Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Joshua Greene's Global Meta-Tribe: Liberals or Libertarians?

In Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, Joshua Greene argues that while our evolved intuitive morality overcomes the Tragedy of the Commons through cooperation within groups, only an abstract rational morality can overcome the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality through cooperation between groups.  Our evolved intuitive morality is a tribal morality:  we have evolved instincts for cooperating with others in our tribal group in order to better compete with other tribal groups.  Our tribal morality allows Us to prevail over Me.  But now our problem in the modern world is the conflict between Us and Them.  We need to form a global tribe or meta-tribe that can resolve our conflicting tribal loyalties and foster universal cooperation.  To do that, we need a common currency of shared values to which all tribes can agree.  As a utilitarian, Greene believes the only common currency is happiness, which should allow us to resolve tribal disputes by agreeing to maximize happiness impartially.

What kind of political philosophy is best for promoting this trans-tribal pursuit of happiness?  Greene suggests that there are only two candidates--either the collectivism of left liberalism or the individualism of libertarianism (or classical liberalism).  These are the "two global meta-tribes--post-tribal tribes" (334).  He identifies himself as a liberal, because he believes the policies of the liberal tribe tend to make the world happier.  But his commitment to that tribe is weak.  "With the right kind of evidence," he says, "you could talk me out of my liberalism" (334).  He says that he was once a libertarian (385), and he still agrees with many libertarian ideas.  He even identifies the libertarians as "the least tribal people of all, eschewing the moderate collectivism of their modern liberal counterparts" (341).

The libertarians believe that the best way to maximize happiness is to secure the individual liberty to pursue happiness.  As a modern liberal, Greene thinks this is insufficient, because we need the "moderate collectivism" of government intervening in the economy to coerce people to do what promotes the greater good of society.  Greene never elaborates the evidence and argumentation to support this position. 

As far as I can tell, his only argument depends on his comparison of individualism and collectivism through a parable about some tribes of herders.  Here is how he describes the individualist tribe:
"To the north of the forest is yet another tribe.  Here there is no common pasture.  Each family has its own plot of land, surrounded by a fence.  These plots vary greatly in size and fertility.  This is partly because some Northern herders are wiser and more industrious than others.  Many such herders have expanded their lands, using their surpluses to buy land from their less prosperous neighbors.  Some Northern herders are less prosperous than others simply because they are unlucky, having lost their flock, or their children, to disease, despite their best efforts.  Still other herders are exceptionally lucky, possessing large, fertile plots of land, not because they are especially wise or industrious but because they inherited them.  Here in the North, the council of elders doesn't do much.  They simply ensure that herders keep their promises and respect one another's property.  The vast differences in wealth among Northern families have been the source of much strife.  Each year, some Northerners die in winter for want of food and warmth.  Despite these challenges, the Northern tribe has survived.  Most of its families have prospered, some much more than others" (2).
Here is how he describes the collectivist tribe:
"To the south of the forest is a fourth tribe.  They share not only their pasture but their animals, too.  Their council of elders is very busy.  The elders manage the tribe's herd, assign people to jobs, and monitor their work.  The fruits of this tribe's labor are shared equally among all its members.  This is a source of much strife, as some tribe members are wiser and more industrious than others.  The council hears many complaints about lazy workers.  Most members, however, work hard.  Some are moved to work by community spirit, others by fear of their neighbors' reproach.  Despite their challenges, the Southern tribe has survived.  Its families are not, on average, as prosperous as those in the North, but they do well enough, and in the South no one has ever died in winter for want of food or warmth."
Apparently, this collectivist tribe is a socialist society with no markets and very little private property.  Everything is organized by the government of the "council of elders," who are assumed to be selfless managers with the knowledge and virtue to manage everything for the greater good of all.  Most importantly for Greene, no one in this collectivist tribe ever dies from want of food or warmth, while people do die from neglect in the individualist tribe.

Much of what Greene writes in the rest of his book casts doubt on the accuracy of his parable.  First of all, he recognizes that people in collectivist societies often do die from starvation.  In fact, millions of people starved to death under the rule of communists like Stalin and Mao.  And Greene concludes from this that we should "be very wary of people with big plans who say that it's all for the greater good" (168).  "The full-blown collectivism of the Southern herders is dead," he admits, "and the question today is not whether to endorse free-market capitalism, but whether and to what extent it should be moderated by collectivist institutions such as assistance for the poor, free public education, national health insurance, and progressive taxation" (341).

So while he rejects "full-blown collectivism," Greene sees the need for some collectivism so that no one starves to death in the Northern tribe.  But that people will necessarily die from neglect in a free society without a collectivist government is an assumption for which he provides no support.  He assumes that when people take care of themselves in a free society, they won't take care of those who need help.  And yet he contradicts this when he acknowledges that people in an individualist society do feel sympathy for those who need help, and so they are charitable (67-68).  He also concedes that "people living in more market-integrated societies, rather than being hopelessly greedy, tend to be more altruistic toward strangers and more adept at cooperating with them" (98). 

Indeed, the history of charity and mutual aid societies in the United States and Great Britain before the establishment of welfare-state programs suggests that people in classical liberal societies will help those who need help through voluntary associations.  Moreover, data from the Charities Aid Foundation show that in comparing countries in their rate of donations to charity measured as a % of GDP or measured as amount of charity per capita, the United States ranks at the top.

It is interesting that Greene ends his book by recommending that his readers should increase their charitable giving to groups like Oxfam International (352-55).  This is surprising, because given what he has said about the need for a collectivist redistribution of wealth, we might have expected him to end his book by calling for more governmental coercion to force people to give away their property to the needy.

It is also surprising that Greene endorses Steven Pinker's argument in The Better Angels of Our Nature that "gentle commerce" and the moral culture of classical liberalism have solved 90% of our problems (97-98).

That evolutionary moral psychology supports classical liberalism is a claim that I have elaborated in some of my posts on Haidt and Pinker here and here.

1 comment:

John said...


He should have checked out Gavin Wright's Sharing the Prize about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Very interesting book and too much ignored. Wright is an economic historian.