Michael Shermer’s The Science of Good and Evil: Summary of Chapter 6

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.”

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