Moral Tribes — why we have different moral senses

I have recently read Moral Tribes by Joshua Greene and thoroughly enjoyed it. It discusses the problems of modern tribalism and its consequences for problems of our modern world (the Tragedies of Common Sense Morality, i.e conflicts caused by “us vs” them thinking) . Greene talks about a “northern tribe and a southern one”. The northern tribe is characterized by liberalism and collectivism and the southern tribe by conservatism and individualism. Of course, this division is somewhat oversimplified, but these two tribes have a lot in common with what I have termed “hunter-gatherer minds” and “farmer-pastoralist minds” according to their hypothetical evolutionary origin.

r/K theory and life history studies would predict the following traits:

Greene identifies the northern tribe (hunter-gatherers) as actually less tribal, which ties in with my “most out-group social” characteristics of hunter-gatherer minds. That also makes sense historically: communism, for example, has always been an international or out-group movement (its anthem is “The Internationale”), whereas conservatism and fascism have always been patriotic if not nationalist movements.

Greene also discusses Jonathan Haidt’s ideas, who identifies six “moral foundations,” which can be labelled in positive or negative terms:

Conservatives have “receptors” for all six dimensions, whereas liberals have a kind of “impoverished” moral sense, being receptive for the three dimensions printed in bold only. Does that mean that liberals are less moral than conservatives?

Let’s investigate this in the light of the hunter-gatherer hypothesis: hunter-gatherers are egalitarian and averse to authority . Loyalty isn’t certainly something that hunter-gatherers should really disrespect, that would be horrible, but again, loyalty is often enough tied to king or country, or any other form of tribalism, to which hunter-gatherers are more immune. Sanctity again is more of a farmer thing, as (hierarchical) religion played an important part to keep social order in early farmer societies, hunter-gatherers have nothing like organized religion, they do not need religious dogmas to keep social order as everybody is equal. The ironic twist here is that the collectivist liberals are really much more individualistic than the individualist conservatives who are quite conformist (loyalty, sanctity and authority, if only in the form of brands and influencers, all contribute to this phenomenon).
As Greene says, for liberals the ultimate rule is the golden rule: treat others like you would like them to treat you, disregarding race, gender, sexuality or any other form of diversity. Now, this is pretty high as far as moral standards go, and I am afraid that many conservatives (farmer-pastoralists) struggle with it, despite or because of having twice as many moral senses as liberals (hunter-gatherers).

Most of the world is made up of mixed hunter-gatherer, farmer and pastoralists minds. However, pure cultures do exist, of course. Greene cites cultural studies involving different moral dilemma’s, among them the Ultimatum Game (you get money and share it with someone who can decide if you can keep the money or not depending on their level of satisfaction with their share). Which of the three moral tribes would you expect to share most? Hunter-gatherers are famous for their sharing/caring attitude and their praise of altruism, so that seems like a no-brainer. Indeed, many hunter-gatherers like the Aché even offered more than an already generous 50% share. However, there is an interesting twist to this story. In a version of the Ultimatum Game, called the Dictator Game (the giver has the option to keep all the money if he doesn’t agree with the person he shares with), the results were as follows:

What happened to the hunter-gatherer generosity? Greene writes “As you might expect, the societies in which people are most cooperative are also the societies in which people are most willing to punish people who are not cooperative.” This cannot be the whole story, as hunter-gatherers are cooperative, after all. The higher the level of in-group sociality the higher potential generosity can go (a simple matter of the mathematics of sharing). High in-group generosity and hunter-gatherer altruism are, therefore, at the opposite ends of a “giving” spectrum. Hunter-gatherers would also share with out-group members, but more so if they are really in desperate need. Generosity, on the other hand, can have a dark side to it, demanding loyalty and obedience to authority.

One aspect of Greene’s argument is perhaps “envy”. Hunter-gatherers might actually be less envious of their fellow kind than other moral tribes. In fact, hunter-gatherers were the ones least likely to decline a low offer in the Ultimatum Game, being content with whatever share they got, whereas pastoralists often declined even very high offers. Envy is often at the root of the Tragedy of Commons. All too often we play “Keeping up with the Jones” not considering that we are actually seriously harming our planet by doing so.
As far as liberals go, I personally am a horrible person: neither patriotic nor support my country’s sports teams (loyalty), agnostic (sanctity) and I have completely no respect for politicians who are incompetent or anti-democratic (authority). But I do feel the urge to help refugees when they are in need and I wonder how much of a good thing loyalty can be when there is such a high level of support for populist politicians in our world.

Greene self-identifies as liberal (hunter-gatherer), but correctly warns considering any one ideology superior, taking a pragmatic/utilitarian stance. Often it is a good thing to strengthen the local community, at other times it is wiser to think of the global community. I agree with him when he says that both sides have much to learn from each other.

Dedicated to Constance, a hunter-gatherer mind, who motivated me to write this post (the first in a while).

Originally published at on May 7, 2020.