IdeaFestival 2014 #5: Us vs. Them: How to move from commonsense morality to metamorality

Joshua Greene

Session: Us/Them
Thursday, October 2, 2014, 9-10am, Kentucky Center

Joshua D. Greene is Professor of Psychology, a member of the Center for Brain Science faculty, and the Director of the Moral Cognition Lab at Harvard University. He studies the psychology and neuroscience of morality, focusing on the interplay between emotion and reasoning in moral judgment. His broader interests cluster around the intersection of philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. Greene’s publications have appeared in Science, Nature, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. His research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the MacArthur Foundation. In 2012 he was awarded the Stanton Prize by the Society for Philosophy and Psychology and in 2013 he received Harvard’s Roslyn Abramson Award for teaching. He is the author of Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them.

3 key ideas / arguments

1. The tragedy of commonsense morality

  • individual vs collective rationality
  • me vs us
  • The tragedy of the commons, Hardin 1968
  • morality is the solution to the tragedy of the commons – limits of communicative rationality (Habermas, critical theory …)
  • cooperation, but on what (whose?) terms?

2. Morality, fast & slow – Thinking, Fast and Slow (Kahneman 2011)

  • public goods game
  • cooperation & decision time
  • moral machinery: 2×2 matrix: positive/negative feelings – self-/other-motivating
  • Moral machinery: Success & failure (Herman et al, Science 2008)
  • tribalism: us vs them
  • global failures – climate disruption, violence — the failures are not just global, but regional, national, and local — see poverty, hunger, homelessness, polarization … in the US; Greece and Spain in Europe …
  • distant tribes (Singer 1972, Unger 1996)
  • valuing life: rescue dilemmas (Amitai Shenhav); reward pathway tracks: expected moral value
  • saving lives: why diminishing returns? – mammalian reward circuitry (food)

3. What does a slow-thinking metamorality look like: Moral progress in manual mode – Common moral currency?

  • how to get beyond fast ‘intuitive’  morality? – see Jonathan Haidt on social intuitionism
  • Bentham one of the first to defend gay rights
  • moral insight or inflexible, point-and-shoot tribal morality
  • we have to step back from commonsense morality; don’t trust your intuition
  • key value: trust
  • modern morality: a psychological prescription: start small, build trust from the bottom


  • Wrong premise: Knowledge is not power. This is the foundational myth of modern society, and the modern social sciences, especially when it comes to the most critical global predicaments of the 21st century – see research on Anthropocene
  • Operates on the wrong level. The most important problems are not psychological, but social. They cannot be adequately addressed by appeals to morality and cooperation. These appeals do not lead to sufficient behavioral changes that meaningfully address the issues. Systems, not people, make society happen (King 2009).
  • The global system has been operating in overshoot for decades, and increasingly does so, leading to socioeconomic polarization, resource scarcity, environmental constraints, and escalating conflicts on all lower levels
  • These are not problems to be solved, but predicaments to be coped with. See wicked and supewicked problems
  • Perhaps violence is down (Pinker), but unsustainability is up and resilience is down.
  • The relevant research is Earth system science. It consistently and increasingly finds that the global system is locked into an increasingly difficult future regardless of what ‘we’ ‘choose’ to do.
  • The global system evolves, but cannot be controlled/governed. Unfortunately, this still is a widespread control illusion/social engineering delusion.
This entry was posted in Academics, Advising, Advocacy, Community, Conferences, Events, Honors Salon, References, Research, Talks, Transdisciplinary, WKU and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *