Friday, April 25, 2014

Cephalopod Coffeehouse Review: Moral Tribes


I read four novels, two nonfiction books, and a novella this month, so it's a big field to choose from. I kind of liked doing the mini-reviews last month, so I'll do that again, culminating in the best of the lot. This makes for a long post, so skip to the Moral Tribes review if you're in a hurry.

Big Data is a book I really wanted to like, but which fell short for me. I am fascinated by the promises and perils of Big Data, a new level of technology which allows us to do things like predict outbreaks of everything from flus to coups. It also erodes our privacy to the point where "privacy" may no longer exist. I have a hard time getting upset about that on a personal level but I think it's a societal concern, one that Aldous Huxley and George Orwell talk about in rather more interesting ways. The authors seem to worry quite a bit about Minority Report (pre-arresting people for crimes they haven't committed yet), a worry I think is a bit misplaced, at least relative to other potential bad uses of predictive technology. In the end, the book was just not edited all that well. Good ideas here and there, but too repetitive and not clearly organized enough.

Eleanor and Park is a YA novel that's received a heap of accolades, so I went into it with high expectations. That's never good, is it? It seemed like a standard YA to me; well-written, sweet romance, trouble brewing at home. The trouble here got darker than I was expecting, especially in contrast to the super-sweet and literally breathless romance between the main characters. ("I don't think I even breathe when we're not together," she whispered. "Which means, when I see you on Monday morning, it's been like sixty hours since I've taken a breath.") I don't mind "issue books" for teens, in fact I applaud them, but this issue kind of snuck up on me. My daughter (16) was not at all surprised, though, at the direction the book took, so perhaps I just wasn't paying attention. We agreed that the ending left us scratching our heads.

I had the same "meh" reaction to Every Day is for the Thief, an utterly different kind of novel, but one that got similar high praise. I call it a "novel" because the author, Teju Cole, calls it that. But it's not really a novel. It's kind of a memoir/travelogue/essay collection hybrid, very lightly fictionalized. There's no plot and no characterization; it's mostly a meditation on Lagos, Nigeria. It's a great meditation on that city, and perhaps if I had been expecting that, I'd have loved it. But I was promised a novel and I wanted a novel, dadgummit.

Moving now to novels I did enjoy, we have On Such a Full Sea, which I appreciated in spite of the fact that I read it while sick with a stomach virus. (So that says something.) This is Chang-Rae Lee's latest literary effort, in which he takes us into the realm of speculative fiction. Specifically, dystopia. The protagonist, a teenage girl named Fan, is born in a future version of Baltimore. B-More is now a working-class enclave which exists solely to produce fresh food for the 1%, who live in much nicer gated enclaves. You could compare it to the movie Elysium, but it's a much subtler jab at class inequality than that overwrought story. What I liked about it was not the social commentary, which isn't especially fresh, but the weird fairy-tale like quality of the narrative. As I said elsewhere, it's like an adventure story for grown-ups.

I finally took a breath and dove into The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt's doorstopper of a novel. It just won the Pulitzer Prize (like, a few days ago) and was also shortlisted for 2013's National Book Critics Circle Award, so go Donna! As with Chang-Rae Lee's novel, this was a coming-of-age story and chock full of adventure. Our hero, young Theo, goes through a delightfully Dickensian childhood full of misery and joy, hijinks and heartbreak ... just one damn thing after another. I adored the thrill ride, implausible as some of it was, but the ending was terrible. OK, so you know dramatic structure has five parts — exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement? It was all good until the denouement. When you get to that part, do yourself a favor and just stop reading. Because 90% of the book was excellent, I still recommend it. The ending doesn't kill the book, it's just boring.

One unexpected literary treat was a little sci-fi novella called "Houston, Houston, Do You Read," by Alice Sheldon, who died a while ago and wrote under the pen name of James Tiptree, Jr. It's basically about a space matriarchy encountering an astronaut crew who have the social attitudes you'd expect of the '60s: think James T. Kirk, but less gallant. Some interesting gender speculation from a woman ahead of her time. Star Trek fans (and other humanist-leaning sci-fi fans) would probably enjoy her most popular story collection, titled "Her Smoke Rose Up Forever." 

