Adventures in Morality

Or, An Oblique Review of Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes

I’ll tell you two stories from the life of a young Lebanese boy. We shall travel along on his first trip to the United States and his return to his home country at the height of the Israeli invasion. In so doing, we’ll trace the boy’s development from a child who refuses to grow up, to an adult capable of formulating complex moral feelings. Through these two stories, we will work our way through the tangled threads of Joshua Greene’s fascinating new book, Moral Tribes.

The Peter Man Motel

The first story sees the young boy at seven years old, when his parents took him on his first trip abroad. One summer, his father was invited to a medical conference in Los Angeles, so the family decided to spend an extra weekend for a daytrip to Disneyland. To avoid the throngs of tourists and hefty prices that came with traveling during high season, they booked their accommodation a few miles out of town in Santa Cruz, at the Peter Pan Motel.

For the little boy fresh out of the crooked streets of Beirut, the stout structure of the family-run establishment was as expansive as an average-sized American suburb. Late one night, the boy returned from his playing to find his mother absently ironing a shirt alone. His father, the mother explained, was out visiting another colleague. That doesn’t work, the boy thought. He would have to find a way to flush his father out from hiding.

As he traipsed down the corridor, the answer finally came to him. There, attached to the stuccoed concrete, was a shiny red fire alarm. Without the slightest hesitation, he hooked his fingers into its latch, and yanked it down with all his weight.

The sound was deafening. He watched as people in various states of undress flooded out of the numbered doors past him and into the courtyard below. That was his cue. He bolted down the stairs and scurried through the jungle of ankles and legs to his parents. The three of them waited helplessly as the hotel manager and two security guards soon announced that it was a false alarm.

The manager later discovered who the little culprit who had tripped the alarm was. The boy’s punishment was swift and brutal, for the process of sorting through the mess took up most of the following day – the very time the family had saved to visit Disneyland.

What the boy did that day was wrong on at least three levels: First, he lost the chance to see Disneyland. Second, he caused his parents quite a bit of embarrassment. And third, he disrupted the evening of everyone at the motel. While far from being the capital crime everyone made it out to be, very few things responsible adults consciously and intentionally do today manage to be wrong on all three social levels: Me, Us, and Them.

These are the three levels that Joshua Greene explores in his thesis on morality. The problem exemplified by this parable is known as the Tragedy of the Commons, which occurs when individuals act independently, resulting in their self-interests conflicting directly with the common interest. Moral questions arise when people agree on what the right thing is (prosperity, happiness, security) but disagree on what to do to achieve it.

According to Greene,

Morality evolved as a solution to the problem of cooperation, as a way of averting the Tragedy of the Commons: Morality is a set of psychological adaptations that allow otherwise selfish individuals to reap the benefits of cooperation.

Cooperation is forged through a common belief (religious, economic, social) that binds the members of a tribe together into a relatively coherent ‘Us.’ The ideological wall constructed to hold inside members of the same tribe has the added result of keeping outside members of other tribes – those who do not subscribe to the same religious, economic, or social beliefs. Those outsides are labeled ‘Them.’ The problem of cooperating within groups (The Tragedy of the Commons) thus averted though a shared ideology, the central question of Joshua Greene’s book becomes how to form a meta-morality that works between different tribes.

Adhering to this group loyalty is the first step in the moral development of children, who soon realize that abject selfishness (serving Me at the expense of Us) would get them into trouble and would get them banished from the tribe.

The Tank at the Street Corner

The boy and his parents returned home to Lebanon to a time of relative peace and tranquility. Many believed the worst of the civil war was behind them. Then, of course, like a bolt of lightening came the Israeli Invasion. In a matter of days, Beirut was turned into a military zone, with tanks stationed at every corner.

They were living in Ras Beirut in a flat leased out to them by the American University in a colorful British style apartment block, known as the Alumni building. On the ground floor was a sandlot playground with swings and monkey bars, and a tank at the corner.

The boy was fascinated by the tank, so, one day he decided to walk up to it. Perched on top, behind its muzzled canon was a soldier, not more than ten years older than he, his freckled cheeks a rosy glow cut by the shadow of his domed helmet.

In broken English, they struck up a conversation, exchanged names and spoke about their favorite things. And day after day, the boy would trot up to the tank and spend his playtime at the foot of its massive chained wheels. The two talked about home, about being away from it, about loving their parents and brothers, and about war. Then one day the soldier had to say goodbye. He was being called for duty at the border. And just like that, he was gone.

