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The Tragedy of Common Sense Morality

Joshua Greene uses the Tragedy of Common Sense Morality as a central theme in his book — Moral Tribes. His suggests that our brains are actually surprisingly well adapted to solve the tragedy of the commons. In the tragedy of the commons, our personal incentives to behave uncooperatively cause disaster for everyone. Greene calls this the “Me versus Us” problem.

The Me Versus Us Problem

Greene says:

“Our moral brains solve this problem primarily with emotion. Feelings of empathy, love, friendship, gratitude, honor, shame, guilt, loyalty, humility, awe, and embarrassment impel us to (sometimes) put the interests of others ahead of our own”

Greene 2013, page 293

His argument is that our automatic processes serve us well — we don’t cheat our friends because it feels wrong to do so. It doesn’t require deep thinking to do the right thing.

“Us Versus Them” Thinking Leads To The Tragedy of Common Sense Morality

He suggests the problem for complex moral thinking is the problem of “us versus them”. Our tribe’s ideas against another tribe’s ideas. Here our intuitions let us down; we generally don’t care enough about people who aren’t like us. Indeed, “Here our disparate feelings and beliefs make it hard to get along” (Greene, 2013, page 293).

Us Versus Them Thinking A Problem For Moral Intuitions

During intergroup conflict our automatic processes are flawed. Our intuitions suggest things are universal truths and we react when other groups behave contrary to these. We also have biased automatic assessments of what our group should receive and don’t tend to notice when other groups aren’t being treated fairly. Greene’s plea is thus to think deeply about controversial issues. This is because the value of our intuitions are likely to be limited when ideas from different groups clash.

Be Wary Of Your Intuitions When Reasonable People Disagree

There is a lot to admire in Greene’s book. Even when he avoids a problem for his philosophy — for instance he cheats a little by saying that many tricky moral dilemmas don’t happen in real life so can be ignored — he does so for understandable reasons. His basic message is sensible. When we all agree, i.e. no one claims murder is great, our moral intuitions are probably worth listening to. When reasonable people disagree, how should we regulate dangerous substances?, we should be wary of relying on our intuitions.

For more on philosophy see here.

Read: Joshua Greene (2013) Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between US and Them, The Penguin Press, New York

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