Which brings me finally (whew!) to the best book I read in all of April, a nonfiction book on modern moral controversies, called Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, by philosopher-scientist Joshua Greene. It follows closely on the heels of three other social-science screeds it cites heavily: Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast & Slow, and Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, all of which I've read and highly recommend. 




Greene's main assertion is that our moral instincts are pretty good at keeping us in line when it comes to questions of Me vs. Us, but are remarkably bad at handing conflict between Us and Them. Your brain (if it's healthy) has built in measures to stop you from cheating on your taxes or your spouse, from killing or wantonly hurting people, and from being a bastard generally. This old, evolved part of your brain encourages you to cooperate with members of your tribe, because when your tribe is harmonious, you are better able to defend yourself against Them. It doesn't always work, which is why we still have bastards, but it works pretty well most of the time. What our moral instincts don't give us, however, is an easy way to cooperate among tribes. We can put Us before Me, and stop being selfish, but we have a much harder time with Us vs. Them. All our instincts tell us, when there's a conflict between tribes, to kick the other tribe's ass. (A "tribe" here is any group with which you share a team spirit of some kind and to which you are loyal: liberals, conservatives, Palestinians, Jews, Packers, Giants, etc.) You are likely to remain ideologically loyal to your team even when your team is demonstrably, scientifically, clearly wrong in some way, and you are likely to see the a conflicting team as an enemy even when they are right about something. Loyalty trumps reason.

But reason can be re-engaged by putting the brain in manual mode, he says. In Kahneman's book (Thinking, Fast & Slow) we learn about the brain's two modes: a fast, instinctual one, full of gut reactions; and a slow, deliberative, logical mode. Greene offers the analogy of a camera to help us: the brain is usually in automatic mode, and quickly and efficiently speeds along, using factory presettings that work pretty well most of the time. Manual mode is best when we need to slow down, focus, and proceed with care. You can feel your brain cranking into this mode when you recognize that you're holding two logically incompatible views on something, especially a question of morality. Greene offers up a ton of thought experiments to put you in this awkward position, and sure enough, I could feel my head literally heating up as I churned through these problems and thought hard about my responses. I even know all about the trolley problem and utilitarianism — two ideas Greene relies heavily on in this book — and I still found myself struggling through some of these ideas and moral quandaries.

Greene's goal is to find a moral common currency that we can all turn to when dealing with matters of controversy. When our tribe believes something different than the other tribe, we tend to assume our moral instincts are correct and if the other tribe would just stop being so stupid, they'd see it too. Greene calls this "The Tragedy of Commonsense Morality." But of course, what your God (or political party, or scientific understanding) tells you to do is not something the other tribe recognizes as a legitimate moral standpoint: that's why the issue you're arguing about is a controversy. If you can agree on some kind of moral framework, then you might be able to get somewhere. The moral framework Greene offers up is utilitarianism, a philosophy created by John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham in the 19th century. Even if people don't like utilitarianism, they understand it; it makes a certain kind of sense to every tribe on the planet. That's not just an assertion, but has been borne out by investigation. The basic idea is that whatever works to maximize happiness ("utility") for the greatest number of people is the best thing to do. Greene is fully aware of the objections to utilitarianism and spends a lot of time parrying them. 

I thought this section was pretty interesting, though heavy-going; non-philosophy-nerds may find this part tedious. If so, it would still be worth reading the first few chapters and the last few, especially 11 and 12, where he ties it all together and makes recommendations on how to proceed. 

