Morality and Nature: The “Us Versus Them” Divide

by Ray Grigg

Only rarely does a special key fit into a lock of confusion, a closed door suddenly opens, and an incisive clarity explains what once seemed to be inexplicable. Such a key is provided by Joshua Greene, a moral psychologist who is director of the Moral Cognition Lab at Harvard University. His book is Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and the Gap Between Us and Them. The elegant simplicity of his thinking illuminates our moral behaviour and becomes a model for understanding our dysfunctional relationship with nature.

As Greene explains, “Morality is essentially a suite of psychological mechanisms that enable us to cooperate” (NewScientist, Dec. 2013). During the hundreds of millennia of our evolutionary history in mostly clan and tribal units, everyone learned specific values and behaviours that gave cohesion and success to their particular social group. Then and now, everyone’s morality develops within a single framework of a “Me versus Us” relationship, with their sense of individuality, separateness or autonomy defined and limited by their own group’s moral structure. This “suite of psychological mechanisms”, an essential part of all socializing processes, is so thoroughly entrenched in the way the members of a group think and feel that the morality seems to be intuitive.

Complications begin, Greene explains, when one group must reconcile with a different group, “when it’s Us versus Them,” when it’s “my group’s interests and values versus another group’s.” As Greene notes, “our moral intuitions” evolved to solve problems between individuals and their own group, not between different groups. The “moral common sense” we intuitively share with people who help us form a functioning community in our own locality may be in conflict with the “moral common sense” of people in a different locality. The different frames of references that we call morality can make it very difficult for groups to get along with other groups.

In a globalizing world where different groups are forced to interact, the inability of their “intuitions” to find common values results in conflicts that Greene calls “the tragedy of common sense morality”. The solution to this problem, he suggests, “when groups disagree about the right thing to do, [is to] slow down and shift into manual mode.” In other words, abandon what feels “intuitively” right and give conscious consideration to the moralities. A thoughtful and careful evaluation of the perceived differences may reveal shared values and objectives that will allow for a purposeful and tolerant relationship. Greene calls this larger and more inclusive perspective a “meta-morality”.

Now, transpose Greene’s whole analysis of morality to our dysfunctional relationship with nature, a conflict that is now busily wrecking critical ecologies essential to the stable functioning of human civilization.

For hundreds of millennia — for probably 99 percent of our existence as a species — we lived in a “Me versus Us” relationship with nature. As hunter-gathers, we were inseparably linked to our natural surroundings. Nature was the collective body to which we human beings wholly and unequivocally belonged. We lived in communion with the rhythm of seasons, the migration of game, the spawning of fish, the sprouting of herbs and the ripening of berries. Just as everyone’s morality was derived from their clan or tribe, the clan’s or tribe’s morality was derived from nature because all survival depended on an intimate connection to it. The morality of every group would have been based on its particular understanding of nature’s wisdom. Indeed, the bond between people and nature would have been so close that an intuitive understanding of nature’s morality would have been accepted as “moral common sense.”

This intimacy with nature began to wain with the beginning of agriculture about 10,000 years ago. Animal husbandry slowly replaced hunting while crops eventually ended gathering. Nature became wild and alien, threatening and distant. The harmony within a “Me versus Us” relationship with nature shifted to the tense differences of an “Us versus Them”.

Civilization upon civilization has amplified these differences and increased the separation. The three monotheistic religions of the West have made nature incidental to the human drama; science has made nature an object; industrialization has made it a resource; consumerism, a commodity; tourism, an entertainment. The body of nature has been violated so often and in so many ways that its integrity is beginning to collapse. If, as Joshua Greene attests, “Morality is essentially a suite of psychological mechanisms that enable us to cooperate,” then our culture has long abandoned any sense of morality. Our treatment of nature is now tantamount to abuse and pillage.

As humanity is reluctantly learning, the “Me versus Us” relationship with nature is a bond that can neither be denied nor broken. “Us versus Them” is a fantasy created by our illusion of separation and independence. We are as irretrievably bound to the morality of nature as were our hunter-gatherer ancestors. This is a lesson we are reluctantly learning as damaged ecosystems shudder and unravel under the impact of an aberrant and intuitive “moral common sense” that no longer makes any sense.

Of course, many mystics, poets, philosophers, artists and others have long honoured the intrinsic morality of nature. Science is now beginning a laborious reconciliation, searching for a meta-morality — a global morality — that may provide the new perspective humanity needs for a peaceful relationship with nature. Perhaps our continual measuring and monitoring of its vital functions will provide the intimate awareness that eventually becomes an intuitive morality common to all humanity. Such a collective sensitivity may then guide us to live harmoniously within a community of life so incredible as to be nothing less than sacred.