This is not a very good book. But still, I advise reading it, if only for the example of bad writing and reasoning it provides. The writing is sloppy and repetitive, and the reasoning discombobulated. The confabulated conclusions (confabulated is a bit of jargon the psychology community uses for explaining the mind’s instinct to fill in memory gaps with facts imagined into existence; I’m using it with license here) conveyed through the writing were utterly asinine. Sophomoric, as in a badly constructed, poorly written, and extraordinarily lengthy essay on morality that a college sophomore might write, is the word that kept popping into my head as I ploughed through this drivel.
According to the jacket cover, Joshua Greene is the John and Ruth Hazel Associate Professor of the Social Sciences, and the Director of the Moral Cognition Lab in Harvard University’s Department of Psychology. If nothing else, anyone thinking of sending their kid to Harvard to study psychology might want to reconsider. And if Moral Tribes is what the funding of an associate professorship at Harvard bought them, the Hazels might want to seek a refund. I am amazed that this book made it to publication (The Penguin Press). But to be fair, I doubt it is the worst that was published in 2013. I only know that it was the worst that I read.
The book was a Christmas present from my teenage daughter, so I felt obligated to slog through the whole mess of it (but would have anyway, for reasons already proffered). She got the subject matter correct so far as gifting a book to me is concerned–I find matters of morality exquisitely interesting—but the tenor of inquiry she got dead wrong. Nothing can ever be learnt about Homo sapiens psychologically and morally if it is assumed, as Greene does, that men are anything but animals with a quantitatively, not qualitatively, superlative gift of reasoning, much as an elephant is an animal with a quantitatively superlative proboscis, but is still an animal, subject to the survival and propagation compulsions characteristic of all animals. The human brain and the elephant’s trunk are nothing more than exquisitely useful and carefully honed survival and propagation tools. Any other view of things yields confusion.
In my daughter’s defense, I might have made the same mistake as her, had I relied on the jacket cover descriptions. And the book recalled for me a similar book, Braintrust, by Patricia Churchland (2011), that I had purchased for myself (and reviewed here), wherein the author attempted to find a neurobiological basis for morality. Churchland failed, and for much the same reason as did Greene. Her foundational premise, that men are innately social beings, was left unproved and is arguably wrong, and Greene’s arguments rely on similarly shaky premises. But it’s okay to read something that’s really bad and wrong, if it helps clarify the mind about things as they are.
Greene almost immediately wades into the swamp of human sociability, only to emerge dripping with non-scientific bromides and platitudes, from Chapter One, the Tragedy of the Commons:
Why should any creature be social? Why not just go it alone? The reason is that individuals can sometimes accomplish things together that they can’t accomplish by themselves.
One wonders, to what sort of “things” is he referring? Is he referring to survival and propagation, the only things that ultimately matter? If so, that begs the question. How is it that individuals can enhance their survival and propagation prospects through sociability? And what would happen to the attribute of sociability if the individual replicating organism discovered that sociability impaired its prospects of survival and propagation? Would it be discovered that no creature in nature is innately social, but that sociability is just one of many possible strategies for survival?
This principle has guided the evolution of life on earth from the very start. Approximately four billion years ago, molecules joined together to form cells. About two billion years later, cells joined together to form more complex cells. And then a billion years later, these more complex cells joined together to form multicellular organisms. These collectives evolved because the participating individuals could, by working together, spread their genetic material in new and more effective ways.
While his narrative of how multicellular organisms came to be may or may not be correct (it has not been proved either way), the manner in which he relates the story, implying intent on the part of organisms, or even molecules, is unfortunate. It may look intentional that molecules joined together to form cells, but the theory of evolution by natural selection says otherwise. Neither molecules nor multi-celled organisms intend the results that obtain. Things that can survive, survive. Things that can’t, don’t. There is no intent involved. It is just dumb luck, or as scientists would say, it is through the random mutation of form that a configuration of molecules or cells arises which fits the parameters of survival. That some molecules and cells discover that cooperation yields replication advantage is completely by accident.