At the end, Greene has six rules to help us get out of our moral morass. 1. "In the face of moral controversy, consult, but do not trust, your moral instincts." Those instincts evolved to help us with the problem of Me vs. Us (the tragedy of the commons), but don't work so well to help us overcome Us vs. Them. 2. "Rights are not for making arguments; they're for ending arguments." Most moral questions come down to rights and duties. Right to life, right to choose, right to keep all the money you make, right to live free of poverty and disease, etc. Nobody is going to be convinced by a rights-based argument because such arguments simply beg the moral questions being asked. So skip 'em in most cases. 3. "Focus on the facts, and make others do the same." This was one of the most practical tips, I thought. When arguing with someone over a moral controversy, just ask them the mechanics of how the thing in question works. How does single-payer health care work? How does a carbon tax work? How do GMOs work? When exactly does ensoulment happen? People often have strong opinions about things they don't actually understand. When confronted with how little they know, their position tends to become more moderate. 4. "Beware of biased fairness." We all agree that fairness is a virtue, but even when we're fully committed to this idea, we're a little more likely to favor the "fairness" that suits us best. For this reason, be skeptical of your own assessment of what's fair. 5. "Use common currency." We all understand the Golden Rule and that suffering is generally to be avoided and happiness to be maximized. We understand that objective evidence is more convincing than subjective emotional feeling. Appeal to this common currency when approaching a moral controversy. 6. "Give." Would you walk by a drowning child and ignore her because your $500 suit* would be ruined if you got wet? Of course not. So why "walk by" a starving child in some faraway place rather than sending her a $500 donation through OxfamA few hundred dollars probably won't make a huge difference in your life, but it can make a world of difference to a child impacted by conflict in Sudan. 

(*substitute $50 shoes if that works better)

I'll close with the closing quote from the book:

Immanuel Kant marveled at the "starry heavens above" and the "moral law within." It's a lovely sentiment, but one that I cannot wholeheartedly share. We are marvelous in many ways, but the moral laws within us are a mixed blessing. More marvelous, to me, is our ability to question the laws written in our hearts and replace them with something better. The natural world is full of cooperation, from tiny cells to packs of wolves. But all of this teamwork, however impressive, evolved for the amoral purpose of successful competition. And yet somehow we, with our overgrown primate brains, can grasp the abstract principles behind nature's machines and make them our own. On these pastures, something new is growing under the sun: a global tribe that looks out for its members, not to gain advantage over others, but simply because it's good.

Please be sure to visit all the Coffeehouse reviews here:


1.The Armchair Squid2.My Creatively Random Life
3.Wishbone Soup Cures Everything4.Valerie Nunez and the Flying Platypi
5.Huntress6.Servitor Ludi
7.MOCK8.StrangePegs -- Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
9.Words Incorporated10.Agatha Friggin' Christie
11.Ed&Reub12.The Writing Sisterhood
13.Read, Write, Repeat14.V's Reads

29 comments:

  1. Very nice piece.

    I don't know how you do it - not only do you read a ton of books, but you actually pay attention not just to what they say, but to how they're written. These days I'm lucky if I can get through a single novel in a month and sum it up as, "Um, some stuff happened. Then some other stuff happened. I liked it. I think."

    I'm going to try Moral Tribes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm trying to get in the habit of writing a review on Goodreads immediately after I finish a book, while it's still fresh. Somewhere between writing it and hitting "publish," I'll go read some other reviews, which helps cement things for me as well. I used to forget the details of what I read as soon as I was done, and some books I don't even remember having read at all, even though I must have, since they were assigned in school.

      Delete
  2. I think the Big Data book is one my wife wants to read but, then, that's what she does; she's a data handler.

    Moral Tribes sounds interesting. I may have to give that one a look. Although it seems to me that the way to deal with Us vs Them is not to learn to do it better but to figure out how to see Them as US. That seems to me to be the biggest issue.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "...to figure out how to see Them as US." He talks about that. It sounds really great in principle but in practice, when you're dealing with a practical controversy that requires action, how would it help? Take abortion: seeing the other side as the same as your side is not only impractical, but impossible. Because the sides want literally incompatible actions to be taken. The best you can do to align Us vs Them in a practical way in that case is simply to change your mind and take on Their views. In other words, capitulate. Not very appealing.

