Michael Shermer: The Science of Good and Evil

Here is a summary of Michael 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.”

Chapter 2 – Why We Are Moral: The Evolutionary Origins of Morality

25-31 – Versions of the golden rule are found throughout the world, dating back at least 3000 years. So where did this idea come from? Moral sentiments evolved from the behaviors of our pre-moral ancestors. Non-human animals display moral-like behaviors proportionate to how human animal-like they are. Dogs, cats, and bats display moral-like behaviors, but not to the extent that the great apes, our evolutionary cousins, do. Cooperative, reciprocity, and other moral-like behaviors have been well documented in the great apes as well as in other animals. [Remember that the DNA of a human and chimp differ less than that between some species of birds. For more see: The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal.]

31-40 – Moral ideas and behaviors were codified by religions that arose as societies became larger. As food production and population increased, division of labor developed, and organized religion came of age to, among other things, justify and support political power. Religions provide a means of exchange between humans and their gods for things that political powers cannot give or give only rarely. Traditionally, religion and politics are bedfellows. [Consider this famous quote from Seneca, quoted by Gibbon at the end of his famous work on the Roman Empire: Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.] “In addition to sanctioning political power “religion has also served as an institution of social order and behavior control.” Religions back up their moral authority by claiming that moral codes are divinely inspired. Crucial to the survival of religion is a strong focus on accentuating in-group loyalty and out-group hostility, which are themselves near universal human traits.

40-46 – Formal moral discipline, behavior control, and conflict resolution become necessary when a group reaches about 150 members. In small groups, reciprocal altruism [a well-documented behavior in human and non-human animals] is the primary mechanism for behavior control and is re-enforced by gossip. Eventually religion took over the role of moral enforcer, evolving as the social institution that promoted cooperation and altruism, and discouraged greed and selfishness.

47-56 – The key idea of group selection helps explain how morality evolved, since groups benefit from cooperation while individuals often don’t. S suggests that group selection might be useful in explaining the evolution of morality. But however we explain it, morality is a behavior that has evolutionary origins.

56-60 – Morality is deep in our nature. Some are more moral than others, but feeling good or bad about our actions is a human universal. And the best way to convince others one is moral and thereby gain cooperative benefits is actually to be moral. All this is best understood by considering the prisoner’s dilemma. Iterated PDs demonstrate that cooperation is a good—possibly the best—strategy.

60-64 – Moral universals exist cross-culturally and thus probably have a biological basis. As evidence for this thesis, S lists over 200 universal human traits related to morality.

Chapter 3 – Why We Are Immoral: War, Violence, and the Ignoble Savage

66-69 – The “problem of evil.” God’s will is not a good explanation. So from whence does evil come? In the first place, evil is not a separately existing thing all by itself, it is not a Platonic essence. Rather, evil is “a physical concept that exists entirely within the natural realm as behavior…Good and evil are human constructs.” 69

70-76 – We all can be good or bad depending on the circumstances; human nature is malleable, as the Millgram and Zimbardo experiments demonstrate. [So there is no mystery why people torture each other or why apparently normal people with power do extraordinarily bad things.] Thus, there was nothing special about Nazi leaders except that they shared: “overweening ambition, low ethical standards, and a strongly developed nationalism which justified anything done in the name of Germandom.75 ” [Does this sound familiar to modern day Americans?] Given different situations the mass murderer could have been a quiet accountant; and the accountant a mass murderer. “From and evolutionary perspective this makes sense.” 75 Both cooperation and competition have been necessary throughout evol history. Human behavior comes in shades of grey.

76-81 – Adolp Eichmann appeared quite normal. Most of us restrain our impulses normally, but we all have the potential for great violence. And the myth of pure evil—that others are evil and we are not—makes it more likely we’ll be violent.

82-91 – Human behavior falls on a “fuzzy” scale and moral principles have fuzzy values. So are we really fierce and violent, or erotic and loving? Are we, or the Yanomamo tribe, fierce or erotic? We are both, we don’t possess a fixed essence but are capable of various behaviors in various contexts. “We have the evolved capacity to adopt either strategy.” 89 “Homo sapiens in general … are the erotic-fierce people, making love and war far too frequently for our own good…” 91

92-97 – The beautiful people myth is as mistaken as the pure evil myth. Humans are neither beautiful nor ugly; they are capable of doing most anything. The noble savage is a myth. “The evidence is overwhelming that violence, aggression, and warfare are part of the behavioral repertoire of most primate species.” 97

Chapter 4 – Master of My Fate: Making Moral Choices in a Determined Universe

105-06 – Does punishment make sense if our behavior is, at least in large part, determined? [If interested in a view different than the one that prevails in America, see Menninger’s classic The Crime of Punishment. With what horror will our descendents look back upon our criminal justice system.]

