(Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Harvard neuroscientist and philosopher Joshua Greene has brought a new dimension to the study of morality by scanning the brains of people as they struggle with philosophical dilemmas. Greene argues that humans are hardwired with a “tribal” mentality, an “us-versus-them” perspective that leads to clashes over political and social issues like abortion, gay marriage and gun rights. In his book “Moral Tribes,” Greene explores how we make moral decisions, whether we put individual rights above the common good, and how this explains many of the social debates between different groups and countries.

Guests:
Joshua Greene, neuroscientist at Harvard University's Moral Cognition Lab and author of "Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and The Gap Between Us and Them"

  • Beth Grant DeRoos

    Am interested in the growing number of people who seem to have no moral compass at all. Is this because of a lack of belonging to some unified group?

    Love being in places like Sweden, Denmark where the populations seem genuinely concerned about their fellow countrymen. What role does being amongst a single race (for the most part) play in having a more unified moral belief system?

    The whole inner city gun violence to an outsider seems so odd when one assumes a black shouldn’t be killing another black because one is killing one of their own group.

    • Bob Fry

      If there is a decline of moral compass, I think it’s due not to a decline in religion (measured by polling, church attendance, or whatever) but by the increase in greed…particularly the lust for money. It’s always been in America but greed became acceptable under Reagan and a positive good under Dumbya Bush. Greed and lust for money has thoroughly infected the American Christian community, especially evangelicals, who tend to dominate the political scene and for decades greatly influenced the Republican party.

      As for the inner city violence, those people form into gangs, so their group identity is the gang, not their ethnicity.

    • Chris OConnell

      I think your gut feeling about a growing number having no compass at all might be mistaken. I don’t think there is strong evidence for the claim. See, for instance, Stephen Pinker’s persuasive argument – namely that it used to be worse, even as common sense wants to reject it. Or note that nationwide, violent crime rates are significantly down from decades ago.

    • LF

      What about when white people kill other white people with guns as happened in Newton, CT? Seems strange that they would kill members of their own group unless they feel exceptional or outside the group.

      • chrisnfolsom

        One crazy person does not define a culture – although we gave him the tools to affect so many – the guy in china at the same time stabbed 25 and killed none… guns don’t kill, but people with guns do. We have to stop reacting to exceptions – although we must consider them. The “noise” of a killing (especially cute ones) is bright, but how many children starved to death, or killed themselves during the same time. Every day 104 people (on average) die in car accidents a day, 1700 from heart disease… what is the bigger problem, and what should concern you the most?

  • Peter

    The last part of Greene’s book has pretty slanted takes on some current controversies. For instance:
    p.289 “Does Iran have the right to develop nuclear technology? Does Israel have the right to stop them?”
    p.302 “If you’re Iran, you can talk about your ‘nuclear rights,’ and if you’re Israel you can talk about your ‘right to self-defense.'”

    Actually, BOTH countries talk about their “right to self-defense”, and BOTH claim certain nuclear rights (though Israel doesn’t talk about them because its nuclear weapons program is not being seriously threatened by anyone).

    But if you present this dispute as one country claiming “nuclear rights” against another country claiming “right to self-defense”, you’re making it pretty clear which side you’re on. By not asking the same questions about both parties, Greene fails to follow his own advice.

    • David

      i haven’t read the book and, thus, don’t know Greene’s advice. what is that advice? you’re right, the questions he attributes to the countries in question reveals a bias. indeed (and as a PhD in Philosophy he should know better), he begs the question that ‘nuclear rights’ does not equal ‘self-defense’.

    • Bill_Woods

      Iran has the right to have nuclear power plants. Iran gave up the right to have nuclear weapons when it signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

    • chrisnfolsom

      Sorry, no country has a “right” to more then it can defend from other interests – in the end. Morality changes and consequences change, but you have no “right” but to survive as best you can in any situation you are given.

      Every country has the obligation to strive for survival in it’s given environment – both militarily and economically.

      If a country has empathy, or some other ulterior motive it is on them and other countries to regulate how they work with other countries. If they feel responsibility or not is not the ultimate questions as in the end they will take care of themselves first. In good times we can con ourselves into thinking that we care for other as we do ourselves, but how many of us would let our children starve and feed others? We are lucky that most of us live in a time where we don’t have to make this decision, but many do not, and we have no idea how long we will have this freedom.

      What annoys me is how we fear governments using psychology, military and other “tools” to work with/on us and we allow businesses almost carte blanche freedoms to do the same in advertising and now politics – who do you trust the most? Thankfully with technology we can create tools to get past some of these problems – I hope.

