Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them by John Green

Excerpt from Moral Tribes by Joshua Greene

The Parable of the New Pastures

Moral Tribes book cover

and The Tragedy of Commonsense Morality ...

Eastern tribe

To the east of a deep, dark forest, a tribe of herders raises sheep on a common pasture. Here the rule is simple: Each family gets the same number of sheep. Families send representatives to a council of elders, which governs the commons. Over the years, the council has made difficult decisions. One family, for example, took to breeding exceptionally large sheep, thus appropriating more of the commons for itself. After some heated debate, the council put a stop to this. Another family was caught poisoning its neighbors’ sheep. For this the family was severely punished. Some said too severely. Others said not enough. Despite these challenges, the Eastern tribe has survived, and its families have prospered, some more than others.

Western tribe

To the west of the forest is another tribe whose herders also share a common pasture. There, however, the size of a family’s flock is determined by the family’s size. Here, too, there is a council of elders, which has made difficult decisions. One particularly fertile family had twelve children, far more than the rest. Some complained that they were taking up too much of the commons. A different family fell ill, losing five of their six children in one year. Some thought it unfair to compound their tragedy by reducing their wealth by more than half. Despite these challenges, the Western tribe has survived, and its families have prospered, some more than others.

Northern tribe

To the north of the forest is yet another tribe. Here there is no common pasture. Each family has its own plot of land, surrounded by a fence. These plots vary greatly in size and fertility. This is partly because some Northern herders are wiser and more industrious than others. Many such herders have expanded their lands, using their surpluses to buy land from their less prosperous neighbors. Some Northern herders are less prosperous than others simply because they are unlucky, having lost their flock, or their children, to disease, despite their best efforts. Still other herders are exceptionally lucky, possessing large, fertile plots of land, not because they are especially wise or industrious but because they inherited them. Here in the North, the council of elders doesn’t do much. They simply ensure that herders keep their promises and respect one another’s property. The vast differences in wealth among Northern families have been the source of much strife. Each year, some Northerners die in winter for want of food and warmth. Despite these challenges, the Northern tribe has survived. Most of its families have prospered, some much more than others.

Southern tribe

To the south of the forest is a fourth tribe. They share not only their pasture but their animals, too. Their council of elders is very busy. The elders manage the tribe’s herd, assign people to jobs, and monitor their work. The fruits of this tribe’s labor are shared equally among all its members. This is a source of much strife, as some tribe members are wiser and more industrious than others. The council hears many complaints about lazy workers. Most members, however, work hard. Some are moved to work by community spirit, others by fear of their neighbors’ reproach. Despite their challenges, the Southern tribe has survived. Its families are not, on average, as prosperous as those in the North, but they do well enough, and in the South no one has ever died in winter for want of food or warmth.

Disaster strikes

One summer, a great fire burned through the forest, reducing it to ash. Then came heavy rains, and before long the land, once thick with trees, was transformed into an expanse of gently rolling grassy hills, perfect for grazing animals. The nearby tribes rushed in to claim the land. This was a source of much strife. The Southern tribe proclaimed that the new pastures belonged to all people and must be worked in common. They formed a new council to manage the new pastures and invited the other tribes to send representatives. The Northern herders scoffed at this suggestion. While the Southerners were making their big plans, Northern families built houses and stone walls and set their animals to graze. Many Easterners and Westerners did the same, though with less vigor. Some families sent representatives to the new council.

The four tribes fought bitterly, and many lives, both human and animal, were lost. Small quarrels turned into bloody feuds, which turned into deadly battles: A Southern sheep slipped into a Northerner’s field. The Northerner returned it. Another Southern sheep did the same. The Northerner demanded a fee to return it. The Southerners refused to pay. The Northerner slaughtered the sheep. Southerners took three of the Northerner’s sheep and slaughtered them. The Northerner took ten of the Southerners’ sheep and slaughtered them. The Southerners burned down the Northerner’s farmhouse, killing a child. Ten Northern families marched on the Southerners’ meetinghouse and set it ablaze, killing dozens of Southerners, including many children. Back and forth they went with violence and vengeance, soaking the green hills with blood.

To make matters worse, tribes from distant lands arrived to settle the new pastures. One tribe claimed the new pastures as a gift to them from their god. The burning of the great forest and the greening of the hills had been prophesied in their holy book, they said. Another tribe claimed the new pastures as their ancestral homeland, from which they had been driven many generations ago, before there was a forest. Tribes arrived with rules and customs that seemed to outsiders rather strange, if not downright ridiculous: Black sheep must not sleep in the same enclosure as white sheep. Women must have their earlobes covered in public. Singing on Wednesdays is strictly forbidden. One man complained of a neighboring woman who, while tending her sheep, bared her earlobes in plain view of his impressionable sons. The woman refused to cover her earlobes, and this filled her pious neighbor with rage. A little girl told a little boy that the god to which his family prayed did not exist. The shocked boy reported this to his father, who complained to the girl’s father. The father defended his daughter, praising her fierce intelligence, and refused to apologize. For this he was killed, as required by the laws of the tribe he had offended. And so began another bloody feud.


Despite their fighting, the herders of the new pastures are, in many ways, very similar. For the most part, they want the same things: healthy families, tasty and nutritious food, comfortable shelter, labor-saving tools, leisure time to spend with friends and family. All herders like listening to music and hearing stories about heroes and villains. What’s more, even as they fight one another, their minds work in similar ways. What they perceive as unjust makes them angry and disgusted, and they are motivated to fight, both by self-interest and by a sense of justice. Herders fight not only for themselves but for their families, friends, and fellow tribe members. They fight with honor and would be ashamed to do otherwise. They guard their reputations fiercely, judge others by their deeds, and enjoy exchanging opinions.

Despite their differences, the tribes of the new pastures share some core values. In no tribe is it permissible to be completely selfish, and in no tribe are members expected to be completely selfless. Even in the South, where the herd is shared, workers are free at day’s end to pursue their own interests. In no tribe are ordinary members allowed to lie, steal, or harm one another at will. (There are, however, some tribes in which certain privileged individuals are free to do as they please.)


The tribes of the new pastures are engaged in bitter, often bloody conflict, even though they are all, in their different ways, moral peoples. They fight not because they are fundamentally selfish but because they have incompatible visions of what a moral society should be. These are not merely scholarly disagreements, although their scholars have those, too. Rather, each tribe’s philosophy is woven into its daily life. Each tribe has its own version of moral common sense. The tribes of the new pastures fight not because they are immoral but because they view life on the new pastures from very different moral perspectives. I call this the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality.


The Parable of the New Pastures is fictional, but the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality is real. It’s the central tragedy of modern life, the deeper tragedy behind the moral problems that divide us. This book is about understanding and, ultimately, solving these problems. Unlike many authors of popular books, I make no promise of helping you solve your personal problems. What I’m offering you, I hope, is clarity - and with this clarity, the motivation and opportunity to join forces with like - minded others.


Making Decisions and Decision Scenarios



Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes &