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Q&A

Tracing evolution’s effect on moral behavior

Joshua Greene says, “the problems that divide us are not about selfishness versus the interest of others. There’s no public debate about whether stealing is a good thing. Our debates are about ‘us versus them’.”

Joshua Greene says, “the problems that divide us are not about selfishness versus the interest of others. There’s no public debate about whether stealing is a good thing. Our debates are about ‘us versus them’.”

Harvard psychologist Joshua Greene argues that most of the problems that divide us today are moral problems, and that our reactions to them are shaped by our biology and evolution. He explains these ideas in his book “Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and the Gap Between Us and Them,” published last week.

Q. What role does evolution play in moral behavior?

A. Evolution only selects for things that provide a competitive advantage. We think of being nice as this nice thing, but it’s really a weapon. My genes are more likely to spread into the future if I am someone who is capable and willing to cooperate with other people.

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Q. You argue in the book that our brains evolved to help us with “me-versus-you” problems, not with “us-versus-them” problems. What do you mean by that?

A. The basic moral problem is the problem of cooperation, which is: How do you get a bunch of people to live together and to put the interests of other people — of “us” — ahead of “me.” Morality essentially evolved to solve that problem. But the problems that divide us [today] are not about selfishness versus the interest of others. There’s no public debate about whether stealing is a good thing. Our debates are about “us versus them” — our interests versus their interests, our values versus their values. This is a really very different problem.

Q. So, the equipment we evolved doesn’t help us deal with the complex problems of the modern world?

A. Two kinds of problems, two kinds of thinking. The original moral problem: “me versus us.” The modern moral problem: “us versus them.” [Like a digital camera,] we’ve got our automatic settings and our manual mode, our gut reaction and our deliberations. Our gut reactions are good for the old problems, but not for the new problems.

Q. We need to stop and think more?

A. What I’m urging us to do is take a step back from our gut reactions when we’re dealing with the modern world.

Q. Why are so many of our moral rules about sex and death?

A. It’s not an accident. Sex and death are the gas pedals and brakes of tribal growth. Why do a lot of traditional cultures rule out sex out of wedlock? You don’t want children running around who don’t have parents to take care of them, so there’s a real practical reason, even if no one specifically thought of it that way.

Q. And that’s relevant to today?

A. Along comes birth control and now it’s possible to have lots of sex outside of a committed relationship. But people who formed their moral intuitions before birth control, when they hear about their grandchild living with a boyfriend, it still makes them go “AHH” because their gut reactions were formed at a time in which that was likely to lead to babies without adequate parenting. Those of us who grew up well past birth control don’t have that same reaction, at least most of us.

Q. Does your expertise in moral psychology lead you to live life differently than the rest of us?

A. When it comes to day-to-day life, I try to be a good person. Where I think I think differently is when it comes to policy.

Q. Do you donate lots of money to the poor?

A. I’m not a saint. I could do a lot more with my money to help people in desperate need, but I think I do more than I otherwise would had I not thought about this as a moral philosopher.

Q. Did having children change your accounting?

A. It’s very hard to put faraway strangers’ kids ahead of your own, and in general, I don’t. I could save a little bit more for their college education by giving less money to charity, and we make that choice and navigate that tradeoff.

Q. What area are you researching next?

A. I’ve become very interested in the language of thought — understanding how the brain takes concepts and puts them together to form larger ideas. If you really want to understand moral thinking, you have to understand thinking more generally.

Q. What do you hope people get out of your book?

A. My hope is that by understanding how our moral minds work, understanding that our judgments are a combination of gut reactions and thinking — that kind of self-understanding, that kind of moral self-awareness can give us the possibility of stepping back from the gut reactions that have us at each other’s throats.

Interview has been edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at Karen@KarenWeintraub.com or on Twitter @Kweintraub.
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