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Feb 16 2013

Another book on science and morality

Michael Shermer is writing a book on science and morality, and he’s written a preview or summary or overture at Massimo Pigliucci’s blog.

It looks as if he’s just doing Sam Harris’s project all over again, which seems superfluous, but who knows. A sample from the preview or summary:

Given that moral principles must be founded on something natural instead of supernatural, and that science is the best tool we have devised for understanding the natural world, applying evolutionary theory to not only the origins of morality but to its ultimate foundation as well, it seems to me that the individual is a reasonable starting point because, (1) the individual is the primary target of natural selection in evolution, and (2) it is the individual who is most effected by moral and immoral acts. Thus:

The survival and flourishing of the individual is the foundation for establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best survive and flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality.
Here we find a smooth transition from the way nature is (the individual struggling to survive and flourish in an evolutionary context) to the way it ought to be (given a choice, it is more moral to act in a way that enhances the survival and flourishing of other individuals).
He wants to know what people think.
Note to my readers: What I am outlining here is the basis for my next book, The
Moral Arc of Science, which I am researching and writing now, so I ask you to
post your critiques here or email me your constructive criticisms (
[email protected]).
My role model is Charles Darwin, who solicited criticisms of his theory of
evolution and included them in a chapter entitled “Difficulties on Theory” in
On the Origin of Species. Of course, if you agree with me, and/or think
of additional examples in support of my theory, then I would appreciate hearing
those as well!
So tell him what you think.

65 comments

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  1. 1
    Landon

    Sam Harris? He’s re-doing Aristotle – probably badly. I respect some of what Shermer has done, but not only has he shown, of late, a complete inability to admit when he’s wrong, he has proven on numerous occasions to have only a loose grasp of philosophy.

  2. 2
    Scote

    The survival and flourishing of the individual is the foundation for establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best survive and flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality.”

    Citation needed, Shermer.

    Looks like Shermer is science mining to justify his Libertarianism.

    Shermer, and fellow libertarians Penn and Teller, show us that religion isn’t the only ideology that can create a cognitively dissonant blinds spot. The Penn and Teller “BS” show episodes denying AGW and ill health effects of second hand show that when science contradicts their strongly held ideology they put their ideology first. Looks like Shermer is doing the same thing, founding his book with “science” to support his presumtive argument by assertion.

  3. 3
    Jadehawk

    This sounds more like that one time he claimed that Capitalism is the most ethical and generally best social arrangement because it resembles evolution.
    IOW, I’m willing to bet he’s once again writing how science and nature prove that libertarianism is Teh Most Moral world-view.

  4. 4
    Stacy

    Scote:

    Looks like Shermer is science mining to justify his Libertarianism

    Ah. Lightbulb. I was wondering how Shermer got from:

    Given that moral principles must be founded on something natural instead of supernatural, and that science is the best tool we have devised…

    to:

    the individual is a reasonable starting point

    and what the hell

    the individual is the primary target of natural selection in evolution

    has to do with it.

    That whole paragraph struck me as word salad.

  5. 5
    Scote

    “That whole paragraph struck me as word salad.

    Yeah, unfortunately in this case I think Shermer is writing a “Sciency” book on morality, starting with his conclusion and working his way backwards to find ways to justify his inviolable ideology. I think Shermer may be as blind to his ideological blind spots as many creationists–perhaps because he’s a “Skeptic” and thinks himself above cognitive bias.

  6. 6
    Maureen Brian

    I have a funny feeling that PZ, if he has time, is going to take exception to point 1 in that first paragraph you quote.

  7. 7
    chrislawson

    Yup, Shermer has jumped from “science, especially evolutionary science, is the best way to understand morality”, a statement I agree with, to “evolutionary science can tell us how to behave”, which I disagree with, and thence to “science tells us the best way to behave is to follow the tenets of libertarian capitalism”, which is not just wrong but disagreeably so.

    Really, if evolution gives us moral truths, is it OK for a male to kill all the newborns when he takes over a tribe? Or is it only OK for lions? And how exactly has libertarian capitalism (which has only existed in the last 50 years of human history, and then only in the West) inherited the crown as Emperor of All Human Social Contracts?

  8. 8
    chrislawson

    Actually, now that I think about it, I would love to read a book called “What Evolution Tells Us About Morality (And What It Doesn’t)” by one of the more solid thinkers. What I don’t want to read is a book that ought to be called “Why Evolution Proves That My Beliefs Are More Moral Than Everyone Else’s”.

