I recently got the chance to interview Joshua Greene, Harvard philosopher and author of Moral Tribes, one of the more interesting pop-psychology books I’ve seen. Greene gets interviewed a lot, so I tried to ask questions he hadn’t heard before: It worked out pretty well!
Do you have any moral beliefs that you’ve changed in the last few years? Or old beliefs that you’ve put into practice for the first time?
I haven’t changed my overall philosophy, and because my overall philosophy is broadly utilitarian, most of the interesting questions are empirical. If I change my mind, it will be because I’m aware of some new piece of information that will bring my attention to a new issue or change my perceived likelihood of doing good or doing harm with some action.
One example: A lot of people have been influenced by the effective altruism movement. For a long time, I had given to Oxfam thinking that was the best way to do good with my money. That still may be true, but people like the folks at Givewell have done analyses and said “we think the best thing to do with your money is to give it to the Against Malaria Foundation and other specialty charities that can document exactly how much good they do.”
I still give to Oxfam, but I also give to the portfolio of charities that Givewell recommends. Not a great philosophical transformation, but using new information to change my decisions.
One more thing I’ve thought about is abortion. This came in the course of writing part of the book – I hadn’t fully appreciated how well one can, from a certain perspective, create a good pro-life argument. If your having an abortion is preventing somebody from existing who, odds are, would have a pretty good life, then it’s pretty hard from a consequentialist perspective to ignore that. Trouble is, the same position also applies to abstinence, and to anything besides pumping out as many children as you can […] but I think the ethics of abortion is not as straightforward as a lot of liberals think, or as I had once thought myself.
If you want a good summary of Moral Tribes, I recommend Robert Wright’s review, which goes beyond summary and into a balanced critique of Greene’s ideas.