Fast-forward another billion years to our world, which is full of social animals, from ants to wolves to humans. The same principle applies. Ant colonies and wolf packs can do things that no single ant or wolf can do, and we humans, by cooperating with one another, have become the earth’s dominant species.
Ants, taken as individuals, truly are social creatures, because no single ant can survive and propagate alone. In fact, the life of an ant is meaningless outside the context of a colony, much in the same manner that a honeybee is useless by itself. Ant colonies and honeybee hives are what Harvard biologist Edwin O Wilson has deemed “superorganisms”, where individual colony and hive members are very much similar to single cells in multicellular organisms, though each is itself a multicellular organism. It is the colony or hive that reproduces, calving off new colonies and hives, not individual ants and bees that have that capacity. The question of organismic sociability must be asked of the very lowest level for which the organism has the capacity to reproduce. For the social insects, it is at the colony or hive or mound level. And ant colonies and bee hives, even of the same species, are superorganisms that are not at all social with each other. Any interaction they might have with other colonies or hives is sure to be quite violent and deadly, i.e., quite of an uncooperative tenor.
More aggravating though is the oft-repeated claim of laymen, biologists, moralists, theologians, etc., and here, Greene, that humans are the earth’s dominant species. By what metric is dominance measured? I am sure the single-celled organisms populating the earth, many trillions more of them than there are humans, and that routinely cause widespread human disease and death, might disagree, if some sort of poll could be conducted. The same is true for ants, which as individuals greatly outnumber humans, and as collective masses greatly outweigh them. Humans domesticated wolves and turned them into canine monstrosities like greyhounds and pit bulls, so I’ll grant that of the two examples Greene offered, humans dominate wolves. And given the precariousness of existence for all other earthly mammals since Homo sapiensburst on the scene as sedentary agriculturalists ten thousand or so years ago, it seems human domination extends past just canines to include all of the earthly creatures classed as mammals. Humans are the dominant mammals, nothing more. But it is a routine canard, particularly in speaking about things that are perceived to be uniquely human (in this instance, a moral sense) to accentuate the perceived differences between humans and all other creatures in order to elevate humans from the realm of mere animals. We humans may be dominant, in some limited respects, but we are very, very insecure about it, needing and seeking positive reinforcement at every turn.
By observing that humans are earth’s dominant species, Greene is writing to the anxious first-world types who have ample time and leisure to consume a book on morality (like this one) in pursuit of quelling their existential doubts and ennui. Unlike in developing-world locales, where humans dwell among and are regularly killed by dangerous creatures (e.g., lions and panthers in west India; tigers and bears on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia; crocodiles on the upper Nile) of the type that the West came to dominate or outright exterminate years ago (mountain lions and wolves in North America; bear in Europe), first-world types need constant reassurances that their ascendancy is justified as the natural order of things. Where third-world people acquiesce to the reality that humans aren’t so intellectually powerful that a few of them won’t get eaten every now and then as part of life’s natural rhythms, first-world people spend their lives in fear, and their treasure on eliminating its sources. Towards the end of the book, Greene proclaims that, as a university professor living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it takes no “sociological sleuthing to guess that [he’s] a liberal”. By his observation early on in the book that humans are earth’s dominant species, it takes no intellectual gymnastics to guess from which moral tribe he hails and to which he is speaking–the rarified, first-world, urban-sophisticate sort who need constant reassurances that man really is the dominant species.
In short, Greene makes an inauspicious start in the very first chapter, one from which the book never recovers. In fact, things get worse the further along his train of thought progresses, as the following passage, from Chapter Two, Moral Machinery, attests:
In sum, we are a caring species, albeit in a limited way, and we probably inherited at least some of our caring capacity from our primate ancestors, if not our more distant ancestors.