  9. 9
    Silentbob

    If we’re playing spot the fallacy, I would go with naturalistic fallacy (is leads to ought?) and also – while I ain’t no scientist – I had the impression that evolution favours the survival of the species, not the individual. Aren’t there a whole bunch of critters that kill themselves reproducing? In fact, prior to modern medicine, wasn’t pregnancy in humans often a fatal condition?

  10. 10
    Albert Bakker

    “The survival and flourishing of the individual IS the foundation for establishing values and morals, AND SO determining the conditions by which humans best survive and flourish OUGHT to be the goal of a science of morality.”

    If the objective is to found *moral principles* on a natural basis you cannot just assume that foundation, or simply declare it be true and beyond doubt, no matter how convincingly plausible. That to my understanding is not how science works.

    Only the descriptive part: “determining the conditions by which humans best survive and flourish” could lay claim to be scientific under certain restrictions and conditions, and seems to me hard enough already. The normative part cannot be derived from some utilitarian calculus (no matter how well performed) without further assumptions that do not follow from the tables and graphs. Even without objecting to the problematic internal contradictions between the survival and flourishing of individuals versus groups of individuals.

    Morality essentially lives in the domain of interactions between individuals and groups of individuals, which seems to me kind of undermines the ” reasonableness” of declaring the level of the individual to be an appropriate “starting point.” While it can be argued that the individual is most affected personally by moral en immoral acts, it seems to me less clear whether the total effect of an unsound morality culminates (or at least exists mainly) on this level too.

    I don’t know if this will contribute anything that hasn’t been thought of and refuted before, but I am curious. Let’s see.

  11. 11
    Maureen Brian

    Anyway, Shermer is going to have competition. Alain de Botton was just on the radio describing his up-coming tome.

    It seems to be about “to be moral you need all the trappings of religion, all its cuddly reassurances and all its well known devices for getting you out of questions about why you think this way / promote these behaviours.”

    Oh, and he disagrees with Dawkins though he is unconvincing when he tries to explain why.

  12. 12
    Jadehawk

    Actually, now that I think about it, I would love to read a book called “What Evolution Tells Us About Morality (And What It Doesn’t)” by one of the more solid thinkers. What I don’t want to read is a book that ought to be called “Why Evolution Proves That My Beliefs Are More Moral Than Everyone Else’s”.

    this.

  13. 13
    Charles Sullivan

    The is/ought or fact/value distinction would appear to be too difficult for Shermer or Harris to grasp. It is difficult. to grasp, and their rebuttals clearly show that they don’t get it. Either that or they’re setting up strawman arguments in relation to the distinction and then doing a bait-and-switch to sell books. When Shermer wants to call the distinction a fallacy, but never tells us how science can tell us why we should value well-being, then he’s ultimately going to be laughed at by philosophers. When Harris says “values are a kind of fact” and thinks he’s defeated the distinction is also laughable.

    What I find frustrating, as a philosopher, is that both Shermer and Harris seem to be muddying the conceptual waters in a way that does a disservice to the lay-reader. Instead of clarifying the conceptual discussion about is/ought and facts/values they add confusion.

  14. 14
    aziraphale

    I think Sam Harris is aware of the is-ought distinction. My take on it (which may not be his) is that any system of morality is going to rest on some presuppositions or axioms. I think

    A1: we ought to act generally to promote the flourishing of sentient beings
    A2: we ought to act generally to minimise the suffering of sentient beings

    are a good starting point. Anyone who objects to them should not just quote “is-ought” but explain why some other axiom is better.

  15. 15
    chrislawson

    The closest I can get to an “ought from is” argument is to say that…

    (1) We are primates
    (2) There are certain commonalities between the moral actions we observe in other primates (for instance, we know that chimpanzees have a sense of fair reward for fair effort)
    Therefore…
    (3) Human moral thinking will share certain features with other primate moral thinking (for instance, that fair effort should receive fair reward)
    Therefore…
    (4)Human morality says that fair effort should receive fair reward.

    The problem here, of course, is that the “should” is still only an observational should, not an argument from moral principles. If, for instance, we are aware that cannibalistic infanticide has been observed in humans, chimps, orangutans, bonobos (all true!), we can substitute “cannibalistic infanticide is acceptable” for “fair effort should receive fair reward” and the chain of logic is unchanged.

  16. 16
    Setár, Elvenkitty

    So first we have an article where he uses a strawman to dismiss all criticisms of evo psych, and now he purports to have science-based morality by…somehow following evolution. And I seem to remember something about some “blacklist”, where his was the only name that got out.

    Would anyone be surprised if a section of Shermer’s book contained some very misogynist evo-psych? I wouldn’t..

  17. 17
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    Actually, now that I think about it, I would love to read a book called “What Evolution Tells Us About Morality (And What It Doesn’t)” by one of the more solid thinkers.

