Michael Shermer’s The Science of Good and Evil: Summary of Prologue and Chapter 1

Here are the summary notes I’ve taken of Michael’s Shermer’s fine book: The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule 

Prologue: One Long Argument

Page 2 – “All observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service.” Let’s investigate morality this way, remembering that all claims are provisional, that is, we should maintain a balance between doubt and certainty. Let us begin by noting that “To be a fully functioning moral agent, one cannot passively accept moral principles handed down by fiat.” [This book is the 3rd in a trilogy. In the first he investigated superstition and pseudoscience, which led him to investigate religious claims, which led him to morality.

4-7– As a statement about the universe agnosticism is the rational response; as a personal statement, Shermer (S) is a non-theist. Moreover, he doesn’t think it possible to know if there are Gods or not. Still religion thrives by “providing a foundation for social order and moral edification.” [He claims that religion need not be in conflict with science as long as religion doesn’t try to explain the world.] S differentiates between morality—descriptions, facts about morality (part 1 of the book)—and ethics—prescriptions and moral theories, (part 2 of the book).

7-8 – Religion has been the traditional source that promotes ethics. But to understand the deep source of moral sentiments in humans we need to look at our evolutionary history. For S, answering questions about morality demands that we must understand our evolutionary history. We must engage in “evolutionary ethics.” But other sciences are relevant to answering the question. [Part 1 of this book will reveal the origins of morality and part 2 will advance an ethical theory consistent with those findings.]

Chap 1 – Transcendent Morality: How Evolution Ennobles Ethics

17-19 – Enlightenment thinkers attempted to ground morality without the gods, although they still believed morality was absolute. But does a scientific, empiricist explanation of ethics lead to relativism? If values aren’t transcendent, are they relative? S says people typically assume the answer is yes. But S argues that moral sentiments transcend us, since universal moral sentiments are inherited from evolution, and thus morality is subject to empirical analysis. This is what he calls his transcendent empiricism.

19-21 – This leads to a summary of S’s basic argument.
• Moral naturalism – a secular and scientific approach to morality
• An evolved moral sense – moral sentiments and principles evolved through natural selection either because they are good or bad for a group or individual.
• An evolved moral society – social morality evolved from biology.
• The nature of moral nature – humans naturally display a range of moral traits. The codification of moral principles corresponding to moral traits evolved for social control and group survival.
• Provisional morality – moral principles are neither relative nor absolute; they are provisional, that is, they apply most of the time.
• Provisional right and wrong – happiness and liberty are key values.
• Provisional justice – there is no absolute justice, but there is provisional justice.
• Ennobling evolutionary ethics – “moral principles exist outside of us and are products of the impersonal forces of evolution, history, and culture.”

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