The theory of evolution by natural selection is apparently hard for psychologists to internalize. Of course we inherited whatever capacities we have from our ancestors. But what, exactly, does it mean to say we are a caring species? Caring about what? About each other? About ourselves? What does it even mean to “care”? Is it an action-less emotion or attribute, perhaps like ennui, that simply describes a state of being? If so, it is meaningless to understanding human morality because moral impulses are only interesting in understanding human beings in so far as they motivate human beings to action. He goes on:
We care most of all about our relatives and friends, but we also care about acquaintances and strangers. Under ordinary circumstances, we’re highly reluctant to harm strangers, so much so that pretending to do so causes our veins to constrict. We’re also willing to help strangers, expecting nothing in return, so long as it’s not too costly. Because we care about one another, because our individual payoffs are not the only ones that matter to us, we can more easily get ourselves into the magic corner.
The “magic corner” of which Greene speaks is the corner in the famous prisoner’s dilemma where two alleged criminals cooperate to minimize the totality of the sentences meted out to them. In the dilemma, if both alleged criminals refuse to confess to the crime, then they both get lighter sentences. If either of them defects, i.e., confesses, the other gets a lengthy sentence and the confessor gets even less than he would in the magic corner. If both defect, they both do worse than the magic corner. So, ironically, by entering and following an agreement refusing to cooperate with the authorities, both criminals do better. And this in a book on morality. Greene uses this example throughout the book as something of the ultimate goal in developing a meta morality (hence the name “magic corner”). The irony that the cooperative strategy of the prisoners amounts to subterfuge directed at undermining the authorities who are attempting to protect the public from criminal behavior is apparently lost on Greene. Yet this example does yield a glimmer of insight into the profoundly subjective nature of morality, but I will do as Greene repeatedly and aggravatingly did when he casually slid off the rails of whatever he was discussing, by dismissing the tangent for now as there will be “more on that later”.
The fact that we favor (not “care” about) our relatives and friends over strangers is well-documented in research ranging from humans to monkeys to bacteria to weeds in a field. Like favors like, and the more alike a thing is, the more it is favored. To put it in a term with an unjustified ugly connotation, all creatures great and small are bigots (a word which simply means, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, one who is strongly partial to one’s own group, religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ). All creatures must necessarily be partial to themselves and their own group (i.e., species) and to some extent intolerant of others, else they wouldn’t long exist. If a lion were partial to ungulates (zebras, gazelles, wildebeest, etc.) instead of lions, such that it refused to eat them, such a lion would likely not survive long, and would certainly have great difficulty in propagating its genes. Humans are no different, and it is natural that their partiality would be strongest for those closest to them in time and space, or culture, or family, etc. Bigotry is a survival imperative and attribute common to all creatures.
But the next to last sentence of the passage (We’re also willing to help strangers, expecting nothing in return…) reveals a significant source (outside of his assumption of human sociability) of Greene’s bankrupt ideas. The sentence implies that there exists such a thing as altruism, a notion in biology that is at best controversial; according to the tenets of evolution theory, impossible. According to the American Heritage again, the zoological definition of altruism (the one with which a scientist, social or otherwise, should be concerned) is instinctive cooperative behavior that is detrimental to the individual but contributes to the survival of the species. It is easy to see, if individual ants and bees are considered members of their species, that they routinely cooperate (forage for food, fight off intruders, etc.) in a manner that is detrimental to them individually but helps the species survive. But individual ants and bees do not have the opportunity to individually reproduce. They are simply cogs in the machine of the superorganisms of colonies and hives that comprise the level where reproduction in the social insects takes place. And they share (the worker sisters, at least) from half to three-quarters of their DNA with their cooperative sisters, making them almost clones of each other. But colonies and hives do not cooperate with other colonies and hives in a manner that is detrimental to them but that contributes to the survival of the species. Thus, properly understood, altruism no more exists as a durable, instinctive trait, even among social insects, as it does among mammals, which have no similar superorganismic structures.