    I’ve been promoting James Rachels’ Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism (available free online!) for a while now.

    ***

    The whole conceit that this is an original project is annoying. It’s been a basic aspect of humanist (and that includes anarchist, socialist, feminist,…) thought for pretty much ever. People like Kropotkin, Fromm, de Beauvoir, Camus, Rachels, and Allen Wood have written extensively and insightfully about humanistic ethics. I certainly have my criticisms, but I’ll spend my time reading their work rather than bother with Harris or Shermer.

  18. 18
    atheist

    Given that moral principles must be founded on something natural instead of supernatural, and that science is the best tool we have devised for understanding the natural world, applying evolutionary theory to not only the origins of morality but to its ultimate foundation as well, it seems to me that the individual is a reasonable starting point because, (1) the individual is the primary target of natural selection in evolution, and (2) it is the individual who is most effected by moral and immoral acts.

    The moral principles embedded the the myths we call “religion” are certainly expressed supernaturally, but if you make a serious study of them you will see that they are really psychological in character. They use “supernatural” motifs to attempt to describe real “natural” human psychological processes. These myths are still some of them best material available to understand human culture and human thought. Maybe science can be used to create the type of deeply emotionally resonant material needed to transmit human culture. The culture wars over myths are already an ancient story.

  19. 19
    atheist

    Given that moral principles must be founded on something natural instead of supernatural, and that science is the best tool we have devised for understanding the natural world, applying evolutionary theory to not only the origins of morality but to its ultimate foundation as well, it seems to me that the individual is a reasonable starting point because, (1) the individual is the primary target of natural selection in evolution, and (2) it is the individual who is most effected by moral and immoral acts.

    (1.) is utter bullshit. If the individual is really the primary target of natural selection in evolution, then how do we explain kamikaze ants which engage in suicidal defenses of their hive? More to the point, how do we explain people who use suicide attacks? How do we explain the fact that morality so often compels us to act counter to our individual self-interest?

    (2.) is a headscratchingly odd statement. What does that even mean? What about cultural genocides, which do not directly destroy individuals, but which attempt to annihilate cultures, such as the forcible “re-education” of Native American tribes?

  20. 20
    atheist

    @SC (Salty Current), OM – February 17, 2013 at 5:12 am (UTC -8)

    The whole conceit that this is an original project is annoying. It’s been a basic aspect of humanist (and that includes anarchist, socialist, feminist,…) thought for pretty much ever. People like Kropotkin, Fromm, de Beauvoir, Camus, Rachels, and Allen Wood have written extensively and insightfully about humanistic ethics. I certainly have my criticisms, but I’ll spend my time reading their work rather than bother with Harris or Shermer.

    Thanks for the reminder and thanks for the names.

  21. 21
    jose

    I don’t know if this will work or not, would be great if it worked, but what makes me suspicious is that moral realists generally don’t discover in science values that go against the values they already had to begin with; whereas scientists do discover stuff about nature that goes against previous understanding all the time! This discordance might mean something. I’d like to see in action the power of science to refute the morals of the researcher.

  22. 22
    Martha

    it seems to me that the individual is a reasonable starting point because, (1) the individual is the primary target of natural selection in evolution

    Right, because we’re all hermaphrodites or reproduce by parthenogenesis.

    This is just unbelievable.

  23. 23
    peterh

    “….the individual is the primary target of natural selection in evolution….”

    No.

  24. 24
    Ophelia Benson

    There are lots of books that discuss morality in light of evolution – by Matt Ridley (another libertarian, but a much better writer [and thinker] than Shermer), Jared Diamond, Melvin Konner, many more. My favorite is Patrcia Churchland’s Braintrust. I think Shermer should read that and then decide not to write this book after all.

    What Charles said @ 12.

    What I find frustrating, as a philosopher, is that both Shermer and Harris seem to be muddying the conceptual waters in a way that does a disservice to the lay-reader. Instead of clarifying the conceptual discussion about is/ought and facts/values they add confusion.

    Exactly. That annoyed the hell out of me with Harris’s book and I expect it will annoy the hell out of me with Shermer’s.

  25. 25
    Jadehawk

    I had the impression that evolution favours the survival of the species, not the individual.

    neither; it works on the individual genome, which means a)fitness strictly speaking doesn’t lead to survival but to successful reproduction; and 2)haplo-diploid species don’t give a fuck about the survival of either the sterile workers or the haploid males (as long as at least one of them survives long enough to mate; and even if not, the females can just make more, since males aren’t necessary to make males in these species). Haplo-diploid species function with kin selection, because the whole “family” basically exists to make sure the queens manage to reproduce

  26. 26
    Cuttlefish

    The fitness of a moral system, like the fitness of a given trait, could only be seen A) in hindsight, and B) with regard to a specific environmental context. The present only shows us what was selected by the past; if the environment changes, what was once adaptive may no longer be.