A few days later, the boy’s household bustled with friends and family. Once again, the war was over. The enemy had suffered its biggest defeat yet in the South, in a bloody battle that resulted in hundreds of causalities on either side. The tank never returned to that spot at the corner of the Alumni Building. This experience was the boy’s first step into the complex world of adult morality, which Greene models around the Trolley Problem:

A runaway trolley is headed for five railway workmen who will be killed if it proceeds on its present course. You are standing on a footbridge spanning the tracks, in between the oncoming trolley and the five people. Next to you is a railway workman wearing a large backpack. The only way to save the five people is to push this man off the footbridge and onto the tracks below. The man will die as a result, but his body and backpack will stop the trolley from reaching the others. (You can’t jump yourself because you, without a backpack, are not big enough to stop the trolley, and there’s no time to put one on.) Is it morally acceptable to save the five people by pushing this stranger to his death?

This is a simple question with a complex answer. Most people choose to sit back and let fate take its course. But what if you are forced to make a decision? What if instead of a switch, you were given the choice to push an innocent bystander onto the tracks to stop the trolley? What if the people had faces and names, or if they were chosen from your own tribe? What if they were acquaintances, friends, or family? What if a single switch could harm one person from an outside tribe for the greater good of one’s own tribe? And what if you had to decide whether to flip that switch? Luckily we don’t have to make such decisions every day, one might think. But that is not entirely true, and in fact we live with the consequences of such decisions being made on our behalf every day for the “greater good.” In fact recent Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o cited that very dilemma in her acceptance speech. “It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s.”

Greene’s research concludes that people are more prone to condemn such decisions when they involve sacrificing someone as a “means” towards the greater good rather than as a “side effect” of it. That is why collateral deaths in a sanctioned raid on a village (as a side effect of war) generally draws less outrage than a suicide bombing (as a means of terrorism) would.

Similarly, trolleyology (as Greene labels it) leads to a conclusion that there is, in fact, less power in numbers. We tend to react to 10,000 causalities the same way we do towards 1000, even though each one of those causalities has a name, a history, and loved ones to mourn them. This is what Greene calls “the morass of competing human values,” (Greene, p. 185) and it’s a prickly one.

The problem of meta-morality, then, goes beyond the Tragedy of the Commons. It is one of Common Sense Morality. There must be, then, a “common currency” which allows us to share moral values (and to act open them) not only within the same tribe, but also across tribes. This meta-morality is the “holy grail” that Greene seeks, though naming it as such would be ironic since the first thing this quest dispels with is a reliance on religion as a moral compass.

And nowhere is this more evident than in the power the Media (capital M) wields on our collective perception of either side of a conflict. In Greene’s words, “when the facts are at all ambiguous, people favor the version of the facts that best suits their interests.”

But even setting religion (or sectarianism, its “secular” offspring) aside, our relatively benign empathy for others is evident in our investment in the plight of fictitious characters. Otherwise literature, film and other narrative art forms would simply not exit. We all weep for Romeo and Juliet, figments of legend, folklore, and the pen of a certain Elizabethan playwright far removed from our own lives. And returning to real life, we observe with some irony that in any given moral dilemma,

[…] both sides truly believe that their respective ways of life produce the best results. However — and this is the crucial point — both sides are more committed to their ways of life than they are to producing good results.

In other words, our commitment to the creeds of our own tribe often transcends even our most fundamental doubts in the morality of those creeds.

The book ends on a hopeful note, that perhaps the common moral currency we all seek lies in what Greene (somewhat apologetically) terms “utilitarianism,” which demands that we break away from the “automatic” mode of thinking about moral questions, into a “manual” mode, which demands that we ask:

First: What really matters? Second: What is the essence of morality? […] Experience is what ultimately matters, and […] impartiality is the essence of morality. Combining these two ideas in manual mode we get utilitarianism: We should maximize the quality of our experience, giving equal weight to the experience of each person.

To achieve that, Greene formulates 6 Rules to abide by in answering moral questions:

  • Rule No. 1. In the face of moral controversy, consult, but do not trust, your moral instincts.
  • Rule No. 2. Rights are not for making arguments; they’re for ending arguments.
  • Rule No. 3. Focus on the facts, and make others do the same.
  • Rule No. 4. Beware of biased fairness.
  • Rule No. 5. Use common currency.
  • Rule No. 6. Give.

In short, we must think as storytellers, and break away from the Peter Pan morality that favors Me over Us, and Us over Them. To answer a moral question, we must begin by putting ourselves in the shoes of Them, to think from the outside in and ask, “What if?”

If the little boy had first thought of the other tenants at the Peter Pan Motel (Them), then considered the embarrassment flipping that fire alarm would cause his parents (Us), he would have seen past his selfishness (Me) and patiently waited for his father to return. Then maybe they would have taken that daytrip to Disneyland after all.

Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them by Joshua Greene was published by Penguin Group in October 2013.

Featured image by Renee from Instant Memories

You can participate by submitting your article.

About The Author

Meedo Taha

Meedo Taha

Meedo Taha thinks about things, makes them, then talks about them. In his spare time he shoots movies and designs buildings. His first novel, A Road to Damascus, will be published by Keeward in 2014.

Subscribe to our newsletter