The reason is simple. According to the tenets of evolutionary theory, any sort of genetically modulated behavior (“instinctive”) that is detrimental to the individual but that contributes to the survival of the species will soon enough be naturally selected out of the gene pool for its failure to propagate at the same or better rate as the selfish genes which compel non-altruistic behavior, i.e., behavior that contributes to the survival of the individual.
Among humans, acts that are often perceived as altruism—risking one’s life to save another, fighting in a war, donating time or money to charitable causes, etc.,–are not, on closer inspection, altruistic. For instance, fighting in a war might seem, in some respects, detrimental to an individual and beneficial to the survival of the species. But war fighting does not aid the species in any particular manner; it might in fact impair its prospects for survival. And the potential detriments to the individual are offset by the potential rewards that might accrue (e.g., survival of the clan from which mating opportunities arise; enhanced stature in the clan; etc.). Donating money to a charity might seem altruistic, aiding the species survival at the expense of one’s own. But when a billionaire donates a few million dollars to a charity, which in return names a building after him, there is quid pro quo, not altruism. The billionaire is simply trading dollars he doesn’t need for the recognition and acclaim that he forever strives to achieve (else it is highly unlikely he would ever have acquired a billion dollars).
Every deliberate action of every creature is evaluated and considered by the creature that is undertaking it from its own subjective point of view, and that is how observers, if they are to be objective, must evaluate their actions. If it is imagined that all creatures (with reproductive capacity) are inherently, subjectively, selfish, understanding how it is that superficially altruistic actions can obtain is much easier. All it takes for a selfish creature to undertake an action which is thought to be altruistic from an outsider’s point of view, is that a quick, or slow evaluation of its costs versus its benefits be performed. If benefits exceed, or are imagined will exceed, costs, it might then undertake an action that appears to be altruistic. Saving a child from a burning house, for example, even if the child is not one’s own, has the potential to accrue certain benefits to the rescuer (accolades for his heroism, etc). If the potential benefits to the rescuer are imagined in the mind of the rescuer to exceed the risks and the effort expended (i.e., the risk-adjusted costs), an attempt to save the child is subjectively viable, and is an inherently selfish strategy for the putative rescuer to pursue. What people often perceive as altruism is really nothing more than enlightened self-interest.
It is much easier to understand the behavior of living creatures if the basic premise is that creatures are inherently selfish, as evolution theory provides. To make any consistent sense in the analysis of behaviors requires the assumption that all living creatures act rationally, from their point of view, in furthering their survival and propagation imperatives. Trying to assume that any creature is altruistic, or “cares” for another of its kind to a greater degree than it does itself, yields nothing but confusion, and regrettably, books like Moral Tribes. Likewise, imagining that the human psyche, the realm in which charlatans of all denominations (e.g., Joshua Greene, philosophy, theology, psychology, even quack-biology, etc.) claim uniqueness for humans, confuses and muddles rather than clarifies. Human neural architecture is not substantively different in form and function from that of its mammalian relatives. It is only remarkable for its quantity, particularly in the amount of neural matter devoted to higher level reasoning. Chimpanzees can reason their way into a termite meal by poking a mound with a stick. But they can’t do integral calculus. The neural hardware employed to accomplish either task is substantially the same in both humans and chimps, but is more powerfully capable of logical reasoning in humans. Psychological analysis of humans that assumes some fundamental difference between the imperatives to which their minds are employed and that to which the minds of other animals are employed takes human cognition out of the realm of science and into the realm of angels. So of course, Greene does just that:
In nearly all primates, lower-ranking individuals are negatively disposed toward higher-ranking individuals, regarding them primarily with fear. But humans sometimes regard their leaders with powerful feelings of admiration.
How is it even remotely possible to distinguish emotions like fear and admiration among monkeys, never mind men? To some men, fear is admiration. And what are the scientifically established definitions for fear and admiration, in either monkeys or men?
