Both Bloom and Greene evince concern for the human predicament; both authors would like to do something about it; and both have ideas about what that something should be. But only Greene’s book brings the wordmessianic to mind. His concern is emphatic, his diagnosis precise, and his plan of action very, very ambitious. The salvation of humankind is possible, but it’s going to take concerted effort. Greene offers readers “the motivation and opportunity to join forces with like-minded others,” the chance to support what he calls a “metamorality.” And as this metamorality spreads, we can expect to solve problems on both the domestic and international fronts, bringing reason to discussions about abortion and gay rights; calming tensions between India and Pakistan, Israel and Palestine; and so on.
I like ambition! And I’m fine with a bit of messianism, because the intense tribalism we’re seeing, domestically and internationally, does suggest that we may be approaching a point of true planetary peril. I agree with Greene that the situation calls for dramatic action—action on a scale that could bring a kind of transformation of human consciousness. But I think the transformation Greene has in mind, though appealing, isn’t the really urgent one. I think his diagnosis gives short shrift to the part of human psychology that has most condemned us to conflict.
But don’t give up hope. Lying within Greene’s rich, sprawling book are the elements of an alternative diagnosis that I think is more on-target and more promising. Salvation may not be at hand, but a path to it is discernible, even if you have to squint to see it.
Greene’s diagnosis is, at its foundation, Darwinian: the impulses and inclinations that shape moral discourse are, by and large, legacies of natural selection, rooted in our genes. Specifically, many of them are with us today because they helped our ancestors realize the benefits of cooperation. As a result, people are pretty good at getting along with one another, and at supporting the basic ethical rules that keep societies humming.
Anyone who doubts that basic moral impulses are innate will have Paul Bloom’s book to contend with. He synthesizes research—much of it done by him and his wife, Karen Wynn—demonstrating that an array of morally relevant inclinations show up in infants and toddlers. His list of natural moral endowments includes “some capacity to distinguish between kind and cruel actions,” as well as “empathy and compassion—suffering at the pain of those around us and the wish to make this pain go away.” Bloom’s work has also documented “a rudimentary sense of justice—a desire to see good actions rewarded and bad actions punished.”
So if we’re such moral animals, why all the strife? Joshua Greene’s answer is appealingly simple. He says the problem is that we were designed to get along together in a particular context—relatively small hunter-gatherer societies. So our brains are good at reconciling us to groups we’re part of, but they’re less good at getting groups to make compromises with one another. “Morality did not evolve to promote universal cooperation,” he writes.