      • marte48

        or, maybe we will just continue to use high technology to build more violent videogames (and movies) for our continual entertainment.

        • chrisnfolsom

          I hope not – although I am more concerned with the shows that push sarcasm and disrespect and personal value as a bigger problem (most of them). When growing up in the Bay Area (now 50ish) we all wished for a utopia – I don’t see that ideal sold to our children anymore…yeah, it’s a nice idea, but I don’t see any buy in.

      • marte48

        so you don’t believe in the Bill of Rights?

        • chrisnfolsom

          Of course I do – but that is on us, and of course we conveniently don’t apply those to other countries….so much for the “human” condition – we only apply right to ourselves. Hey, I am a total liberal, but reality is reality and I want us to make as many changes as possible – but you first have to deal with what you have.

  • ldemelis

    Dr. Greene said that sperm and egg were alive, just like embryos. That’s not quite correct. There is a principled, science-based decisions between sperm and egg, on the one hand, and a fertilized embryo, on the other. Sperm and egg are “haploid” organisms. They have only half the number of human chromosomes and are incapable of self-reproduction. A fertilized embryo, on the other hand, has a full complement of chromosomes and is immediately capable of cell reproduction.

    • H Nicole Anderson

      In the context of the discussion, that is a distinction without a difference. and besides, Greene never said that sperm and egg were alive “just like embryos.”

      • ldemelis

        Dr. Greene said that people who were opposed to abortion should also be opposed to contraception, since sperm and eggs were “alive.” I’ve heard that argument a lot from abortion defenders — it’s an attempt to make abortion opponents look stupid and illogical.

        • H Nicole Anderson

          You are grossly mis-characterizing what he said. He in no way argued that the fact that sperm and egg are alive–in irrefutable fact–in any way makes pro-lifers look stupid. In fact, his argument was nearly the opposite. He actually pointed out the dilemmas faced by either side of the argument. Your interpretation of what he said is baffling and, quite frankly, if anyone is attempting to make abortion defenders look stupid, it’s you.

          • ldemelis

            I find your lack of courtesy disturbing. Responses like yours make it difficult to have a reasonable discourse on internet forums.

          • David

            so does the fallacy of straw person; you are misconstruing what Dr. Greene said and, consequently, your contribution to the discourse as such is unreasonable.

          • ldemelis

            I went back and listened to the tape. At approximately 13:34, Dr. Greene says, “If you are purely pro-life you should be against contraception.” He goes on to acknowledge that most people who are “pro-life” are not opposed to contraception. But, he says, the oppose abortion, because they think “something sacred” happens at conception. Then he says (I’ve quoted as nearly as possible), “A sperm is alive. An egg is alive. They don’t become more alive when you put them together.” I disagree with this statement, which is what generated my original comment. There is a biological distinction between sperm and egg, on the one hand, and a fertilized embryo, on the other. It is not simply a matter of “religious metaphysics” (which is the term he used to describe the difference).

          • David

            fair enough but surely you’re not suggesting that there are variations of being alive? x is alive or it is not; x cannot be more or less alive than y if both x and y are alive (and the phrase ‘barely alive’ does not count for if anything is barely alive, it is nonetheless alive; the point being, x alive with x’x heart is no more alive than y alive with an artificial heart, among other examples). to be sure, there are variations of life, but this does not transpose to variations of alive. consequently, for every sperm and egg that is alive, such things are equally alive to any embryo that is alive and it is this very point that those opposed to abortion make; an embryo is alive and equally alive to any child or adult. Greene’s point is simply this: focus on the live embryo appears arbitrary if the pro-life argument points to the embryo being alive, precisely for the reason that the live sperm and the live egg are also alive. anyway, and for what it’s worth, i think the pro-life argument need not appeal to religion to respond to Greene on this point, but that’s for another discussion :).

          • ldemelis

            Sperm and egg are alive, but their maximum life span is about 3 days. So there is less of a moral issue in terminating their existence than there is with a fertilized embryo, with a life span of maybe 100 years. I agree with Dr. Green that the term “pro-life” is meaningless. But I do think that contraception and abortion raise different moral questions.

