Best of The Month â€“ Moral Tribes
Editor | On 20, May 2018
At over 350 pages long, this book doesnâ€™t give the immediate impression of being an easy read. The chapter headings donâ€™t do anything to alter that perspective: thereâ€™s a lot of moral philosophy, evolution theory and brain physiology going on here. That said, one of the main reasons Joshua Greeneâ€™s epic gets the â€˜Book of the Monthâ€™ slot is because when youâ€™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 doesnâ€™t try to brush any inconvenient truths under the carpet, such that, when he does go wrong â€“ and he does do that on several occasions (if only he knew some TRIZ Part #496) â€“ 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, Greeneâ€™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 â€˜usâ€™ tribe(s) that individuals belong to and the â€˜themâ€™ 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 â€“ say between what I want and what the tribe wants â€“ 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 â€˜moral tribesâ€™ premise: when a conflict occurs between â€˜usâ€™ and â€˜themâ€™ our ACC doesnâ€™t spot it and so our prefrontal cortex never gets triggered to try and resolve the conflict. When â€˜themâ€™ is different from â€˜usâ€™, our ACC effectively says, â€˜well of course theyâ€™re different, theyâ€™re not one of us, there is no conflict we need to solveâ€™. 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 thereâ€™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, Iâ€™d consider my 4 days of reading a good investment.
Itâ€™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 â€“ in my TRIZ-biased opinion, of course â€“ is that he assumes that â€˜greatest net happinessâ€™ 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 â€˜happinessâ€™ is â€˜theâ€™ 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 naÃ¯ve aspiration. Solving big problems means finding contradiction breaking solutions. Thatâ€™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 â€˜theâ€™ 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 Greeneâ€™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 Greeneâ€™s bravery. But when he concludes that Pro-Choice is the â€˜rightâ€™ solution because it generates the overall higher level of happiness, I canâ€™t imagine a single Pro-Life campaigner being in the slightest bit convinced to change their mind. In an ideal world, Iâ€™d love to be able to scrub these â€˜thereforeâ€¦â€™ 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 â€˜themâ€™ to conflict with.