An ethics or moral system (or science of morality) often follow two opposing logics. An ethics based on religious dogma will define good and evil specifically as universal truths with a fixed understanding of human nature. However, those who are critical of the overbearing nature of such truths are often accused of the other extreme, that is, an irrational “anything goes” moral relativism.
Michael Shermer in The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule is up to the challenge of solving this conundrum. He means to explain a science of morality based on an interesting combination of discourses: libertarian philosophy, secular humanism, and above all, biology and evolutionary theory. He believes that “Such a system of morality suggests a more universal and tolerant ethic, an ethic that will ensure the well-being and survival of all members of the species, and of all species.” I was immediately intrigued by the promise of an ethical system which claimed to be more flexible and “sympathetic” yet more science-based and rational, consistent with the forces of human evolution. My knowledge of evolution is also fairly basic, so I was interested to learn just how, from an evolutionary perspective, we humans become moral (and immoral) beings from the beginning.
Shermer immediately eliminates two universally accepted beliefs about where morals come from and how they are ordered: one, a transcendent or divine being from which moral rules would derive, and two, Aristotelian binary logic. Shermer claims that it’s quite possible to live a moral life without God. He argues that immorality, in fact, seems to emerge from religious dogmatism and extremism. He also rejects the incompatibility of ‘A and not-A’ (or the kind of thinking which seem to hold fast on seeing the world only in black and white). Shermer explains that the contingencies of life force us to see good and evil as a gradation of shades of gray (what Shermer calls an understanding of human behavior through “fuzzy logic”) and not simply as a binary. Along those lines, evolution tells us that there is no Platonic essence to our being, but rather, being is a product of interactions with external nature and the constitution of genetic make-up. “Because science is a human activity and nature is complex and dynamic fuzzy logic and fractional probabilities best describe both nature and the estimations of our approximation toward understanding that nature.”
Shermer insists throughout his work that “fuzzy logic” and “fractional probabilities” are not forms of moral relativism. But if one “universal” is permitted to stand, it would be that moral feelings are “the natural outcome of evolutionary and historical forces operating on both individuals and groups.” The most crucial (and interesting) chapters are simply titled “Why We Are Moral” and “Why We Are Immoral.” Here, Shermer outlines the evolutionary foundations of human moral development — the interrelationship between group and individual selection, kinship ties, and types of altruism, just to name a few key points. The discussion incorporates research in the fields of anthropology, biology, genetics, chemistry, and sociology. Moral feelings, Shermer concludes, are innate and elemental to our survival: “‘Why should we be moral?” is like asking “Why should I be hungry?’” Given the copious information from the variety of scientific sources that Shermer implements for support, I believe I learned the most from these two chapters.
For those seeking a more concrete formulation of Shermer’s ethics, here it is: “In provisional ethics, moral or immoral means confined to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer provisional assent.” I won’t take the time now to examine Shermer’s definition of “provisional ethics,” which sounds like another kind of relativism to me. But as a skeptic of religious systems which he believes are inherently exclusive, Shermer warns us that the most destructive forces emerging from religion as the source of moral truth are extremism and religious intolerance. As a citizen of the world, I would largely agree, but perhaps I wouldn’t be as eager to dismiss religion as a positive force in people’s lives and the establishment of social order.
Ethics prescribes as well as describes how and why we act. It explores the motivations behind what we do. What Shermer attempts to do is to find evolutionary reasons for these very things. He offers one possible explanation and participates in an on-going discussion that will no doubt continue for the next few hundred years. That’s because the how and the why and the what of what constitutes rightness are so infused with the complexity of contingency and circumstance, yet urgent to know in that “mysteries of the universe” kind of way.
At the end of The Science of Good and Evil, Shermer says something quite nice: “I believe in the heroic nature of humanity and in the ability of human intelligence, reason, and creativity to triumph over problems and obstacles.” Whether philosophers and scholars, scientists and theologians, ground their beliefs in humankind’s inherent evil or good, Shermer’s word ‘heroic’ to describe the nature of humanity is a really promising one. He thinks hard about his own cause and the causes of others and gives the subject the attention it deserves, yet leaves it open for further discussion. We learn and benefit from the presentation of Shermer’s scientific research and the research of others, the legal cases, historical evidence, and events of the times. In all, I learned a lot from this book, especially about evolutionary theory, and I appreciated the conviction that Shermer showed with every fascinating section of an incredibly challenging and complex project.Powered by Sidelines