  • Chris OConnell

    Bad Religion’s reply to Pink Floyd’s Us and Them; by Greg Graffin.
    Them and Us
    Despite that he saw blatant similarity
    He struggled to find a distinctive moiety
    All he found was vulgar superficiality
    But he focused it to sharpness
    And shared it with the others
    It signified his anger and misery

    Them and us
    Lobbying determined through a mire of disbelievers
    Them and us
    Dire perpetuation and incongruous insistence
    That there really is a difference
    Between them and us

    Hate is a simple manifestation
    Of the deep-seated self-directed frustration
    All it does is promote fear and consternation
    It’s the inability
    To justify the enemy
    And it fills us all with trepidation

    Them and us
    Bending the significance to match a whimsied fable
    Them and us
    Tumult for the ignorant and purpose for the violence
    A confused loose alliance forming
    Them and us

    I heard him say
    We can take them all
    (but he didn’t know who they were,
    And he didn’t know who we were.
    And there wasn’t any reason or
    Motive, or value, to his story,
    Just allegory, imitation glory,
    And a desperate feeble search for a friend)

  • Skip Conrad

    It’s funny. You will talk about the rationality of stabilizing population growth of goats, but applying that same common sense to humans seems to go over your head. Yes, we suffer, too, just like animals. And we will consume all the resources of the planet if you let us.

    • Viggy Mokkarala

      What is the name of the “grazing” parable that he talked about? I thought it was something like “Hayden’s Parable”, but that doesn’t come up on a Google search.

      Thanks.

      • Skip Conrad

        The “Good Shepherd”? “Animal Farm”? “Lord of the Flies”? “Apocalypse Now”?

      • LF

        Economists call it the tragedy of the commons.

    • chrisnfolsom

      I think we separate ourselves out of a cultural desire by those in power to have absolute power and if we apply “reason” to our culture then perhaps those at the top are not that special and should not. It is comfortable to think that we are not animals, that “the rules” don’t apply, but then again look at what that has done to our response to global warming….. our actual long term survival could be at stake.

      I believe that if we selectively bred ourselves in 10,000 years we would be as diverse as we see with the dog (smaller as we breed slower) – and suffer the same genetic problems….although it is intriguing (and disturbing) to image what we could be. We are animals, soul or not, our bodies grow and our minds are influenced by genetics, physiology and environment (includes culture).

  • jessica strasen

    My problem with utilitarianism is that it rests the defining of moral forms or maxims in the social/cultural sphere. Rather than adhering to a moral good that is greater than mankind, utilitarianism requires an individual moral judgment projected outward. The obvious example of utilitarianism gone wrong is Hitler’s belief that racial purity would immamentize the eschaton. A society that believes that the sense data presented is all of reality, that denies that which is greater than, floats without moral anchor.

    • jessica strasen

      In response to the author’s comment on this, rather than misunderstanding utilitarianism, I believe the point is that when in practice, utilitarianism gives no way of knowing what is good or not good, what is right or wrong, until it is already done.

      • David

        for types of acts not year committed, perhaps so. but for types of acts already committed, no; utilitarianism draws from experience and for some types of acts, given experience, we know that they’re good or bad, at least probabilistically. additionally, we can reason by analogy, drawing from the outcome of similar types of acts before committing a new type of act. granted, outcomes must first be discerned on this account, but that’s not a dink against utilitarianism; murder is the wrongful act of killing and that may strike as obvious, but it may also have been “discovered” way back in our ancestry.

        • jessica strasen

          The individual contemplating an act must decide whether or not they think it is in the interest of the greater good by themselves. They make their choice and complete the action, and only after that is it subject to empirical study of its moral worth. This is dangerous – history has proven it so. Contrast utilitarianism with transcendent moral forms, such as one you bring up: “murder is morally wrong.” As a Kantian maxim, murder is 100% always wrong. It is wrong ethically, as a form beyond any individual or time. Under utilitarianism, it isn’t necessarily wrong because under some situations murder is justified in pursual of the greater good. I think you argue against yourself there – history has obviously not taught humanity that murder is always wrong. The problem with neuroscientists meddling in moral philosophy is that scientists need everything in the a postiori, so it can be subject to empirical analysis, when in fact moral judgments (along with the bulk of human conciousness) takes place a priori. As a moral compass, utilitarianism falls short. It is always one step behind that critical moment of moral decision.

      • chrisnfolsom

        So what are we supposed to use – a religion? Nothing is ever “pure” other then a thought – to do good. You never “know” for sure what good is, long term, short term and in the end are you good to another when you feed or protect your children over others? It is all relative, but a part of utilitarianism is taking lessons from the past (including religion) – even if not directly related – into account. Religion can just go it’s own way based on the interpretation, or interpreter of the day – and has (Even if there is a God or Gods).