So many of Greene’s conclusions are of the type evolutionary biologists dismiss as “just so” stories of human evolution—stories that see a trait or behavior and attribute it, without further proof, to the winnowing of genes through natural selection. Thus Greene observes cooperative parenting arising from the romantic love shared by a couple, and concludes that romantic love evolved to aid in cooperative parenting, ignoring a whole subcontinent of culture (India, et al) that eschews romantic love as the impetus for child-rearing, preferring instead to arrange marriages for the purpose of gene propagation. He compiles a list of human psychological “machinery” such as empathy, familial love, anger, social disgust, friendship, gratitude, honor, shame, guilt, loyalty, humility, awe, embarrassment, inter alia, and claims that, though there are no scientific proofs corroborating their evolutionary purpose of promoting cooperation, that if such weren’t the case, it would be a “hell of a coincidence” that they arose on their own. Moral Tribes is chock full of idle speculations such as these.
Greene spends great effort in explaining the moral dilemma he calls the “Tragedy of the Commons”. But the tragedy is a rather common one that requires very little moral insight to explain and cure. His commons is basically the economic problem of free riding—where a resource for which there is no owner (e.g., bluefin tuna in the open ocean) is exploited to the point of degradation, waste or possible extinction. The time-honored solution to the problem is rather simple—parcel out ownership stakes in the resource.
(Japan is on course to virtually wipe out the world’s supply of bluefin tuna in order to feed its fetish for eating raw fish. The world needs to get together and impose quotas, enforceable by naval intervention, on the harvesting of bluefin tuna. It’s hard to see why the whole earth should suffer to feed Japan’s fetish. Besides, raw fish is raw fish. They can eat another species. And the solution has next to nothing to do with morality, as morality is commonly understood. It has to do with market-guided incentives—an organization (a country or company) with a vested interest in bluefin tuna will seek to protect those interests against usurpers and poachers. Bluefin tuna in the open ocean belong to all mankind. A tiny island nation of a bit over 125 million people is in danger of exterminating a fish species to feed a food fetish. The rest of the world is perfectly justified in stopping such an abuse, and in using whatever means are necessary to do so. This sort of moral problem is quite easy to resolve so long as Greene’s twin assumptions of human sociability and altruism are discarded.)
The other dilemma Green identifies as a problem is what he calls the “Tragedy of Common Sense” (and yes, he capitalizes his two tragedies throughout). It is the problem of inter-group morality, i.e., of group conflict, and honestly, he muddles through it so confusingly that I often found myself lost in the thickets of his musings. While he’s tries to prove the universality of the human moral impulse, he apparently unwittingly shows how human beings in different cultures have moral impulses unique to their cultures. The reason he fails so miserably at solving the problem of, as he puts it, defining a “meta-morality”, is that he really doesn’t even know what a moral impulse is, or from where it arises.
Moral impulses—the idea of good versus evil—arise from deep within the emotional seat of the brain, as good and evil is partitioned according to survival imperatives. That which is good is that which aids in survival, from the perspective of the entity (a human being, a clan, family, tribe or nation, etc.) concerned with surviving. That which is evil is that which impairs it. Tribes and nations have different ideas of morality because tribes and nations face different existential challenges, many of them attributable to the particular climate or geography in which they exist, and a great many more simply cultural relics, old ways of solving existential problems that are passed down and religiously practiced (often literally) long after the reasoning for them is lost to the mists of time (e.g., the prohibition of eating pork amongst Jews and Muslims comes to mind as a practice that at one time probably had a good basis in hygienic considerations which are now passé, but the practice, at least among the faithful, still survives). To a Jew or Muslim, eating pork is considered evil, an abomination against God, who is otherwise good, i.e., the essence of morality, according to the theology, in all times and all places.