      Refraining from seeing people as mortal enemies simply because they hold different views than yours is certainly a first step; but the rubber meets the road when you propose a plan of action. What to *do* about climate change? How to legally *deal* with those who terminate unwanted pregnancies? What to *teach* kids in public schools about evolution? Seeing "them" as "us" doesn't help us craft a concrete plan, a way out of the deadlock.

      At least, I think that's how Greene would respond, if I can reiterate what I learned from the book.

      Delete
    2. Okay, that makes sense, but...
      A lot of that as to do with one person imposing his/her views onto another person. The first step in seeing Them as Us is to quit trying to change the other side.

      For example:
      When my wife and I first got married, we used to have a lot of conflict over how to load the dishwasher. We each had a "way" that we thought it ought to be done, and it was very Us vs Them for each of us. To get beyond that, we had to decide that the person loading the dishwasher got to decide how to do it. As long as the dishes got clean and all that, it didn't matter. In essence, we each gave up imposing our idea of what was "right" onto the other person. We both got to be Us after that.

      I get that the dishwasher comparison is simplistic but, really, it all comes down to that. What right do I have to tell you how to load the dishwasher. Unless you're coming to me and saying, "Hey, what's the best way to do this?" That changes things.
      Of course, climate change is one of the issues that doesn't work that way...

      Delete
    3. I think that's an excellent strategy for a happy marriage. :) If you can each do your own thing without imposing on the other person in some way, then yeah, that works. If you could have one set of people who agrees on the death penalty and another group who doesn't, and they don't have to share anything (like a justice system) then there's totally nothing to fight about.

      If you do decide to read the book, you might be interested in his opening analogy of The New Pastures.

      OK. I dug around a bit and found an interview with him, since he can explain it better. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_close_the_gap_between_us_and_them

      Delete
    4. I'm going to put it on my list, but that doesn't mean I'll get to it any time soon. heh

      Delete
  3. I enjoyed your reviews, especially the Greene book. Just the other day I was reading a book which explored Tri Hita Karana, a Balinese philosophy which emphasizes balance and harmony by “creating virtues of responsibility, sensitivity to others (translates as compassion and forgiveness), and gratefulness.” It is interesting to see how different cultures wrestle with similar themes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I sure like the notion of holding gratitude up as a major virtue. All those virtues are fairly universal, but that one is perhaps not as highly valued in our culture.

      Delete
  4. My sister enjoyed Eleanor and Park, which kind of surprised me, and we talked a bit about it over the past weekend. I don't know what the issue is, though. I find it intriguing that J was not surprised at the development and you were.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There was a plot twist I *totally* did not predict; in fact, when I hit it, I had to go back and reread because it was so unexpected I didn't understand at first what had happened. And then I was like, "oh, of course." It was that surprising-but-inevitable-in-retrospect thingie that all of us are told to aim for but so few of us can pull off. J was surprised by it, too, but much less so. And I don't think she found the particular form the darkness took as disturbing as I did. Have you read the book, Suze? I thought at first of you, wondering if it would be up your alley. But then, obviously, I realized it would not.

      Delete
    2. You've made me curious about this book just by mentioning this "plot twist/dark issue!". (Maybe just tell me what it is and I won't waste time reading it, ha!)

      Delete
  5. Stephanie, this was a a pleasure to read. I would even read some of your less-liked books because you describe them so intelligently. Yeah, how about that ending to The Goldfinch? It was nebulous, perhaps best explained by Boris :"...good doesn't always follow from good deeds, nor bad deeds result from good, does it? " That was quite a good book; I hadn't heard about the Pulitzer though.
    I am definitely adding Moral Tribes to my reading list. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I thought Tartt had some good things to say about intentions, and especially about fate ... would Theo have gone all delinquent if his mom had lived? On the one hand, obviously not! Then again: his dad was strong in him (cue Darth Vader's theme song). But the philosophical questions she raised were in the story already, why'd she have to go and *tell* us about it in such a heavy-handed way? :P

      Thanks for your kind words and hope you read/enjoy Moral Tribes!

      Delete
  6. "People often have strong opinions about things they don't actually understand. When confronted with how little they know, their position tends to become more moderate."

    I couldn't agree with you more.

