Harvard professor explains that morality is a key element in the evolution of our species and discusses its use in the formation of human relations, science, politics and the construction of a sustainable future

With a background in psychology, neuroscience and philosophy, Joshua Greene is one of the world’s leading authorities in human morality. He is also the director of the “Moral Cognition Lab” at Harvard University, where he is also a professor – the department is now known as the Greene Lab.

He is the author of “Moral Tribes” (Record, 2018), in which he presents and develops the concept of morality as a tool for the bio-evolution of humankind: it is embedded in our genes and in our social relations and was paramount to guarantee the survival of species. Therefore, the human being developed a high capacity for cooperation, however, such cooperation is stronger among elements of the same tribe and today we live in an environment of global coexistence.

After being across Brazil, where he spoke on the cycle of events Frontiers of Thought, Joshua Greene spoke to bluevision about his conception of morality and its guidance on our actions in human relations, politics and mainly in the construction of sustainable development. “There is no moral project if we are dead. Therefore, we need to understand how to live in order to keep us alive,” he spoke regarding sustainability issues.

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Read the interview below:

What is the precise definition of morality you work with, from both philosophical and scientific perspectives?

Joshua Greene: I don’t think that the ordinary word “morality” has a precise definition, but I can tell you what I think morality is. It’s set of psychological capacities and tendencies that enable otherwise selfish individuals to reap the benefits of cooperation. More colloquially, morality is about teamwork—the ability to act for the benefit of “Us” as opposed to just “Me”.

Morality is implemented primarily with feelings, emotional carrots and sticks that motivate us to behave in ways that benefit others. We refrain from, say, stealing because we empathize with the victims of theft, because we would feel guilty or ashamed for doing such a thing, because others would be angry with us if we were to get caught, and because others are willing to reward us with their gratitude for following the rules.

In addition to having feelings, we can also reason about morality, as when we recognize that we’d all be better off if we agree not to steal, and therefore create mechanisms to enforce this mutually beneficial behavior.

All of what I said above is a purely scientific description. I think that morality is really about cooperation in the same way that water is really H2O. For thousands of years people knew what water was, but they didn’t understand its essence, the underlying structure that makes it what it is and do what it does.

For now, this understanding of morality as a set of cooperation devices is a scientific theory, but it’s close to a consensus among scientists who study morality. At some point we may come to see it as definitional, the way we now define water in terms of its chemical structure instead of its immediately observable properties.

What does the concept of tribal morality mean and how did it become a human evolutive advantage?

For something to evolve (biologically), it must confer a competitive advantage. Lions evolved to be fast and strong because slower and weaker lions were outcompeted by faster and stronger ones. And this is true for all traits that evolve through natural selection. What this means, then, is that morality can’t have evolved for the purpose of universal cooperation. In other words, morality was not “designed” to make everyone nice to each other. Instead, morality evolved because teamwork is a powerful tool and weapon.

Humans who share food when food is scarce, give alarm calls when predators are approaching, and care for each other when they are sick are more likely to survive than humans who never do anything for each other. Thus, humans generally survive by being cooperative, but only with a limited group. This limited group is what I mean by a “tribe”.

A “tribe” in this sense can be a literal tribe with a recognizable name, but I use the term more metaphorically to refer to groups that define the boundaries of cooperation. In complicated modern life, people typically belong to multiple tribes, such as those defined by religion and nationality. People also belong to nested tribes, like a community within a region within a nation.

Even though morality evolved as a competitive tool or weapon, it does not follow that we cannot be universally cooperative. Consider the case of birth control. How did it get here?

We humans have big brains that enable us to develop complex technologies that help us solve problems, and this problem-solving ability helps us survive. For example, we, unlike other animals, can build spears that enable us to hunt much bigger animals that can feed many people and support more of our offspring. We enjoy the feast, and our genes “enjoy” the opportunity to spread into the next generation. In addition to liking food, we humans like having sex. But these days humans often do not want to have lots of children. So, we have invented birth control, most notably the pill, which allows us to enjoy sex without having babies.

From an evolutionary perspective, this is a disaster: Evolution gave us big brains to help us solve complex problems so that we can more effectively reproduce, and here we are using our big, problem-solving brains to help us not reproduce. Fortunately, we don’t have to accept evolution’s perspective. We can use our birth control to live the way we want to live, the way that makes us happy, even though this prevents us from living up to our reproductive potential.

In the same way, we don’t have to accept that that morality must be tribal, with cooperation limited to only to our respective groups, even if that’s the function for which morality evolved. We can, if we want, decide to live in a way that maximizes our collective well-being—in essence becoming one big tribe. Of course, not everyone wants this. But the point is that it’s up to us. We shouldn’t assume that we are doomed to tribalism by our evolutionary origins.

