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Best of The Month – Moral Tribes

Best of The Month –  Moral Tribes

| On 20, May 2018

Darrell Mann

At over 350 pages long, this book doesn’t give the immediate impression of being an easy read. The chapter headings don’t do anything to alter that perspective: there’s a lot of moral philosophy, evolution theory and brain physiology going on here. That said, one of the main reasons Joshua Greene’s epic gets the ‘Book of the Month’ slot is because when you’re actually reading the book it flows by effortlessly. The overall story is beautifully constructed and the arguments made in such a way that they are very easy to follow. Greene doesn’t try to brush any inconvenient truths under the carpet, such that, when he does go wrong – and he does do that on several occasions (if only he knew some TRIZ Part #496) – you can see where the problem occurs and then head yourself off down a more productive tangent. I ended up writing several pages of notes relating to some of these tangents. Moral Tribes + TRIZ makes for some very fruitful new insight.

Fortunately, Greene’s overall premise is a very solid one. It builds from a model of the world in which a distinction is made between an individual, the ‘us’ tribe(s) that individuals belong to and the ‘them’ that represents everyone else outside the tribe. Humans have evolved in such a way that there are evolutionary benefits to being social and a valued member of the tribes we are members of. Our brains have evolved in such a way that when we identify conflicts – say between what I want and what the tribe wants – our rationalising brain (prefrontal cortex) is tasked with resolving the conflict. We identify the conflicts because we have a part of our brain that is tasked with noticing them when they occur. This is our Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC). So far so good.

From a TRIZ perspective, we have an inbuilt contradiction radar.

But. Here comes the crux of the ‘moral tribes’ premise: when a conflict occurs between ‘us’ and ‘them’ our ACC doesn’t spot it and so our prefrontal cortex never gets triggered to try and resolve the conflict. When ‘them’ is different from ‘us’, our ACC effectively says, ‘well of course they’re different, they’re not one of us, there is no conflict we need to solve’. Which then means our emotional (limbic) brain does the thinking and more often than not the inter-tribal tensions and differences get magnified. Different tribes tend not to communicate effectively because our brain fools us into thinking there’s no (evolutionary) advantage to cooperating and actually solving the differences:

This is pretty important stuff from both a TRIZ and a societal perspective, I think. And if I took nothing else away from the book than this insight, I’d consider my 4 days of reading a good investment.

It’s a great thought I think. If Greene had stopped at this point, I think Moral Tribes would have been a classic. Unfortunately, Greene goes on to build on the foundation to build a series of solution strategies. This is where some knowledge of contradiction-solving would have been really useful. And some idea of ideality.

The key flaw in the argument – in my TRIZ-biased opinion, of course – is that he assumes that ‘greatest net happiness’ is the measure that should be deployed to resolve us-versus-them conflicts, i.e. any conflict resolution necessitates a compromise, and the best way to make that compromise fairly is to have a like-for-like measure that everyone agrees upon.

There are two big flaws with this argument. The first is establishing that ‘happiness’ is ‘the’ right measure. The second is that it is necessary to compromise. The almost universal failure to solve the biggest us-versus-them problems in the world is because compromise is a naïve aspiration. Solving big problems means finding contradiction breaking solutions. That’s where TRIZ most obviously comes to the rescue.

More subtly, it would also tell us that there very likely is no such thing as ‘the’ right measure of success. It depends. Sometimes it might be happiness. Other times it might be power. Or Meaning. Or Quality of Life.

The gaping flaws of Greene’s happiness solution really become apparent when he tries to deploy them on some big problems. It takes a lot of bravery to tackle, for example, the Pro-Life-versus-Pro-Choice us-versus-them conflict. For that I definitely admire Greene’s bravery. But when he concludes that Pro-Choice is the ‘right’ solution because it generates the overall higher level of happiness, I can’t imagine a single Pro-Life campaigner being in the slightest bit convinced to change their mind. In an ideal world, I’d love to be able to scrub these ‘therefore…’ solution chapters and replace them with some TRIZ. Then this book really would have been a classic. As it is, we can give Joshua Greene a big thankyou for doing half a job, and then start to imagine the other half: a new world of contradiction-breaking win-win solution strategies that keep being deployed until such times as there is no longer any ‘them’ to conflict with.