  • Sam Badger

    Chinese virtue ethicists in the Confucian tradition talk about extending our ethical concern from one thing we know to other people. This is how we gain further knowledge of moral obligations. The example which Mengzi (Mencius) offers is of a child we don’t know who is about to fall into a well – we are compelled to act on behalf of the child because we see the child as analogous to the people we are concerned about. Another example he uses is of a king who sees a cow going off to sacrifice, and instead of allowing the sacrifice of the cow proposes the sacrifice of a goat out of sympathy for the cow. Mengzi asks why he did not also have concern for the goat, and for the people who are executed by the king too, and the king admits that Mengzi has a point. The King has not yet extended his benevolence for the cow to goats or his own people. It seems that there is a similar kind of point being made about moral psychology, except from the perspective of virtue ethics and not from utilitarianism.

    • chrisnfolsom

      As beings the scope of our reality used to only be immediate and not conceptual – event not seen were rarely life threatening and thus didn’t give us the physical chemical reaction to overpower our reason. We jump at a snake, but someone making nuclear weapons, or the threat from asteroids are too abstract – although ultimately a much larger problem.

  • Steve

    Perhaps it would help if we visualized all of humanity as our tribe. I like to consider us all Earthlings first.

    • Bob Fry

      OK, and what about non-human animals? They too feel pain and suffering. Maybe the vegans are correct.

      Not being terribly principled, I remember what Jesus said: Woe to the person who causes suffering! So I help those who I can, leaving a lot of people unhelped in the world that I could help with my relative riches. And I eat meat. Oh well.

    • marte48

      That’s why the term “Human Family” is a good one.

  • marte48

    I thought that Good American Christians have all grown up with the story of the “Good Samaritan!”

    • Bob Fry

      Yes…it’s just a story. No application to personal life.

      • marte48

        so you are one of those “don’t involve me” by-standers?

    • chrisnfolsom

      It is a good story – as are many in the bible – but the context is the situation. “Good” is not always good – like giving clothes to others – instead of teaching them to make their own clothes, or such as we have learned with forest fire control – you need fires. So being “good” is not straitforward and much of the problem is that people invest emotion into their decisions and stick with a decision rather then rating it and changing it – making decisions in complex situation is hard, and unfortunately most of religion erases grey areas and promises black and white decisions (and thus learning to analyze complex situations) and not trusting those who have to make those difficult decisions – look at the current American political situation….

      • marte48

        lots of Filipinos know how to sew clothes! they also grew their own food.

        • marte48

          …and they certainly know how to fish. Is that what you would want your children or your elderly parents to be told in the same circumstances?

        • chrisnfolsom

          That is why they need “things” that support their development and self sufficiency, not suburban kids going over there to make houses for them, or shipping containers of clothes to depress all their native clothing makers and distributors – you can help too much.

  • San Francisco teacher

    I would be interested in hearing how Dr. Greene applies visual interruption re moral v. utilitarian choices with long-ago societies who practiced public human sacrifice.

    I am also interested how the transformation of epic heros usually involves the acquisition of empathy through the hero’s recognition of his mortality. I work with ninth grade students and we discuss Gilgamesh’s second quest and following transformation as the recognition of his mortality and subsequent acquisition of empathy.

    • marte48

      One of the best universal myths is that of the Buddha, who encountered old age, disease, and death for the first time, and thus had to acknowledge his own mortality.

      • geraldfnord

        The problem with that mode of awakening is that apart from death, people are generally able to come up with reasons why whatever bad things they see can’t happen to them. Often it works out to some suppos├Ęd perfect judge’s (called variously ‘God’ or ‘The Market’ or ‘History’) deciding that there are some special people to whom the bad things won’t happen, and that the ones to whom such do happen deserve it.

        (See: German Jews who thought that only Ostjuden were in trouble, ‘masculine’-acting men who thought they couldn’t get AIDS because they ‘weren’t gay’, and [most probably] me, as in my gut I ‘know’ that I won’t end up on the street, even though my more rational bits can easily construct low-but-{non-zero}-probability paths that could lead from here to there….)

  • MFB

    I WISH…. that Mr Krasny would stop interrupting his guests. He does it way too often and needlessly, just to “show off” his knowledge or his understanding of the topic. It is not only rude but very disruptive for the listener (who cannot “rewind”) and who is trying to focus and follow the thread of what is being said, explained or constructed.

    Thank you!

    • spankym

      I thought the same thing on several occasions while listening to this. It is great that he does his homework and is smart and well informed, but the way he interjects seemingly to just impress his guest is annoying.

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