How would you describe the consequences of tribal morality around the world today? Are we closing ourselves in our own tribes and fighting rival tribes, or are we more of a cooperative huge global tribe?

On a grand, historical scale humans are becoming more and more cooperative. This is shown must clearly in the decline of violence over decades, centuries, and millennia as documented by my colleague Steven Pinker in his landmark book “Os anjos bons da nossa natureza” (Companhia das Letras, 2017) – and I understand that most people have a hard time believing that violence has declined, but it’s true. In the last few years, there has been a resurgence of tribalism in the form of nationalism. We see this very clearly in the political upheavals in the US and Brazil, as well as in Europe and other parts of South America.

There is a highly cooperative global order, but there is great discontent among people who feel that they are not benefitting from it. Savvy politicians can harness this discontent and advance their own interests, by channeling this anger into tribal resentment. In some cases the resentment is justified (e.g. the scandals that plagued the Brazilian left) and in other cases not (e.g. anger directed at gays or ordinary Muslims).

You highlight how culture influences the moral formation of man. Is a “global morality” possible in a world where cultural and economic realities are so widely heterogenous?

In some sense, it’s not only possible but already here. Thousands of humans from around the world voluntarily contributed to the laptop on which I’m typing. That cooperation is only possible because we have a set of global norms that establish trust based on mutual regard. People from many different cultural traditions, nations, and religions have signed on to the agenda of human rights—even though we may have different ideas about what exactly that entails, and that’s very important moral progress. What we don’t have, though, is a single coherent moral philosophy. I think that this is possible, too, but that it will likely take a lot more time and scientific self-knowledge to get there, if we ever do.

Where and how does sustainability fit in this global moral project?

There’s no moral project if we’re dead. So, we need to figure out how to live in a way that will allow us to keep on living.

You argue that our moral decisions are based on either emotional or rational sets of values. Which of these sets of values do we use when we make long term decisions (e.g. spending money on reforestation efforts)?

Fortunately, most of our decisions are supported by both emotion and reasoning. We eat because we are hungry, but it’s also a rational thing to do. Life gets complicated when our emotional inclinations and reasoned plans point in opposite directions, as when we are on a diet and tempted by fattening food. But even here it’s not as simple as emotion vs. reason.

We may have a strong immediate inclination to eat the ice cream, but the reasoning that opposes it has an emotional component as well. You aren’t motivated to diet by pure “reason”. You may be worried about your long-term health or thinking about how you’ll look in a bathing suit. Reason allows us to connect the values that we place on certain outcomes to actions we can perform now through an understanding of cause effect relationships: If I eat fruit salad instead of ice cream I will be healthier and slimmer later this summer.

Both kinds of decision-making operate in short-term and long-term decision-making. And what counts as a long-term or short-term decision is not always so clear in real life. One can decide to get married, or join the army, on a whim. Likewise, one can think long and hard about ice cream vs. fruit salad, as if one’s entire future depends on it.

What can be done to persuade companies, governments and people, in moral terms, to invest time, money and energy in sustainable subjects?

That’s always the most difficult question. We can see a future in which everyone is better off, but how do we get there? The good news, as I’ve said, is that we’ve already made a lot of progress, most notably in the reduction of violence. This is the most essential kind of sustainability, as no other is possible without it. So, what have we been doing right?

The overall arc of history suggests that people will choose mutually beneficial social structures if given the freedom to choose and good-enough information about their choices. Even during the cold war, with very limited information, people were trying to get out of East Germany and into West Germany, not the reverse. Today, few people are trying to get into North Korea or Syria. At the level of nations, people know pretty well what’s good and what’s not. But within nations, at the level of political choices, good decision-making is under threat.

I think that right now we are facing a crisis of information, more than a crisis of freedom, at least in the US and perhaps Brazil as well. For a while, mass communication was highly centralized. And while this certainly involved a lot of bias on the part of the information brokers, it also made it harder for baseless lies and conspiracy theories to spread.

Today, with the internet and social media, people can choose to get information only from the sources that appeal to them. Instead of everyone being subjected to some people’s biases, everyone’s biases are running free—especially, though not exclusively, on the tribalistic political right. Ruthless politicians, culture warriors, and corporations have figured out how to push people’s emotional buttons, scaring them into their arms and away from globally beneficial policies, or confusing them into indifference.

I think our greatest challenge today may be to preserve and protect our shared informational spaces so that we can put our collective intelligence to good use.


Content published in December 11, 2018

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