107-111 Similar to the problem of evil, there is a paradox of how we can be free if the gods are omniscient, omnipotent, or both? (If the gods can stop us from freely choosing, then we aren’t free; if they can’t stop us from freely choosing, they aren’t omnipotent. And, if the gods know beforehand what we’ll do, then we can’t choose freely; if they gods don’t know what we’ll do beforehand, they aren’t omniscient.) But even without considering the gods, how can we be free when there is a cause for all of our thoughts and behaviors?

[And what besides our genomes and our environments makes us what we are? Is there no cause to our thoughts and actions? Do we create our thoughts and behaviors, ex nihilo? And quantum indeterminacy doesn’t seem to help us because indeterminism or randomness isn’t free will. In fact, one wonders whether free will is even a coherent concept.]

111-120 – The John Hinkley case, which led to the virtual elimination of the “not guilty by reason of insanity” defense. S details the history of the conditions that needed to be met for a successful insanity plea in English law. Today, in the US, it is virtually certain that even severe mental illness will not protect defendants.

120-134 – S himself accepts that: “free will is a useful fiction.” He then looks at some scientific attempts to justify free will. 1) Indeterminism doesn’t work because this isn’t freedom. 2) Sanity and insanity are better explained by fuzzy logic, which leads us to fuzzy freedom. 3) It is easy to induce out of body experiences, religious experiences, and the like by stimulating parts of the brain. In short, “all experience is mediated by the brain.” So the experience of free will reflects the brain’s wiring. Our brains make us feel free, whether we are or not. 4) Genes explain part, but not all, of our behaviors.

134- “Human freedom arises out of this ignorance of causes.” This is S’s solution. There is contingency—randomness, things that just as easily could not have been—and necessity—predictable, things that had to be. History [including our personal history] is moved by both contingencies and necessities. This compels or constrains things, but doesn’t determine them. In his analogy, contingency leads to collisions between atoms while necessity governs the atoms speed and direction. A specific collision was caused, as in compelled or constrained, by prior considerations. The contingencies of history—what might have been—represent a type of freedom. [This seems to beg the question of whether things could have turned out differently.] But in the end, S’s model is of free will as our ignorance of the “causes within a conjuncture that compels and is compelled to a certain course of action by constraining prior conditions.” In short, we feel free even though our actions are really determined. We might as well act as if we’re free.

***Food for Thought (not in the text)
Closing Argument -The State of Illinois v. Nathan Leopold & Richard Loeb
Delivered by Clarence Darrow -Chicago, Illinois, August 22, 1924
This can be found at:  http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/leoploeb/darrowclosing.html
Here is a brief excerpt:

Is Dickey Loeb to blame because out of the infinite forces that conspired to form him, the infinite forces that were at work producing him ages before he was born, that because out of these infinite combinations he was born with out it? If he is, then there should be a new definition for justice. Is he to blame for what he did not have and never had? Is he to blame that his machine is imperfect? Who is to blame? I do not know. I have never in my life been interested so much in fixing blame as I have in relieving people from blame. I am not wise enough to fix it. I know that somewhere in the past that entered into him something missed. It may be defective nerves. It may be a defective heart or liver. It may be defective endocrine glands. I know it is something. I know that nothing happens in this world without a cause. ~ Clarence Darrow***

Chap 5 – Can We Be Good Without God?: Science, Religion, and Morality

141-147 – Did bowling cause the Columbine shootings? Social commentators suggested the computer game Doom, fatherless homes, and a myriad of other causes. American politicians—whose ethics Woody Allen once described as “one notch below child molesters,” offered various reasons. Republican Senator Shurden said a lack of physical punishment was the cause. He introduced and helped pass a bill in Oklahoma that encourages parents to spank, paddle, or whip their children. (It was passed easily.) [This would work because you could theoretically whip someone to death in which case they couldn’t kill people!] Former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer encourages teachers to break the arms of their students. [This would definitely work since it is hard to fire assault rifles with broken arms.] Noted conservative Newt Gingrich accused newspapers, academics, and politicians who disagree with his politics. [However, he doesn’t advocate any whipping or arm breaking so I’m not sure what he would say we should do to college professors who played a large role in the Columbine shootings.] President Clinton accused Hollywood. [Somehow I have the feeling that this was politically motivated. I doubt that he really believed this.] But the best explanation comes from a pillar of moral virtue, former Republican House Speaker Tom Delay. He says the shooting was the result of teaching biological evolution.

147-148 – But S admits that many believe “a scientific and secular worldview” is inconsistent with morality. In short, without a belief in the gods there can be no morality. [It is curious nonetheless that murder, rape, and other violent crimes (which I assume are immoral) are so rare in cultures with little or no religious belief (Europe, Japan, Scandinavia) while they are so high in cultures with high religious belief (USA, Middle East)] So again, can we be good without god?

