Aug 02, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Joshua Greene has left us a book that has played a pivotal role in solidifying my thoughts on morality, but more importantly, a book that will actually compel me to live differently and more confidently share my newly solidified philosophy with others. Greene's book is so good not because it is original, genius, insightful, fresh, nor extraordinarily well-argued and researched (though it is all of these things), but rather because it is simply correct.

Greene uses the latest research in psycholo
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Joshua D. Greene is an American experimental psychologist, neuroscientist, and philosopher. He is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and the director of Harvard's Moral Cognition Lab. The majority of his research and writing has been concerned with moral judgment and decision-making. His most recent research focuses on fundamental issues in cognitive science. ...more

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30 likes · 3 comments
“Instead, the lesson is that false beliefs, once they’ve become culturally entrenched—once they’ve become tribal badges of honor—are very difficult to change, and changing them is no longer simply a matter of educating people.” 14 likes
“In an ideal world, we’d all transform ourselves into experts and make judgments based on extensive knowledge. Given that this will never happen, our next best option is to emulate the wisdom of Socrates: We become wiser when we acknowledge our ignorance.” 10 likes
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