Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky

Author:Robert M. Sapolsky [Sapolsky, Robert M.]
Language: eng
Format: epub, mobi
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Published: 2017-05-01T22:00:00+00:00

Slow and Fast: The Separate Problems of “Me Versus Us” and “Us Versus Them”

The contrast between rapid, automatic moral intuitionism and conscious, deliberative moral reasoning plays out in another crucial realm and is the subject of Greene’s superb 2014 book Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them.33

Greene starts with the classic tragedy of the commons. Shepherds bring their flocks to a common grazing field. There are so many sheep that there is the danger of destroying the commons, unless people decrease the size of their herds. And the tragedy is that if it is truly a commons, there is no incentive to ever cooperate—you’d range from being a fool if no one else was cooperating to being a successful free rider if everyone else was.

This issue, namely how to jump-start and then maintain cooperation in a sea of noncooperators, ran through all of chapter 10 and, as shown in the widespread existence of social species that cooperate, this is solvable (stay tuned for more in the final chapter). When framed in the context of morality, averting the tragedy of the commons requires getting people in groups to not be selfish; it is an issue of Me versus Us.

But Greene outlines a second type of tragedy. Now there are two different groups of shepherds, and the challenge is that each group has a different approach to grazing. One, for example, treats the pasture as a classic commons, while the other believes that the pasture should be divided up into parcels of land belonging to individual shepherds, with high, strong fences in between. In other words, mutually contradictory views about using the pasture.

The thing that fuels the danger and tragedy of this situation is that each group has such a tightly reasoned structure in their heads as to why their way is correct that it can acquire moral weight, be seen as a “right.” Greene dissects that word brilliantly. For each side, perceiving themselves as having a “right” to do things their way mostly means that they have slathered enough post-hoc, Haidtian rationalizations on a shapeless, self-serving, parochial moral intuition; have lined up enough of their gray-bearded philosopher-king shepherds to proclaim the moral force of their stance; feel in the most sincere, pained way that the very essence of what they value and who they are is at stake, that the very moral rightness of the universe is wobbling; all of that so strongly that they can’t recognize the “right” for what it is, namely “I can’t tell you why, but this is how things should be done.” To cite a quote attributed to Oscar Wilde, “Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike.”

It’s Us versus Them framed morally, and the importance of what Greene calls “the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality” is shown by the fact that most intergroup conflicts on our planet ultimately are cultural disagreements about whose “right” is righter.

This is an intellectualized, bloodless way of framing the issue. Here’s a different way.


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