148-152 [S mentions Dostoyevsky’s work. If possible, before you die, read the chapter from The Brothers Karamozov, entitled “The Grand Inquisitor.” It can be read separately from the novel. If everyone in America today read this chapter the world would be a better place.] S begins by summarizing his view of the origin and justification for morality without positing supernatural entities. But he admits that most don’t share his view, believing that without gods there is no morality, all is relative. [Isn’t morality with the gods, theologically relative? In other words, relative to which gods, which holy book, which interpretation, etc.?] Many believe that we are generally bad and will try to not get caught, but since gods can “see through concrete,” we will try to be good. S summarizes this position as: “you’ll be busted by Mr. Big if you sin, so don’t. So without the gods to anchor religion we’ll collapse into relativism and immorality.

153-54 The problem with all this is that history is filled with counter-examples. [It would be mistaken for an honest student of history to claim that religion doesn’t perpetrate much evil. Hitler and the Nazi’s speeches constantly invoked the Christian god as blessing their behaviors and military adventures. [It’s interesting to actually read the Catholic Hitler’s speeches, which typically end with “gott mit uns.” You’d be surprised how similar they are to certain political speeches you hear today.] In fact both of the 20th centuries world wars were fought primarily between god-fearing Christians and Jews. S’s own view is: “what if religion is not the solution but actually part of the problem?”

154-55 This leads to another question “what would you do if there were no god?” As S points out, if you would then commit all sorts of dastardly deeds you are not to be trusted because you might lose your belief. And if you would still be moral, then “apparently you can be good without god.” [in your own experience, have you found religious believers in general to be more moral or trustworthy than non-believers? I doubt it.]

155- Of course one could say that the non-believers are good because the goodness of all the believers around them rubs off on the non-believers. So Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein opposed nuclear proliferation and world war because of the effect that religious individuals of their day. But S thinks the reason most non-believers are good is the same reason most believers are good—it was evolutionarily adaptive to have moral sentiments. He claims that without religion society wouldn’t collapse into moral chaos. [Again the non-religious societies of Europe, Japan, Scandinavia  support his claim.] As S points out, one can even found a society on secular principles. [The word god is not mentioned even once in the US constitution, twice in the entire Federalist Papers, but both times in the “oh god” way, did not appear on coins until the civil war, and in the pledge of allegiance until 1954. For more see Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.

Chap 6 – How We Are Moral: Absolute, Relative, and Provisional Ethics

158-166 – Moral absolutism and moral relativism present a false dichotomy; we can instead accept provisional ethics. The problem with absolutist ethics is that they divide the world into black and white, either/or, binary logic, no shades of grey. Moreover, who is to say one knows the truth? Many claim to know the truth but most disagree with each other leading, ironically, to the following: “it is absolute moralities that leave us with nothing but conflicting opinions and no moral compass. Nowhere is this problem more evident than in religion.” And given that there are literally hundreds of thousands of religions all with various moral viewpoints, it is impossible for them all to be right in their moral beliefs.  Moral relativism is the view that morality is relative to, dependent upon, or conditioned by cultural or personal beliefs. On this view, there is no absolute right or wrongs, only right or wrongs relatively. S recounts his own search for a moral system. He briefly describes: existentialism, utilitarianism, and others. S argues that multiple perspectives must be considered in moral decision-making.

166-169 – S argues that both moral absolutism and relativism are counter-intuitive and contradicted by the facts. Moral absolutism is contradicted by the fact that there is so much disagreement about moral principles (unlike scientific ones, at least among scientists); and moral relativism contradicted by the fact that there are some universally held moral principles. So S asks us to consider how scientific truth, however strong the reasons and evidence, are always provisional. We can be 99% certain of some, 70% or 40% certain of others. Why not do something similar regarding ethics? Why not steer a middle course between absolutism and relativism. Moral principles aren’t absolute, because there are always exceptions, but they aren’t relative either, because moral sentiments transcend all of us. This allows us to see the real fuzziness of life, death, murder, and … ethics.

169-178 – We are both egoistic and altruistic. But the evidence suggests that balancing these tendencies is not purely an exercise in logic. We often use intuition in morality, yet intuition is notoriously misleading. Our intuition leads us to fear things that almost certainly won’t happen—dying in an airplane crash or by anthrax—and not fearing things much more likely—auto accidents or lightning strikes. Again, our intuition is a poor guide to reality. And the fear associated with poor intuition takes a psychic tool on all of us. Still, S thinks the evidence shows that intuition, in conjunction with intellect, provide for the optimal psychic balance. And he offers plenty of evidence to support his claim. Of particular interest is the suggestion that moral rationalizing often comes after moral emotions. What all this suggests is the powerful role moral intuition plays in moral judgments and the extent to which our moral intuitions are unreliable. Still moral intuitions play a role in our moral life.

179- “Provisional ethics fits well with the research on moral intuitions…” Moral intuitions vary among persons and we can best determine moral truths by listening to both our logic and our intuitions. Provisional ethics is transcendent of individuals and belongs to the species and “Moral principles are provisionally true—they apply to most people in most cultures in most circumstances, most of the time.” This is the best we can do “without eschewing reality.”

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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