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20180121 – Moral Tribes



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The main idea here is to discuss contemporary moral conditions of humanity via parable of 4 tribes with different morals and attitudes, then propose “Metamorality” of “Deep Pragmatism” that would allow overcoming controversies between these tribes and eventually lead to their merge into one global benevolent tribe that would provide happiness for all.


Introduction: The Tragedy of Commonsense Morality

Author starts introduction with reference to tragedy of commons allegory of four tribes that handled commons differently:

Egalitarian Tribe 1 posited equal number of animals per family to use common pasture

Egalitarian Tribe 2 posited access to common pasture based on the size of family

Libertarian Tribe rejected idea of common pasture or control of animals’ number completely, allocating all land to private property

Socialist Tribe expanded idea of commons to everything including both animals and pasture so families would get whatever share of common product “elders” decide to give them.

Then author brings in disruption in the form of the new pasture that leads to complication and violence between tribes. Author first stresses difference in morality and attitude between tribes caused by their lifestyles leading to conflict when each side considers itself moral and other immoral. He calls this Tragedy of common sense morality. Author aspire in this book to obtain deep understanding of moral development from science and then to find way to use similarity of moral rules existing within tribes to produce “practical philosophy” that would help to eliminate the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality.

Author also provides a nice plan of the book, explaining what he intends to achieve in each part.

PART I. Moral Problems

This part designed to identify two main moral: “Me vs. Us” and “Us vs. Them”

  1. The Tragedy of the Commons

This starts with the reference to the original author of “The Tragedy of the Commons” ecologist Garret Hardin. From this point author discusses the problem of cooperation and then moves to the function of morality as a tool to provide evolutionary advantage via cooperation. However, morality is only for “Us” does not extend to “Them”, leading to all kinds of nasty staff from unpleasantries to atrocities. Then author introduces a notion of Metamorality, which he believes could provide universal moral rules and eliminate “Us vs. Them” problem.

  1. Moral Machinery

Here author reviews typical moral experiments: prisoner dilemma and “tit for tat” as the best solution per game theory, golden rule and family values, attitudes to strangers, sympathy to others’ pain, behavior change under surveillance even if it is imitated, tribalism, and inclusiveness for “members only”. At the end author summarizes moral machinery into a few mechanisms: Concern for others, Direct Reciprocity, Commitments to threads and promises, Reputation maintenance, Assortment and Tribalism, Indirect reciprocity, and Empathy.

  1. Strife on the New Pastures

Here author moves to discuss psychology of conflict either between individuals or tribes and then reviews terms of cooperation using Ultimatum game. He looks at factors defining human behavior in this game: terms of cooperation, honor requirements vs. harmony, biases in perception and notions of fairness. Author provides quite interesting graph demonstrating how communitarian vs. individualist increase difference in their estimate of climate change with more knowledge:

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At the end of chapter author states that humanity resolved lots of problems and then provide a standard liberal list of problems still outstanding.

PART II. Morality Fast and Slow

In this part author applies Kahneman’s idea of fast and slow thinking to morality, which he illustrates with analogy from old photography: auto focus which is fast but not that good and manual focus, which is slow but precise.

  1. Trolleyology

This is a long and detailed review of multitude of mental experiments with trolley and choice type decisions who to kill and how.

5.Efficiency, Flexibility, and the Dual-Process Brain

This is a bit of technical look at which parts of brain doing fast and slow processing in our dual-processing brain and how various tradeoffs occur, such as emotional response vs. reasonable, or reward now vs. reward later and so on.

PART III. Common Currency

This part introduces author’s idea of Common Moral Currency: the global moral philosophy capable to adjudicate among competing tribal moralities.

  1. A Splendid Idea

Author restates his parable of 4 tribes who go different way in setting up their rules and morals then comes up with “splendid idea”: do what works whether it is individualism or collectivism. Luckily author realizes that “works best” is conditional so he promotes consequentialism, utilitarianism, and pragmatism. After that he goes into detailed explanation of what he means and discussion on happiness: what it is, how it measured, and how to achieve it. At the end of chapter author looks for convergence to overcome differences and he finds it in attempt to move to manual mode and then attempt to ask key questions: What really matters and what is essence of morality. The answers he provides: “experience matters” and “impartiality is the essence of morality”.

  1. In Search of Common Currency

Here author discusses what he calls moral currency: common morality that would be acceptable for everybody. He is looking whether it could come from god or from common values or could be established by using some kind of mathematics or it could be defined via scientific research. He eventually comes to conclusion that perfect moral truth could not be found, but humans can find some ground to establish “common currency”.

