Joshua Greene’s fine book “Moral Tribes” that I have just read throws much light on the topic a friend of mine raised: why professors of ethical philosophy test no more moral in psychology experiments on everyday behavior than the rest of us, and sometimes worse.
Greene suggests we evolved in small face to face groups and we are largely on moral auto-pilot driven by the rules of our small group/co-religionists/tribe whatever by the instincts of what feels right, what makes us ashamed if we violate it. Hence attitudes to betrayal, to pork, to gay marriage to whatever: automatic disgust mechanisms as per Jon Haidt’s work I have previously posted on . This moral auto pilot helps “I” work with “Us”, makes us social beings like most primates.
But Greene thinks this is useless when we try to bridge not between “I” and “Us” but between “Us” and “Them”. Why? Because our moral auto pilots are not aligned with those of other groups. They are wired with local moral variants and indeed evolution drove a competitive struggle between groups as to what group binding mechanisms were most effective in competing with other groups. And groups have different moral bindings.
But we now live in a very connected world and in this world. Greene thinks we need to find moral and ethical ways to cooperate and coexist with groups with very different moral auto-pilots. Hence we need to use rational ethical ways to solve the political problems of inter-group conflict. This is where ethics professors come in. They are no different from the rest on day to day moral auto pilot but they can throw a lot of light on what we should do when moral auto pilot doesn’t work: when we are facing groups with different moral auto pilots.
Greene advocates utilitarianism: figuring out what is in our collective interests and this has to be data driven, has to include critical thinking and some override of our moral auto pilot that might say kill those not like us. Given my experience trying to persuade people to use systematic approaches to conflict as per this blog, this is hard. People prefer to deny conflict, to evade conflict, and then if forced to confront it often respond with murderous rage, preferring this to actually stepping back and handling the conflict systematically with some process discipline.
Joshua Greene Professor of Psychology at Harvard University: