Continuing Conversation... Joshua Greene on Moral Tribes, Moral Dilemmas, and Utilitarianism

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
Joshua Greene on Moral Tribes,... Greg Page on Food, Agriculture...

This week, Joshua Greene of Harvard University and author of Moral Tribes spoke with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about moral dilemmas and what Greene calls the tragedy of common-sense morality.

What did you think of this week's conversation? Use the prompts below to share your thoughts. As always, we love to hear from you.

Moral Tribes.jpg

Check Your Knowledge:

1. Greene suggests his notion of "the tragedy of common-sense morality" as a sequel to Garrett Hardin's tragedy of the commons. What is the tragedy of common-sense morality, how does it differ from the tragedy of the commons, and why is it so difficult to overcome?

Why is utilitarianism so misunderstood?

2. Why is utilitarianism poorly named and misunderstood, according to Greene? To what extent does his concept of "deep pragmatism" rectify this? Explain.

Going Deeper:

3. Roberts asks Greene how a deep pragmatist would respond to recent accusations of price gouging against Uber in Sydney, Australia. To what extent does Greene characterize the "northern" and southern" perspectives satisfactorily? With which perspective do you have more sympathy, and why?

4. At the end of the conversation, Roberts relates Greene's thought experiment involving a world comprised of three species: homo selfishus, homo justlikeus, and homo utilitus. Do you agree with Greene's conclusion about attractiveness of homo utilitus?

Extra Credit:

5. Both Greene and Jonathan Haidt argue that our morality is a product of evolution, and each identifies "tribes" or "minds" that result. How do the moral groups compare in their approaches? How would Haidt suggest Greene's tragedy of common-sense morality can be overcome?

6. What is the "trolley problem?" What, according to Greene, is the best way to "maximize happiness impartially" when confronted with the trolley problem? How does the trolley problem reflect David Rose's concept of the "greater good rationalization problem?" How does Rose's notion help explain people's varying behavior in trolley situations? What does the greater good rationalization problem suggest about the potential to overcome the tragedy of common sense morality?

Comments and Sharing

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Luke J writes:

1) Green confuses the "tragedy" of the "tragedy of the commons" to be the failure to maximize the utility of resources in society -- for society. The true tragedy of the commons is that individuals can be selfish to the point of harming themselves and their neighbors for short-term gains.

The tragedy of the common-sense morality seems not to have any tragedy at all, except that it might not achieve maximum utility as desired by Green. Regardless of whether we are tribes sharing a forest, or individuals sharing a grassland, the only tragedy is if we/I fail to appreciate the other tribes'/individuals' equal need/right to the same resources.

2) Green said utilitarianism was poorly understood, but his examples do not seem to illustrate this -- utilitarianism is exactly what reasonably read people understand it to be. Perhaps "happiness" is worth re-definining, but that does not change the intent of utilitarianism or the required mode of enforcement. It is only more "pragmatic" in the sense that too many people will agree to some form of expropriation of someone else for what they estimate to be the good of everyone. (Reference Mike Huckabee's antagonism toward libertarians as anti-American.)

3) The Uber example was interesting because it revealed "deep pragmatism" for what it is -- poor stewardship. Green was willing to accept "price gouging" as morally superior if it produced more of x good, but equally condemned price gouging if the seller was simply trying to make an extra buck. However, it seems to me that utilitarianism/deep pragmatism does not allow for personal motivation/morality. Whether a supplier is trying to gouge his neighbor is inconsequential as long as the outcome maximizes utility.

4) The example is simply goofy coming from someone who knows a heck of a lot more about social science than I do. "Gee, I wish everyone was like me. We'd all get along." All humans are ugly and beautiful within themselves. Rather than wishing everyone behaved in an ideal way, it seems much more "deeply pragmatic" to have simple laws that try to restrain human ugliness and allow freedom for human beauty.

Luke J

Fred M writes:

Luke, thank you for that. Your last phrase reminded me of something that was troubling me during the interview - the definition of morality and the story about tribes that is used to support it. Morality, if defined values enabling humans to make decisions about the Good, has among the ancients been accompanied by two other axiological terms - Truth and Beauty. These are two other planes where we use values to make choices. Probably there are some evolutional biological explanations for these as well, which would be interesting to hear about. But more to the point they are missing from the picture of morality and values on the tribal narrative. Where do values come from? How come I might value slow-brain Utilitarianism over amydgalia-pumped deontology or vice-versa?

Michael Byrnes writes:

Greene's idea that we should avoid thinking about conflicts in terms of rights struck me as similar to Coase's view of externalities.

I think that on a past Econtalk about Coase, Roberts suggested that it was better not to think of externalities as situations where a perpetrator is harming a victim. Rather, externalities were reciprocal in their effects on both parties.

Greene's view seems similar - the "perpetrators and victims" view of externalities seems similar to the rights-based arguments Greene wants to avoid.

JasonL writes:

I detect an amount of circularity in most discussions about the role utilitarianism can play in helping us rise above our native moral preferences. Take distributional equality. There's that graph that shows allocation of wealth or income that scans to some as a self evident indictment of the status quo - they can look at how big the bar is under the 1% or .1% and compare that to the size of the bar in lower income demographics and they say "Look it is wrong!" I can look at that same graph and my reaction is essentially "I don't know if this is good or bad. You have to tell me the value of production of each of these groups for me to tell you if the distribution is unfair." So let's bring utility into this argument. It is true at every margin that the guy with more wealth values the additional dollar less than the guy with less wealth, so if that's the only game we are playing we should level out the entire distribution. But clearly that's not what most very liberal people would suggest. They say they want to apply utility but they only want to apply the reasoning up to the point that the graph looks the way they intuit is fair. At the end of the day it is in many if not all of the hard cases impossible to separate the utility function from the set of preferences we take into the discussion. I agree that there is great value in using utility as a check to a moral instinct, but Greene is in my view excessively optimistic about what happens when differing tribes just have fundamentally different views of the good.