With the understanding that the moral virtue or vice of a thing or action turns on how it affects the survival (and propagation) prospects of the human/family/clan/tribe/nation, it is easy to see that the way to devise a morality applicable to all mankind is quite simple— take the individual’s survival and propagation as the reckoning perspective, not the survival of any group to which he belongs—and devise a morality which, if followed by all men, would most enhance the individual’s well-being. Or, take as the relevant group from which to devise a meta morality the entire human race, another means of getting to the same place. At least two of the world’s major religions, Christianity and Buddhism, in principle at least, do just that. And all the major religions share in common as a foundation of their catechism what Christians know as the Golden Rule—the admonition to treat others the same as you would have them treat you. Strip out national and tribal and racial boundaries, and this ethic is pretty much all that is necessary in order to arrive at a workable meta-morality. The problem isn’t discovering an ethic, a meta-morality, that would work. The problem is in its application.
To make a meta-morality work in a manner beneficial to the individual, as it must if it is to be viable, there must be an organization of international depth and breadth to give it a vehicle for expression. The organization must transcend political, racial, tribal and even religious boundaries. It should have as its constituency all the people of the world. There already exists the infrastructure for such an organization. It is called the Catholic Church. And in the person of Pope Francis, who seems to be finally bringing the church around to its ultimate purpose, it may well be that the Catholic Church finally becomes truly catholic (i.e., universal) in its constitution and its constituency. If ever it succeeds, its power would transcend that of any secular institution, including national governments (as it did in Europe for a thousand years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire). Green, of course, mainly ignores religion in devising his theory of morality, but such can be expected of a self-professed liberal Harvard professor from Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The seething masses of humanity have long been manipulated by their leaders into believing in the “otherness” of people not like them, a demonization process that has yielded war, death and destruction of unimaginable scale, from which the masses have suffered most. The Church teaches otherwise (at least officially); it teaches that our similarities are always greater than our differences. Even now, the leaders of poor nations pimp their people to labor like slaves in the factories and farms of rich nations. The Pope has called them to task for it. An international organization devoted to achieving inclusion and justice—devoted to enforcing the Golden Rule across national boundaries—could accomplish all and more that any meta-morality conceived in a sophomore dorm room requiring over 350 pages of exposition to explain ever might. It would necessarily be something like a vast labor union, but bringing humane standards to the workplace would be only a part of its mission. Its finest expression might be as a pacifier of international conflicts, whose costs are invariably borne by the poor for the benefit of the rich. Once people have a voice for expressing their natural abhorrence to killing others of their kind, which is precisely the impulse which must be overcome before war obtains, what will come of the breasts swelling with nationalistic pride as a nation’s youth marches off to slaughter? Perhaps the breasts will swell with humanistic pride as an international union of adherents refuses to take up arms, one against the other, for the benefit of their titular leaders.
Greene spends a great quantity of ink and synapses analyzing a shop-worn psychological dilemma he refers to as Trolleyology, and yes, it is capitalized throughout as such. The dilemma involves a question near and dear to a utilitarian’s heart, of which Greene is one—why do people choose to act differently depending on the circumstance when the ultimate outcome is the same?
The dilemma goes something like this: A trolley carrying five workers is barreling down a track uncontrolled and will obviously crash and kill all five occupants unless something is done. The only option available is to push someone who is standing close by into its path to slow its travel. The question asked by researchers is whether the study participants would push the person into the path of the trolley to save the five people at the expense of the person being pushed. Almost everyone says no. Another scenario is offered where the trolley with five people is again barreling to their certain doom, but the only hope of saving them this time is to flip a switch that turns the trolley onto a different track, where the trolley will crash into a workman on the track, killing him. In other words, the outcome is the same, five lives saved at the price of one. The question is would you turn the switch? People overwhelmingly say they would. So, what’s the difference? After rehashing a mountain of evidence and offering various justifications for why people wouldn’t push someone into the path of a trolley but would turn the trolley into the path of someone in a manner that kills them, it is finally resolved with what I imagine everyone understands quite intuitively—that there is a substantive difference between being the direct agent causing a human death and simply actuating a chain of events which does so. In the first scenario, a human being is asked to play god, and decide who gets to live and who dies. In the other, the trolley does the dirty work. It’s not that hard to see. But Greene uses the reluctance to achieve the same ends through direct means as indicative of some deep flaw in human neural architecture that must be overcome before a meta-morality based on utilitarianism might be achieved. Nonsense. There are great potential costs associated with killing another human being by one’s own hand. What if the five people die anyway? What if the five who are in the trolley are ne’er do wells and the person on the track which must be pushed to save them has just been honored as a saint, or alternatively, is a powerful businessman whose death is sure to be mourned by powerful community leaders? There is nowhere to hide when it is you who pushed him into the path of the trolley car. I would say the example instead illustrates the beautiful design of our neural architecture—its ability to quickly gauge threats to our own welfare and act accordingly, because it can never be said quite forcefully enough—the intentional killing of another human being is a matter the human psyche fully well knows is an endeavor fraught with as much danger for the killer as for the one being killed. Enlightened self-interest, calculated in an instant, tells us to pull the switch but refrain from pushing. It is only hard to understand when the mind is confused as to the true character of the human animal.
