Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Neuroscientist Joshua Greene argues that our brains were designed for tribal life, for getting along with a select group of others (Us) and for fighting off everyone else (Them). But modern times have forced the world’s tribes into a shared space, resulting in epic clashes. Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them combines neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy to reveal the underlying causes of modern conflict. Dr. Greene is an award-winning teacher and scientist, and he directs Harvard University’s Moral Cognition Lab, which uses neuroscience and cognitive techniques to understand how people really make moral decisions.


Joshua Greene

Comments [14]

Donald J. Sepanek from Bayonne, NJ

By the process of reasoning and math, given the problem described and all other things being equal, I would probably come to the distasteful conclusion that it is better to have one person die that to let three die. However, I probably would not do the deed - not because of any moral imperative, but because of the consequences - I would probably be arrested for second degree murder in spite of my noble motives. You have forgotten to add the consequences into the equation. Sacrificing one life in order to save three might, technically, be the right thing to do but it could get you into a whole lot of trouble, hence our likelihood to call it "wrong" and our tendency not to do it.

Nov. 07 2013 05:46 PM
Patrick Conway from Brooklyn, NY

To everyone freaking out here about the trolley problem, maybe try to imagine that we're not trying to justify killing people, but rather trying to study how our brains work around moral choices so that we can make better societal choices in the future. If you'd like a less intense look at the same problem, consider a military hospital staffed with 5 competent surgeons. A transport arrives with 5 wounded soldiers, all of whom will die in the next hour without intensive emergency surgery. One of the wounded, however, is in much worse shape than the others and would need all 5 surgeons to collaborate intensely together in order to save. Should they let one die, or let 4 die? What if the worst of the wounded happened to be a great general? And what if the others all had young families to support while the general had no close relatives? What if the surgeons were friends with one or more of the wounded?

I'd bet that choices very like the one above happen hundreds of times a day in emergency rooms around the world. Talking about trolleys and switches is just a way of abstracting our look at moral decision-making. What we learn from the spread of responses can inform us about why certain outcomes happen in the real world. Sinning as out might be to some, indefinite detention and force-feeding of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay (which I personally find an enormous moral outrage) can be compared to pushing the fat passenger onto the tracks. They and their families must suffer so that you and I can be safe, we are told. These things are happening ALL THE TIME.

Nov. 07 2013 01:44 PM
John A.

Thank you, Amy, for thinking.

Nov. 07 2013 12:43 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

"Social science" is an oxymoron. It should be replaced by social engineering, because that is all these so-called "social scientists" are constantly trying to do.

Nov. 07 2013 12:41 PM
genejoke from Brooklyn

Who doesn't love playing the "what if?" game? Some of Greene's examples are ludicrous but at least he is articulate (I'll take coughing over upspeak and vocal fry any day). I'd love to hear more fascinating discussions/interviews like this on WNYC.

Nov. 07 2013 12:40 PM
khadija Boyd from brooklyn

OK, I've cooled down; should this person be a member of my tribe, as crippled as he is, imho, we would never push him off a bridge, nor leave him to hyenas (sorry, hyenas) in some far away desert. My tribe is vast; she is called humanity.

Nov. 07 2013 12:40 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Theology was replaced by Philosophy, and Science has replaced Philosophy. Theology and philosophy are just sophistry. Science is an activity that tries to get at the truth, whatever that may be, but it is an ongoing study. Theology and philosophy are just verbal nonsense. Wordplay.

Nov. 07 2013 12:40 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Theoretical examples tend to be too certain about the results of the actions. In real life, if you pushed someone off a bridge you wouldn't know if they'd land in the right place to stop the trolley, & maybe *all* the people would die. If you pull the lever, presumably you can see which track it would divert the trolley to, but what if the switching section of the track doesn't move fast enough & the trolley gets derailed, killing people on it? It's easier to choose an answer when it's just a problem written on a page.

Nov. 07 2013 12:34 PM
John A.

I should note that the trolley problem has never actually happened, meanwhile we have a society where professors ponder killing to the pro-death result routinely. Comparisons to Nazis appropriate?

Nov. 07 2013 12:29 PM
khadija Boyd from brooklyn

OOOOOOOH! peddler just got pushed off the bridge abd is too self-centered to notice... Emmanuel Kant, Nietsche, Jon Stewart.... too funny. Thanks, Mr. LL
;}}} ko

Nov. 07 2013 12:28 PM
John A.

Or, will you push the vote button,
for that president that pushes OK message,
to the CIA that pushes the Kill joystick.
No way by voting to stop it;
both candidates will be pro kill.

Nov. 07 2013 12:25 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Tribalism is normal and natural. And it will not go away anytime soon. The multiethnic, multiracial, multireligious, multi-everything constitutional state goes against the grain for most people. It is only a two hundred year experiment, and has failed in many countries. Czechoslovakia broke into the Czech and Slovakia broke apart peacefully. Yugoslavia not so peacefully. The Soviet Union relatively peacefully but with problems. Can the US break apart too? Cannot count the possibility out.

Nov. 07 2013 12:20 PM
Barbara Edelman from New Paltz, NY

I already tweeted this, so please ignore if tweet's been read and referenced. I read this in Atlantic last week and really hated the "two trolley choice" test. I wouldn't kill anyone. If I'm driving a trolley car, presumably I've been trained in emergency procedures, including the whistle cry for "runaway car." Presumably also, this car is in a city with police and people seeing the runaway trolley in time to clear people. Death of 5 (slim?) individual or one fat one are not only options.

Nov. 07 2013 12:20 PM
khadija Boyd from brooklyn

Oh boy, pushing a book. "cognitive psy?" [and stop coughing, hey?]; re-drones, would you prefer yet another monument on the Mall? Ugh!

Nov. 07 2013 12:15 PM

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