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Moral Tribes

Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them
Written by: Joshua Greene
Narrated by: Mel Foster
Length: 14 hrs and 53 mins
3.5 out of 5 stars (8 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

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. We fight over everything from tax codes to gay marriage to global warming, and we wonder where, if at all, we can find our common ground.

A grand synthesis of neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy, Moral Tribes reveals the underlying causes of modern conflict and lights the way forward. Greene compares the human brain to a dual-mode camera, with point-and-shoot automatic settings (“portrait,” “landscape”) as well as a manual mode. Our point-and-shoot settings are our emotions—efficient, automated programs honed by evolution, culture, and personal experience. The brain’s manual mode is its capacity for deliberate reasoning, which makes our thinking flexible. Point-and-shoot emotions make us social animals, turning Me into Us. But they also make us tribal animals, turning Us against Them. Our tribal emotions make us fight—sometimes with bombs, sometimes with words—often with life-and-death stakes.

An award-winning teacher and scientist, Greene directs Harvard University’s Moral Cognition Lab, which uses cutting-edge neuroscience and cognitive techniques to understand how people really make moral decisions. Combining insights from the lab with lessons from decades of social science and centuries of philosophy, the great question of Moral Tribes is this: How can we get along with Them when what they want feels so wrong to Us?

Ultimately, Greene offers a set of maxims for navigating the modern moral terrain, a practical road map for solving problems and living better lives. Moral Tribes shows us when to trust our instincts, when to reason, and how the right kind of reasoning can move us forward.

A major achievement from a rising star in a new scientific field, Moral Tribes will refashion your deepest beliefs about how moral thinking works and how it can work better.

©2013 Joshua D. Greene (P)2013 Brilliance Audio, all rights reserved. Excerpt from “My Favorite Things,” music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. © 1959 by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Copyright renewed. Williamson Music owner of publication and allied rights throughout the world. International copyright secured. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

What the critics say

“Moral Tribes is a masterpiece—a landmark work brimming with originality and insight that also happens to be wickedly fun to read. The only disappointing thing about this book is that it ends.” -Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology, Harvard University; author of the international bestseller Stumbling on Happiness

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Not for my Tribe

Interesting analogies, but too opinionated for me. If you are anti-western, then this book is for you. #Audible1

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  • Douglas
  • 2014-01-29

An Exceedingly Interesting...

study in the grounds--both reasonable and unreasonable, beneficial and destructive--that we have for gathering together into groups...which seem to end up somehow inevitably pitted against some "other." Cliques, clubs, organizations, political parties, cults, class-systems, and...teams. I have a story that relates very well to this book. I live near Seattle. "WE" (the Seahawks--I don't play, mind you, and I don't even watch, though I find myself included somehow) are playing the Broncos (hereafter "THEM") in the Superbowl next week. Some years ago, I bought a Broncos hat to wear to the barn when I interact with my horse--I hate football, and I bought the hat because it has a horse on it. (Witness my avatar photo above.) I have grown attached to the hat. I have also been threatened and taunted by Seahawks fan-atic-s for wearing it in public, and greeted heartily by strangers in stores from Denver who mistake me for a fellow Colorado "WE..." At present, I continue to wear the hat to the barn, but not if I need to run into the store afterward. And, if the Seahawks win on Sunday, I think maybe I will be able to wear it publicly in say, a year or so...if the Broncos win...I will never be safe wearing it again. (I had a student once actually physically assaulted for wearing a NY Yankees cap into a Seattle bar.) All this has made me aware of one thing: Nazi Germany is easy to understand once you get this element of human nature: we too often need someone to hate in order to feel decently about ourselves. The Nazis had the same mentality as football fanatics--or any other group fanatic. They just had a lot more freedom to persecute the "THEM."

32 of 35 people found this review helpful

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  • Mark Ahlquist
  • 2015-01-04

Everyone who thinks they're smart should read this

This book connects loose ends from all disciplines into a coherent whole. It is hugely important that the ideas in this book become disseminated throughout all cultures. I'm happy that it exists.

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

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  • The Alchemist
  • United States
  • 2015-03-31

Heavy Lifting

Very interesting treatise. Thought provoking but a better textbook than a general audience read. Having some philosophical context helps tremendously.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • Jacob
  • 2016-10-27

Good Science, Bad Philosophy

Greene really does a piss poor job of summarizing arguments against his position. he also does a poor job framing other philosophical positions that run counter to his. He says that "When we refer to rights, we are only referring to names we have given our moral intuitions" then goes on to invoke his own concept of 'rights' as if no one else has thought this out. Worst of all is his take on politics. I say this as a socially liberal person with an otherwise pragmatist view. Greene is totally unfair in his characterization of the political left and right. He equates all conservatives with republican Christian fundamentalists. He thinks every view they hold is based on 'unexamined tribal intuitions' while characterizing liberals as a scientifically enlightened paragon of humility.

Read The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt if you want to understand the neuroscience and psychology of the moral sense.

20 of 23 people found this review helpful

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  • Client Amazon
  • Europe
  • 2014-05-25

A supremely enlightening view of moral philosophy

What did you love best about Moral Tribes?

I have read tens of philosophy books, but this is the one that made me feel the most enlightened after reading it. It helped clear away the cosy rationalizations of tribal moralities that I self-righteously indulge in, like every one else, and it does not claim to replace those by another absolute moral truth. At the same time, after demonstrating the hopeless relativity of moral emotions, Joshua Greene does fully acknowledge their worth as an "automatic mode".

What was the most compelling aspect of this narrative?

