Moral Tribes by Joshua Greene (book review).

January 3, 2014 | By | Reply More

Morality works in two ways, individually or group. Joshua Greene’s book, ‘Moral Tribes’, looks at both especially at what differentiates us from ‘them’. As we are often regarded as ‘them’ for our geeky interests in things like Science Fiction, I thought it would be interesting to see was covered that I haven’t read before.


Greene starts off by looking at the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Two criminals are captured and the police try to get one to implicate the other for a lighter sentence is something I’ve noted before. Assuming criminals have seen this puzzle, I’m sure they would understand the logic of keeping their mouths shut than to take such an action and police interrogators would need a better way for them to snitch.

It’s also reassuring to discover that most people have a hard time shooting at each other in war. I wish Greene had explored how this taboo was broken in training, let alone re-establish it after a war. If anything, it’s our kindness to strangers which sets us apart from many other animal species, no doubt aided by the hope that they would do the same for us and is part of the basis for empathy. A test used on toddlers to measure the helpfulness seen of a triangle with eyes helping a ball up a hill against a square pushing it down must surely be seen as a measure to distinguish psychotic behaviour from the norm. Then again, being wired for tribalism doesn’t account for us loners and individualists who still react the same way. Ergo, you don’t necessarily have to connect to someone socially to care for them.

If you want a truly ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation then the Chinese attitude of imprisoning an innocent man of a crime to prevent a riot is going to feel odd to us non-easterners, although I can probably point at various other cultures who imprison people for the wrong political beliefs as doing a similar thing.

The discussion of the Trolley Problem where a railway trolley is on a collision with five people and to save them, you have to sacrifice a heavier person with you off a bridge to derail it made me think of three other solutions. If the person you’re with has read this book, he might decide to throw you in front of the trolley instead and take his chances in court that he thought you were heavier. That, I suspect, would be a fleeting thought as to what would you say in court had you been strong enough to do the deed to him, although Greene does provide a convenient trapdoor. Whichever the choice, you are committing the murder of one to save five or not doing enough to save the most men.

My other two solutions might be better though. The second would be for both of you to jump in front of the rogue trolley and the divided mass made save both of you and the five men. The third way would be to jump into the trolley and as it races towards the five men, if you can’t find the brake, to shout out and get them out of the way. Greene really should have tested how imaginative people like me would look for solutions and for the record, I didn’t spend hours pondering but a few seconds on each, the first one as I was typing up this paragraph. I’ve spend some time on this because Greene spends an entire chapter debating its logic further into the book.

I love the piece about just applying the word of the Bible to things other than homosexuality and where if all ancient laws were applied there would be few people standing. Be very afraid if you wear glasses or cut your hair. At least those who want to sacrifice their off-spring to the Lord might feel some justification although the rest of us will no doubt be awaiting our own death sentences and can’t stop it. The basic thing is those laws existed then and not for the present.

The Happiness Button from the 1985 ‘The Twilight Zone’ first season ‘Button, Button’ story is also used as an example to test your morality. I you press the button but you have to let someone you’ve never met die to get $200,000. Most people don’t, presumably because their number might also be up if more of these boxes are in circulation.

The examination of how people think and sleep about losing their small finger against people who die in a disaster should also make you think. I suspect the morality here depends on how much support you can give to either cause. I suspect it is the proximity to a disaster or trouble which changes the circumstances of any action.

The end of the book examines how you react in herd instinct and which can be basically summed up as think for yourself and don’t go along with a group for an easy life.

Although I wish there had been more tests to assess your morals, there should be enough here for you to test some of your decision making process, especially on some choices where there is no real right answer just how you react at the time. Whether you would use these examples in real life is hard to say. Knowing the possible outcome, you might well act differently because you’ve had the opportunity to think through the options first.

From a writer’s point of view, understanding a bit more about moral choices should have an effect on your characters and the decisions they make so there is something you can learn from this book.

Although a heavy read in places, I came away from this book with the thought that I could offer different options to the dilemmas posed and hope that Greene explores this in future books.

GF Willmetts

December 2013

(pub: Atlantic Books. 422 page illustrated indexed hardback. Price: £22.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78239-336-8)

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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