Novice Alan writes:

Could our natural self interest, so usefully leveraged by capitalism, possibly be the best, or only, or most moral common currency we tribes have?

Sal Collora writes:

The one thing I found curious is that Greene says, "If you had a world full of people like that, who have friends and family and who take care of themselves but are willing to make sacrifices for other people when there are other people in great need, I think the world would be a lot happier."

I ask, "happy for whom?" Greene even called those people, "heroic," and alluded to humans that couldn't do that as "fallible."

This is the exactly what Rand warned about in Atlas Shrugged and in many of her speeches. As long as the benefits go to SOMEONE ELSE, an act is heroic and moral. By very definition, someone who doesn't "sacrifice" (he even used the word), doesn't measure up to his standard of perfection.

Someone who donates a kidney to a stranger or gives us his life to save an epileptic from being hit by a train is no hero. The man who goes to work and does his best work every day to provide for his happiness and derives happiness from his family and friends is a hero.

P's Attorney writes:

Confirmed my (informed) belief that there's something off about utilitarianism (and even deontology) in general; the over-abstract simplifying assumptions lead to absurdity. As even he was compelled to acknowledge. His only answer was a non-rigorous one that "we shouldn't turn ourselves into happiness-maximizing machines a la Singer's suggestion after all" - but I could have told you that.

"No one is saying to go too far" is not a philosophy. The moral implications go where no one can or should go. Meaning utilitarianism (and it's illegitimate offspring with Kantianism: Rawls' Theory of Justice and *its* decedents) is deficient. That "no I'm not saying you should go X far" should have been the first indication to him (among others) that there was a missing variable in the formula of his philosophy. Because there is a *reason* why it takes one to conclusions/implications that even those who embrace it know are ultimately unsatisfying.

After all, anyone can say "we should try hard to be better people" (I say that), but if you have a philosophy that says "We should try harder to be better people in a way that even I must concede, if we were to approach its ideal, would be inhuman, unlivable, and even hellish") well your theory has gone off somewhere. Usually back in its root (most philosophies go off the rails because of some seemingly innocuous difference in phrasing of foundational principles, or in a seemingly innocuous simplifying assumption. c.f. Hobbes' rigorous-but-flawed theory).
He is correct that as a matter of formulating public policy in the modern structure we’re often compelled (or feel compelled) to use something like a utilitarian calculus. But I think that says more about the modern structure’s public policy forming process (and not something good) rather than something positive about utilitarianism.

Richard Fulmer writes:

Homo utilitus, as Greene described it, sounds great. The question is, would this different species have survived? Greene argues that homo justlikeus evolved because of its "utility"; that is, being justlikeus "worked" in the sense that it survived. If homo utilitus is "better," why didn't we evolve as Homo utilitus? Would a species predicated on benevolence have survived in the pre-modern world? Would such a species survive in today's world?

Richard Fulmer writes:

Greene's thought experiment in which respondents are asked whether they would shove a man to his certain death given the certainty that doing so would save five other lives does not translate into the real world. In Greene's hypothetical world, we can push away safe in the knowledge of (net) four lives saved. In the real world, we cannot be certain that sacrificing the one will save the five. Instead, we may end up with six dead.

Greene's "realistic" thought experiments are little better. In a fantasy world, robbing rich Peter to pay poor Paul makes Paul better off but only because we know that this is a one-time exchange. In the real world, life goes on and our theft has long term consequences.

Peter now takes action against future theft. This means that money that would have otherwise been invested productively - that is, to create wealth - is now spent to preserve wealth. Perhaps a light bulb, personal computer, or lifesaving drug does not get invented.

Meanwhile, Paul, knowing that he can live at the expense of Peter and others like him, drops out of school and ends up leading an unfulfilling, unproductive life. The wealth that Paul would have created had he needed to work to support himself and his family is lost to the world. Worse, his children, seeing his behavior as "normal," follow his example and lead similarly unproductive lives.

Julien Couvreur writes:

==> One thing confused me in Greene's reasoning. After he explains the problem of the tragedy of the commons and the problem of multiple tribes needing a way to resolve conflicts, he jumps onto utilitarianism and democracy.

But I don't see how democracy could be expected to solve the tragedy of the commons, instead it only shifts it one step away.
Instead of the pasture being shared, it's the government-controlling-the-pasture which is shared.

To make matters worse, democracy potentially brings unshared resources into the commons, which increases the scope of the tragedy.

Also, Greene did not elaborate on a reliable process for interpersonnal utility comparison. My suspicion is that it would not hold against simple though experiments involving differing preferences.

==> Greene argues that we have both tendencies built-in: (1) we have a quick reaction against direct violence, (2) we have a slow, more utilitarian, reaction.

What is to say that the latter is superior? In other words, if we evolved to only treat those close to us as full human beings, then we should trust (1). That means we should not tax other citizens because we would not take our neighbor's property.

If (2) is superior, and the overdemandingness is resolved by pointing to the limitations of human nature, does Greene support the government making us "better utilitarians" by banning birthday parties and other "selfish" behaviors?

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