  1. Common Currency Found

Here author declares that the common currency could be found in the modern new and improved utilitarianism and explains what it means.

PART IV. Moral Convictions

This part is about author’s believe that old arguments against utilitarianism could be challenged by new scientific understanding of moral cognition.

  1. Alarming Acts

It starts with the statement that Utilitarianism is just common sense, but the problem is that different people have different common sense, leading to over/under sensitive approaches to action and expressions of others. After that author returns a bit to trolleyology to discuss moral buttons of people and specifics of influence of side effects and what he calls “modular myopia”. He links it to dual processing and provides a nice picture to illustrate this:

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This follows with disussion of doing vs. allowing as in case of picking one’s own pollution, but living alone pollution of others. The final discussion of the chapter is about how to use various gizmos to achieve utilitarian objective by converting environment and situation in such way as to immitate circumstances when typical preferred personal behavior would coinside with objectives of controller. Something like convincing people that to fly on vacation and consequently producing more CO2 is a moral equivalent of killing a child.

  1. Justice and Fairness

Here discussion is going into the problem of Utilitarianism being too demanding, so author going into reviewing various ways to nudge people into doing what author thinks they should do such as: peer pressure, duty to help, extraction of personal commitments, appeals to justice, and greater good argument.

PART V. Moral Solutions

The final part is an attempt to substitute somewhat disgraced old idea of utilitarianism by what he calls “deep pragmatism” and demonstrate that this could conceivably work by applying it to his original parable of four tribes.

  1. Deep Pragmatism

Author starts by stating that the Deep Pragmatism is based on Metamorality, that is tradeoffs between different moralities of different tribes. He explains that such tradeoffs should be based on impartiality meaning that happiness or suffering of one person has the same value as any other person. This should be foundation for decision-making and it should be done with heads, not hearts. After that author discusses “Me vs. Us” and “Us vs. Them” problem. His solution is based on the idea of quick and slow morality or more precisely on matching application of them to the problems. So for “Me vs. Us” problem he recommends using emotional morality, while for problems “Us vs. Them” he recommends shift to manual mode: painstakingly find resolutions for controversies, because emotional morality is different for different tribes. After that author discusses brain research that he believes is supporting his ideas and actual moral issues from general such as use of rights to specific such as abortion. At the end he presents his liberal credentials, but still try to demonstrate his open mindedness and possibility of change.

  1. Beyond Point-and-Shoot Morality: Six Rules for Modern Herders

This is a summary and recommendations that author believes could resolve multiple controversies that exist between moral tribes and lead to some kind of accommodation and eventually better world through “deep pragmatism”. Here are these rules:

  1. In the face of moral controversy, consult, but do not trust, your moral instincts.
  2. Rights are not for making arguments they are for ending arguments
  3. Focus on the facts and make others do the same
  4. Beware of biased fairness
  5. Use common currency
  6. Give

He ends with the call to establish “a global tribe that looks out for its members… simply because it is good”.


It is a nice review of contemporary approaches to morality in western societies with some scientific background based on psychological research. The attempt to find some common ground that would make all moral tribes happy via “Deep pragmatism” seems to me quite futile, just because it somehow assumes that other non-western tribes could somehow join a common “Metamorality” ground. He kind of missing the simple fact that the person, who believes that the highest moral duty and the only purpose of his existence is to serve god and god directs him to kill infidels, could not possibly find any accommodation with infidels without forfeiting this moral duty. I guess, it is unless infidel is suicidal. I also think that typical liberal attitude to the government, as some benevolent entity standing somehow outside or even above regular human passions is illusionary. The government consists of human individuals and has no mind and/or heart outside of minds and hearts of these individuals who are generally much less decent than overall population due to the typical process of obtaining controlling position in government, which is quite similar in all forms of government.

I also find that it is funny how leftist conditioning of the author makes him blind to elementary logical lapses in in his analysis. For example even dimensions for this analysis such as “Egalitarian Communitarian” vs. “Hierarchical Individualist “ are ridiculous because Communitarian could not possibly be Egalitarian because any communally made decision had to be made by hierarchal process if not by formal with Big Man / Chief / Leader / Fuhrer at the top, then by informal hierarchy of sex, age, influence and such. Correspondingly Individualist could not possibly be Hierarchical because any decisions should be individual therefore unrelated to any hierarchical order.

I think that all morality should come down to one basic factor: do not use violence against other people unless these people use, or clearly intend to use, or used in the past violence against you. There is also a need to assure equal rights for natural resources, but not right on the product of other people efforts. The last one is necessary in order to avoid fight for resources and could be mainly achieved by voluntary (market) exchange of these rights for resources between individuals who underuse and individuals who overuse such natural resources.


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