    I'm intrigued by the concept of this book (Moral Tribes), particularly the idea of a group morality vs. an individual one, or how/why we align to our tribe's way of thinking (perhaps disregarding our better judgment?) I think it's fascinating how we understand our own limits but are more tolerant with the excesses of others. I hope they have this one in the library!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. They do! That's where I got my copy! :)

      Delete
  7. I remember you telling me about Everyday Is for the Thief. Those kinds of books are just a bit wonky for me. How do you know who to like and enjoy as a character if there's no real character to latch on to? It's the same with The Wives of Los Alamos.

    I think a moral common currency would be difficult to find. Not everyone thinks rationally, so it's hard to get everyone on the same page. The six points you listed are good, but when a heated argument arises does anyone stop and think rationally about his/her point? Congress tries to do that and look how deeply divided they can be.

    Thanks for sharing all your reads this month!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I totally agree, MM, and that was probably my strongest criticism of the book. I didn't really get into what I did *not* like about it, but you just nailed it. He actually does make a pitch that utilitarianism will make progress in "peace talks" where religion, science, and reason will not, and that you can get people to stop shouting, but yeah. It's hard to see how.

      Delete
  8. Sheldon/Tiptree was awesome -- I've read probably around a dozen of her short stories, though I'm not sure if I've come across "Houston..." yet. Yeah, a few dated tropes here and there, but her out-of-the-box creativity blazed brightly.

    The phrase "big data" is super trendy in science research these days. Computers, experiments, and telescopes churn out so many gigabytes per day that humans just can't look through it all. Thus, there are "data scientists" who spend all their time figuring out automated ways of drinking from this fire-hose. Okay, sure, but blech. Definitely not my bag.

    Like some other commenters, I'm incredibly impressed at the quantity & quality of your reading and reviewing here. Zamyatin's "We" was a scant 200 pages, and I almost didn't finish in time for the Coffeehouse! :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Based on that excerpt you shared on your review, it might take me a month to get through "We" too! That is beautiful prose, but man. Took some concentration.

      Delete
  9. Your book reviews totally kick butt. I've gotten to the point where I won't "let myself" start another book until I write a review on the one I just finished, but my reviews are never as long and detailed as yours are.

    I read a bunch of books this month, too... including the "Hunger Games" trilogy. Loved 'em! (Thanks for recommending them.) Now I'm thinking about getting the movies to see how well they've been adapted for the screen. BEST book I read this month is a non-fiction: " The December Project." I may have to cheat a little and write about it for next month's cephalopod gathering.

    Happy weekend!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm so glad you read/liked the Hunger Games trilogy! No vampires. :) Can't wait to hear more about The December Project, I'm unfamiliar with that one.

      Delete
  10. I'm reading Goldfinch right now. I think the book lost the bulk of its momentum after Theo went to live with the Barbours. Tartt's best writing was easily her breathless opening sequence. So far she hasn't come close to recapturing it. And I don't much care for Boris, and I've gone ahead and saw that he comes back again. "Implausible" is a good way to describe the unnecessary sequence of histrionic events. Like a literary soap opera.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I loved Boris! I really enjoyed the Barbours, too; and the bombing scene became almost unlistenable to me (possibly because it triggered some PTSD for me, but also because it was. so. incredibly. long.). We seem to have had opposite reactions to this book! :) But I agree that it is indeed a literary soap opera.

      Delete
  11. Wow. You read a lot of books in one month! I've been wanting to read Goldfinch but maybe I'll get it from my library instead.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I liked having it on a Kindle (as well as an audiobook) because it's such a *huge* book. It's a lot to lug around. Maybe if your library has ebooks? Ours does. Best of both worlds.

      Delete
  12. Without a doubt, you'd solve half the world's problems if you could get people to stop thinking in terms of us and them and realize it's all "us." I think Greene's guidelines are a good start.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, that was Andrew's reaction too. (Above.) It is a nice idea.

      Delete
  13. I think I will give Moral Tribes I look when I can, it sounds very interesting.

    ReplyDelete