Michael Shermer’s The Science of Good and Evil: Summary of Chapter 7 & 8

Chap 7 – How We Are Immoral: Right and Wrong and How to Tell the Difference

181-185 – There are at least two additional problems with theistic ethics: 1) how to resolve moral issues not discussed in sacred texts (cloning, genetic engineering, etc.); and 2) how to selectively read sacred texts since many of the prescriptions are obviously ridiculous. (For example you need to disregard prescriptions for stoning your children or your non-virginal wife, or being a good slave master.) So it seems clear that all of the world’s ethical (and of course scientific) knowledge wasn’t revealed 2000 years ago to shepherds and nomads in the eastern Mediterranean and that it is up to us to think about morality. S is ready to present a 21st century ethics based on rational considerations.

185-186 – S argues that the golden rule probably derived from reciprocal altruism. But he thinks the weakness in the golden rule may be seen in this example: “Since I like to be beat, I should beat you.” Better to ask the other person first if they want something done to them—the ask-first principle. This is his 1st principle. Note how this applies in the adultery example.

187-88 – A 2nd principle is the happiness principle. Most all of us believe that happiness is better than unhappiness, and happiness is a universal good. S formulates this as a principle, roughly, seek happiness but not at the expense of others.

188-90 – A 3rd principle is the principle of liberty. Seek freedom but respect other person’s freedom to disagree with you. And never seek freedom if another’s freedom will be impinged. S argues that overall, liberty has increased for persons as powerful elites are constantly challenged concerning their desire to remain dominant. [I think S is overly optimistic here. At best this is a 5 steps forward and 4 steps backward thing.]

190 – A 4th principle is moderation. [The Greeks considered moderation or temperance one of the 4 cardinal virtues. Plato devotes the entire dialogue, The Charmides, to precisely this issue.] Fanaticism and extremism are to be avoided. “If you are killing people in the name of anything, you are seeking happiness and liberty at the ultimate expense of someone else’s happiness and liberty.” At this point S will discuss how provisional ethics and a science of morality apply to particular moral issues.

191- Truth telling and lying – These exist on a fuzzy scale. What if we ask someone how they would feel being lied to and whether their happiness or liberty increased or decreased as a result of our lie. If we do it to increase our own happiness or liberty at the expense of another, this would be immoral. But if lying protects someone’s life, from an abusive husband for example, lying would be moral. “Tell the truth” is thus a rule of thumb, ordinarily correct but there are obviously exceptions. [This is all consistent with our ordinary moral intuition.]

192-95 – Adultery – S begins with Leibniz’s criticism of divine command theory. This leads us to look for the reasons adultery might be proscribed. Provisional ethics is provisionally against it because of the disruption it causes to “the natural mating condition of our species.” At any rate, there seem to be many reasons to discourage adultery. [I must say, I don’t find the proscription of adultery as rationally self-evident as the one for lying; or the biological argument against incest. After all humans have short-term mating strategies and the vast majority of all known human societies have practiced polygamy.]

195-203 – Pornography – S distinguishes mental, positive, and negative pornography. S doesn’t think the first two are immoral. Autoeroticism or mental pornography is a product of our big brains, enhances our pleasure, and doesn’t hurt anyone. They are “not immoral because the evidence confirms that almost everyone has them, they harm no one else, and thus they are justified if so desired by the individual or couple…” Positive pornography or erotica is also not immoral. The basic argument here is something like “in private between consenting adults.” No one is harmed and the participants are expressing their liberty to increase happiness. Negative pornography is condemned, but not because it causes men to rape.  In fact, the evidence suggests that viewing pornography correlates negatively to the commission of sex crimes. And “a number of studies point to a possible catharsis effect for pornography.” However, there is conflicting evidence about negative effects of negative pornography. So it seems the issue is not yet settled.

203-08 – Abortion – S’s analysis is a “middle of the road” analysis. His conclusion, roughly, is that since there is no good evidence that a potential human is a human (an acorn is not an oak tree), then one should not limit other’s liberty by using the law to coerce them.

208-213 – Cloning – Cloning is a reproductive technology [to help people have children who otherwise can’t] and a source of stem cells. Here are some objections with S’s replies. The identical person myth. This assumes genetic determinism. But as we know, even identical twins aren’t copies. And these identical twins (clones) will be living 30 years apart. [Why would one use this reproductive technology? Say a man is impotent. If his wife wants a child, she will most likely be artificially inseminated with another man’s sperm. Instead, she could have a child without this complication, by being inseminated by her husband’s sperm. When you saw this child, it would be like looking at your baby picture, you wouldn’t notice anything unusual.] The playing god myth. Everything that modern medicine does plays god. The human rights and dignity myth. Identical twins raised in different environments have rights and dignity.

Chapter 8 – Rise Above: Tolerance, Freedom, and the Prospects for Humanity

Shermer concludes his wonderful book by looking to the future as a time of greater tolerance, liberty and friendship for all of humankind. Ultimately he asks us to rise about our primate nature and embrace science and skepticism.  Here is his stirring exhortation:

We can construct a provisional ethical system that is neither dogmatically absolute or irrationally relative, a more universally tolerant morality that enhances the probability of survival and well-being of all members of the species and even the biosphere, the only home we have ever known or will know until science leads us off the planet, out of the solar system, and to the stars. Ad astra!

Brief Thoughts – First of all, I thoroughly enjoyed Shermer’s book and I taught college classes out of it many times. As for evolutionary ethics, it is obvious that our moral behaviors arose in our evolutionary history. Philosophers typically object that this tells us a fact about ethics, but doesn’t imply any values. I have never found this objection very strong. If facts about our nature doesn’t tell us something about what we should value, then where the hell might we get ethics from? I do understand that a straightforward deduction of ought from is doesn’t follow, but surely we can infer something about what we ought to do from what is. I also think Shermer is right that ethics is both relative and absolute, that is it is a provisional system that should aid our flourishing while always being open to changing circumstances.

In the end evolutionary ethics is the obvious extension of evolutionary theory into another realm. Our bodies and our minds are now understood best from an evolutionary perspective. And so too should our behaviors be best understood.

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