The Tragedy of Common-Sense Morality

Why do people fight so much?
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Joshua Greene, the Harvard psychologist whose book Moral Tribes comes out next week, just experienced every author’s dream: he got to talk back to someone who had reviewed his book. In this case, that someone was me. My review essay discussing Greene’s book (and also Paul Bloom’s forthcoming book Just Babies) appears in the November issue of The Atlantic.

You can watch the whole conversation here on bloggingheads.tv, but below are two key excerpts.

First, Greene pithily states one of his book’s central arguments, the upshot of which is that unreflectively following our moral instincts gets us into particular trouble in international, inter-ethnic, and inter-religious disputes:

Now for the core of our disagreement. Green argues that much of the conflict between “tribes”—religions, nations, ethnicities, etc.—would disappear if all of them abandoned traditional value systems and subscribed to utilitarianism, the idea that what’s moral is what maximizes human happiness:

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv. His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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