A scientific understanding of the dual processes at work in moral decision-making leads to a reappraisal of the much-maligned utilitatrian viewpoint as the only realistic inter-tribal "moral common currency"

Which scene was your favorite?

The little fable told at the beginning is nice, but you definitely shoul reread it after completing the book.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

This is a book you have to think over, I read it twice and will certainly read it again.

9 of 10 people found this review helpful

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  • Gary
  • Las Cruces, NM, United States
  • 2016-04-19

Robust defense of Utilitarianism

Even though almost all of the books and science experiments cited within the text I have heard elsewhere through other Audible books and lectures, I still found this book edifying since the author, a philosopher, knows how to explain complicated science better than most science writers by explaining complex thoughts into easy digestible pieces and can tie the story together with an overriding narrative.

All knowledge about our place in the universe goes from the particular to the group and the group to the population. As for the development of our moral understanding the author argues similarly our moral understanding goes from "the me" to "the us" and "the us" to "the other". Homo Sapiens developed a method to get us out of our pure solipsism by allowing us to understand there is an advantage in cooperation within our closest group and that there will be competition between the us and the them.

The author's main thesis in the book is defending Utilitarian philosophy (or as he sometimes calls it deep pragmatism), a system of philosophy which starts with the premise the overall happiness should be maximized. He uses the 'trolley problem' and breaks it down and shows how some of our brain states correlate with his thesis of 'automatic mode' verse 'manual mode', intuition v. reason.

I'm in the minority in the trolley problem. I never would have turned the switch in the first version, and I definitely would not drop the man onto the tracks to save lives in the second version. That made some of the givens the author gives not so clear cut for me.

Overall I am an Utilitarian (after all I'm in general for anything which Ayn Rand despised as much as she did Utilitarianism), but the author really doesn't end the argument. Ultimately he's begging the question in how he defines happiness. I think that almost everyone thinks that their belief system leads to the greatest happiness overall. We always rationalize (at least I do) our beliefs that way. Adolph Hitler rationalized his acts and claimed that the world would thank him for what he did. It's the rare person who wants to create harm overall just for the sake of creating harm. We always rationalize and fill in the blanks within our own mind (the author will even say that in the text and cite some research that supports that).

This book is a real find for anyone who hasn't read much in this field. He links all the science with multiple philosophies and gives a great narrative like a good philosopher should. I think the author always tries to be fair when he dances around political differences. But, he did one thing that really irritated me. He calls those who deny the truth about climate change "climate skeptics'. That's just a misuse of the word 'skeptic'. Skeptics will keep an open mind and look at the data and the story that abduction (inference to the best explanation) tells. People who don't accept climate change do not deserve the respect the word 'skeptic' connotes.

In summary, the book is a very good book, well explained, good science and provides a good way to think about morality through the lens of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mills. I don't think he proves utilitarianism is the ultimate philosophy but he gives good arguments while it might be the best overall.

23 of 28 people found this review helpful

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  • David
  • Highland Park, IL, United States
  • 2013-11-16

Fascinating, Provocative, Timely

Moral conflict and ideological division may be one of the most serious problems facing the world today. Joshua Greene, renowned philosopher and neuroscientist, doesn't present any magic bullets to address this problem, but he does offer what may be the only solution, something he calls "deep pragmatism." Deep pragmatism is essentially utilitarianism dressed up in fashionable clothing, but Greene makes a compelling case that this way of thinking may be the only "common currency" that can be used between competing moral tribes in the modern world. Greene peers under the hood to reveal how our evolved mental machinery guides our moral judgments, and the picture he presents is not flattering. Our moral cognitive mechanisms are "gadgets" honed by natural selection. Their function is not to glimpse an eternal "moral truth," but rather to propagate the genetic material that constructed them. These gadgets come pre-installed with glitches and shortcomings, and one thing is certain: they were not built to handle complex modern dilemmas like global warming, effective governance, and criminal justice. Thus, Greene argues, if we want to transcend the boundaries of our moral tribes, we must learn to transcend this "automatic" moral machinery and shift to "manual mode," the parts of our brain that can set goals, evaluate evidence, and think rationally. It's not easy to look with suspicion at our deep seated moral intuitions, but Greene makes a convincing case that we should. We must construct our political and moral worldviews not on gut feelings but on reason and evidence. Packed with fascinating facts from psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology, you'll learn all the cutting-edge information from the emerging field of moral cognitive science. And your vision of morality might get turned upside down.

15 of 18 people found this review helpful

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  • Søren
  • 2016-07-28

Utilitarianism is anti-moral apparently.

I bought this book for its cover, the subject of moral and tribes interest me. However I was pretty disappointed. The author argues that because humans arguably have an inconsistent moral biologic system. That there is no right and wrong. Whoever is the best at making excuses for themselves and postulating where the majority's happiness is best attained is right. Utilitarianism is not a moral system its just a way to feel bad about yourself because its impossible to ever be virtuous and everybody is a hypocrite. Oh and Joshua Green would like you to keep paying lots of taxes so he doesn't have to provide real value but can live on his government paycheck. Not recommended unless you just want excuses for yourself.

4 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • 4mango
  • 2015-02-06

Utilitarianism meets daniel kahneman

Interesting but uninspired take on utilitarianism. Doesn't do justice to critiques of that ethical approach, but the reason to read the book is the way he integrates Kahneman's ideas from "thinking fast and slow" into the ethical realm of inquiry.

4 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • Annie hirschmann
  • 2019-08-15

Boring

This book was really boring to listen to a s the narrator was terrible , very repetitive .

1 of 1 people found this review helpful