It is along the way to attempting to show the beauty of utilitarianism that Trolleyology enters the discussion in Moral Tribes. Utilitarianism is at best a sketchy idea to be kept in the back of one’s head when designing a socioeconomic system—the greatest good for the greatest number of individuals has got to be the point of any viable and durable socioeconomic system—but to say such an outcome is utilitarian explains little. And Greene has a different idea with his utilitarianism. He seems to think along the lines of Hegelian political philosophy (though Hegel was not himself a utilitarian), that utilitarianism is a vehicle that allows for a greater society, the impetus of individuals within it be damned, which is where Greene’s utilitarian meta-morality fails. Man does not exist to serve other men, or the society of men. He exists to serve himself. To do so, he must quell his passionate impulses of the moment, and use all the faculties available to him to envision the possible consequences of his actions. This is what prevents him from “utilizing” other men in ways disadvantageous to them (e.g., by stealing life or property from them), as the repercussions of doing so will often ultimately thwart his purposes. But men do not exist to serve some organization’s utilitarian purposes, no matter whether the organization is a business corporation, or a government, or society itself. The point of any morally defensible socioeconomic system must be to serve the needs of its individual members, if for no other reason than, unlike ant colonies, men reproduce individually, not collectively. And as I mentioned earlier, the requisite level of inquiry in evaluating morality has to be at the level where an organism might reproduce. Thus morality for ants has to be considered at the colony level; for humans, at the level of the individual. With ants, what is good for the colony is what matters. With humans, good has to be gleaned from the perspective of the individual.
I looked down and noticed this book review has stretched already to ten pages on the word processor, yet has only scratched the surface of the problems with Greene’s analysis. It might take another book as lengthy as Greene’s to dispel all the falsehoods and misconceptions he propagates in Moral Tribes, so I’ll somewhat abruptly end here (if ten pages could be imagined as abrupt).
To summarize: First, Greene assumes man is a social animal, and depending on how sociability is defined, man arguably is not a social animal, or is only advantageously social, according to his subjective evaluation of the benefits and costs to cooperation in the moment. Second, Greene assumes man is capable of altruism, and in fact tries to fashion a moral system that encourages as much altruism as possible. But neither man nor any other living creature is altruistic in an evolutionary sense—in a manner that favors another’s reproductive success over their own. Such a thing, over the term of more than a few generations, is impossible if evolution by natural selection is assumed. Third, Greene assumes man’s innate psychology is somehow qualitatively different than that of all other creatures, and is not even the same among men. There are of course differences in the neural architecture among men and between man and his close mammalian relatives, the apes. But the neurochemical makeup is the same, and more importantly, the purposes are the same—ultimately resolving in man, apes and all other creatures, to the continuation in space and time of the genes that crafted it. Developing an understanding in man of an innate moral sense in a manner from which a meta-morality might arise requires acknowledging that man is no less an animal than any other.
No mathematical proof is valid if its premises are flawed. Likewise, Greene’s false premises can’t provide a foundation through which his holy grail, a meta-morality, might be derived. But I would still advise reading the book, if only for the clarification value its errant ideas offer.