This is a great book by Joshua Greene. It begins with a Parable of the New Pastures, which is of course build on top of Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, which was written in 1968. Greene’s newer example concerns tribes with different grazing/sharing paradigms and analyzes the interactions between these different ways of thinking (some are more individually-oriented and others are based on a more collectivist orientation). This is in contrast to Hardin’s original meme, which is all about a single group of individuals trying to share a common resource.
Greene cites Daniel Kahneman’s _Thinking Fast and Slow_ in his analysis. While I didn’t see a perfect alignment with Kahneman’s system 1 and system 2, Greene does fairly closely follow those paradigms with his own automatic mode and manual mode models of thinking. As Greene explains things, our automatic mode is what enables us to overcome the problems Hardin elucidates in his original Tragedy of the Commons. Like Kahneman’s system 1 thinking, Greene describes automatic mode as our quick and easy, often emotional reactions to situations. Another way to think about this duality is that automatic mode is a result of our instincts, which have been honed by evolution, whereas manual mode is the result of our ability to cognitively process (also provided by evolution, but in this case, far fewer species have been provided with this ability, whereas a huge number of different animals have instincts) and think through situations, conflicts, problems and the like. In Greene’s view, manual mode is genetically (and also culturally) derived behavior which has evolved in our inherently social species in order to overcome the Me vs. Us dichotomy that would otherwise prevent us from cooperating so closely with each other (and which from a purely rational point of view is antithetical to any individual’s selfish needs/desires). In Greene’s words, the way automatic mode is expressed is via:
Empathy, familial love, anger, social disgust, friendship, minimal decency, gratitude, vengefulness, romantic love, honor, shame, guilt, loyalty, humility, awe, judgmentalism, gossip, self-consciousness, embarassment, tribalism and righteous indignation. These are all familiar features of human nature, and all socially competent humans have a working understanding of what they are and what they do.
In the context of getting along with each other, the alternative manual mode of thinking, which involves explicitly reasoning about things in a slower contemplative process which requires more effort can actually be used to subvert cooperation and justify prioritizing Me over Us. This is in fact what Hardin’s original Tragedy of the Commons is all about: how individualistic thinking can lead to ruin for both group and individual interests. In Greene’s estimation (which I fully endorse), the answer to Hardin’s conundrum is to use our inherent moral sense (a product of manual mode thinking) to resolve all conflicts which have at their base a Me vs Us dynamic. Humanity has not been entirely successful at this since expanding our living situations beyond the original tribal milieu in which we evolved, where individuals were all quite familiar with everyone else they interacted with and so the moral sense could maintain its full power. Having culturally grown beyond those small tribal bands to now live in much larger groups up to the level of enormous cities, that moral sense is no longer able to fully maintain itself, as another product of our evolution is a sense of stranger or outsider that we inherently react to differently than we do to those we consider a part of our own tribe. This conflict of Us vs. Them, combined with our ability to think in manual mode has led us to develop hierarchical power structures and dynamics, which probably didn’t ever have a chance to break out from the more egalitarian paradigm that was the norm during the tribal living of most of the history of our species. The same factors have enabled some of us to explicitly attain individual power and reach in modern societies.
Greene extensively analyzes the infamous philosophical trolley problem. Without dwelling too much on the nitty-gritty details, the results of many studies point to significant inconsistencies with regard to how our brains “naturally” work with respect to saving many lives by sacrificing fewer (or just one). While many of us (as reported by many studies, surveys, questionnaires, etc…) will throw a switch to change the track a trolley is on in order to have it avoid killing a group of people on the track and instead send it onto a different track where it will only run over and kill a single person, very few individuals would be willing to push someone off a footbridge in front of a trolley to stop it in order to save a group of people farther up the track. Greene’s conclusions here seem sensible to me and have to do with the nature of our “agency” and how we differently perceive different actions. The throwing of a switch to take someone’s life, while still not an easy choice is one that many of us are capable of due to the distance between us, and how the throwing of a switch is somehow much less “personal” as compared to physically pushing an individual who is standing right in front of us to his/her death. There is something about the requirement for direct physical contact that causes most of us to be incapable of taking this action, even to save the lives of several others. This proves to be quite important later in the book as understanding how our moral instincts lead to us to irrational choices is key in our (Greene’s) quest to find a way solve thorny issues on which different groups of people with different beliefs and worldviews disagree substantially.
As Greene then moves on to search for common currency, he begins by presenting a quote from Barack Obama:
Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to arguments, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or [invoke] God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.
The onus on “Believers” to stretch their thinking might be problematic in practical terms (my belief is that some subset of the religiously-minded population may never be willing to engage in this fashion), but in order to really reach out and interact with the portion of humanity who believe differently, this is a necessity if we are to truly make progress in diminishing (or potentially eventually eliminating?) conflict amongst groups.
Even for those of us with a more secular bent, the goal of framing issues in a more universal language which is capable of cutting across all belief systems is not a trivial task. But it is worth it in order to find a way to deal with the reality of our dual-process brains, and we should be willing to expend significant effort on this task.
In the end, Greene is making an argument that we all espouse a philosophical point of view that he prefers to label as Deep Pragmatism, in contrast to the more common designation of mostly the same worldview that others have used in the past: Utilitarianism. Greene prefers his new label due to the baggage unfairly associated with the older term, but the essence is to maximize for the greatest amount of happiness amongst our populations on the planet. He goes into detail about how to optimize for happiness on the individual level, arguing (I think quite convincingly) that our goal should be to favor the goal of eliminating suffering of the world’s most poor and disenfranchised people over the incremental improvements of those folks who’ve already attained an adequate standard of living.
Greene’s treatment of these (and more) topics is far better than my brief synopsis and I found the book to be full of truly profound insights. I highly recommend it to everyone who is interested in morality and/or solving conflicts between individuals and/or groups with different worldviews/core beliefs.