Moral Tribes by Joshua Greene

Professor Joshua Greene ( and is the director of Harvard University’s Moral Cognition Lab. He offers a grand synthesis of neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy here.

His thesis in this book, Moral Tribes, is as follows. Human brains have evolved for tribal life, for getting along with a select group of others (‘Us’). Our hominid ancestors had to fight off everyone else (‘Them’). Modern life, though, has thrust the world’s tribes into shared spaces, creating conflicts of interest and clashes of values, along with unprecedented opportunities. As the world shrinks, the moral lines that divide us become more salient and more puzzling. We fight over everything from tax codes to gay marriage to global warming. We wonder where, if at all, we can find common ground.  Moral Tribes reveals the underlying causes of modern conflict and suggests a way forward. Our emotions make us social animals, having concern for those around us. But they also make us tribal animals, turning Us against Them. Our tribal emotions make us fight, sometimes with bombs, sometimes with words, and often with life-and-death stakes. Drawing inspiration from moral philosophy and contemporary science, Moral Tribes shows when we should trust our instincts, when we should use reason. The great challenge is this: How can we get along with Them when what they want feels so wrong? Finally, Greene offers a surprisingly simple set of maxims for navigating the modern moral terrain, a practical road map for solving problems and living better lives.

Whether you approve of multi-culturalism or not, this is a thought-provoking read about how, if at all, humans can get along in a globalised world. To decide for yourself, enquire at your local library.

Listen to Joshua Greene in a ‘philosophy bites’ podcast in which he discusses the subject of the construction of thought. Available here

432 pages in Atlantic Books

First published 2015

ISBN  978-1782393399

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Professor Joshua Greene

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