Minor Thoughts from me to you

When Tribes Have Different Moral Standards

When Tribes Have Different Moral Standards →

Earlier this year, Russ Roberts interviewed Joshua Greene, on the topic of how to solve dilemmas arising from people having different moral standards. Greene led off with a morality tale about differing tribes, with different moral standards.

[I]magine that there's this large forest. And all around this large forest are many different tribes. And these different tribes are all cooperative, but they are cooperative on different terms.

So, on the one side you might have your communist herders who say, "Not only are we going to have a common pasture; we're just going to have a common herd, and that's how everything gets aligned. Everything is about us".

And on the other side of the forest you might have the individualist herders who say, "Not only are we not going to have common herds; we are not going to have a common pasture. We are going to privatize the pasture, divide it up; and everybody's responsible for their own piece of land. And our cooperation will consist in everybody's respecting each other's property rights. As opposed to sharing a common pasture".

And you can imagine any number of arrangements in between. And there are other dimensions along which tribes can vary. So, they vary in what I call their proper nouns, so that is: Which leaders or religious texts or traditions have authority to govern daily life in the tribe? And tribes may respond differently to threats and outsiders. Some may be relatively laissez faire about people who break the rules. Other people may be incredibly harsh. Some tribes will be very hostile to outsiders; others may be more welcoming. All different ways the tribes can achieve cooperation on different terms. They are all dotted around this large forest.

And then the parable continues: One hot, dry summer, lightning strikes and there's a forest fire and the forest burns to the ground. And then the rains come and suddenly there is this lovely green pasture in the middle. And all the tribes look at that pasture and say, 'Hmmm, nice pasture.' And they all move in.

So now we have in this common space all of these different tribes that are cooperative in different ways, cooperative on different terms, with different leaders, with different ideals, with different histories, all trying to exist in the same space. And this is the modern tragedy. This is the modern moral problem. That is, it's not a problem of turning a bunch of 'me-s' into an 'us.' That's the basic problem of the tragedy of the commons. It's about having a bunch of different us-es all existing in the same place, all moral in their own way, but with different conceptions of what it means to be moral.

I thought it was a good illustration of why I think that there should be a small, central government with very few areas of responsibility and many local governments, with much greater areas of responsibility. People will disagree about what forms of behavior are moral and just. They should be free to live in communities that reflect their values, without being forced to live according to the beliefs of whichever groups outnumber them.