    Unregulated pure capitalism and Libertarianism can easily be successful in the short term, so long as there are resources to exploit (and remember, this evolutionary process works by culling the less successful, so the system “working” means only that it works for the winners). In a system with limited resources, individual short term self-interest can lead to long term collective disaster. American expansion across centuries has been selected for because of (and at the expense of) an extraordinary supply of resources, and little concern for the possibility they might one day dry up. With the current population, holding this as an example to be emulated is, to say the least, unsustainable. “Greed is good” is no longer moral.

  27. 27
    Brony

    First of all evolution does not “target individuals”. It acts on populations and sometimes individuals will be more or less fit within a population. There are things that evolution affects that alter how morals are acted upon, but these things end up being subtle biasing agents because they are small parts of larger networks.

    Morality is approximately a sum of the personal moralities of each individual in a definable population. That sum is ALWAYS changing as the individuals within the population change their moral outlook.

    In anyone that Ophelia mentions wants to be able to speak with some kind of sense on the intersection of morality and evolution they should start by asking themselves if a paper like this makes sense to them, even if they disagree with it.
    “A natural history of the human mind: tracing evolutionary changes in brain and cognition.”
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18380864

  28. 28
    A Hermit

    ” the individual is the primary target of natural selection in evolution”

    This is where the Libertopians and the Creationists overlap; they share a profound misunderstanding of evolution and natural selection, at least that how it looks to me.

    Evolution is about populations of species, not individuals, and “survival of the fittest” doesn’t mean that the biggest, strongest smartest individual looking out for that individual’s particular needs is what drives selection.

    Altruism, which is rejected by Objectivist Libertarians (the Ayn Rand disciples like Penn; not sure if Shemer goes that far) is an advantageous adaptation in that it can promote the long term survival and reproduction of a population. Even robots do it …http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2011/05/even-robots-can-be-heroes.html?ref=hp

    I do agree that morality has to be based on natural reality and human needs, but the warning bells go off when I see the kind of naive over-simplification Shermer makes in his very first point.

  29. 29
    Brony

    The survival and flourishing of the individual is the foundation for establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best survive and flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality.

    I might try bringing up my own “kind” as a test case for his book. An “affliction” that has been discribed as an “illness of the observer” since it is always the public morality that causes the greatest suffering with individuals with Tourettes.

    “Not allowed to have a small heart: Tourette Syndrome”
    http://blogs.plos.org/neuroanthropology/2012/05/16/not-allowed-to-have-a-small-heart-tourette-syndrome/

  30. 30
    Jafafa Hots

    Didn’t we dispense with this idea a century ago?

  31. 31
    clamboy

    To A Hermit: one of the chapters in Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things is titled “The Unlikeliest Cult,” and is about Ayn Rand and Objectivism/Objectivists. Shermer says that he had been something of a Randian, but moved away from that perspective after his investigation into her. I may be misremembering the details, but at least he did do his digging into the cult of Rand, and wrote on what he found.

  32. 32
    adriana

    @Stacy and @Scote: ah, light bulb too! I was also wondering why so many references to the “individual.” But if the individual is the recipient unit of moral behavior, then there is no way one can reasonably get from there to a valid argument in favor of libertarianism, since libertarian economics and behavior can result a detriment to many individuals.

    And with respect to the confusion between “effect” and “affect”, as in: “it is the individual who is most effected by moral and immoral acts”, it should be affected. Sorry but it is a pet peeve of mine, and Shermer is undoubtedly too educated to confuse the two.

    For a good, intelligent, sophisticated read on science, evolution and morality, I recommend Part I of Massimo Pigliucci’s book “Answers for Aristotle.”

  33. 33
    601

    Compassion is the ideal basis for social values (community ethics).

    Cherry picking patterns from nature is no better than making up supernatural Truths. Science is best at understanding how we got here (and even some rigorous evo-psych might contribute). But where we should-ought-want to go is fundamentally unconstrained.

    Although I prefer Harris’ human flourishing to Shermer’s “every man for himself.” Individual morality (selfish and arbitrary) always ends up as might makes right.

    We humans are an odd lot, with more cognitive ability than we can handle emotionally, we can perceive ourselves as abstract People on a good day, yet we are also selfish animals desperate to survive.

  34. 34
    screechymonkey

    clamboy@31:

    Shermer says that he had been something of a Randian, but moved away from that perspective after his investigation into her. I may be misremembering the details, but at least he did do his digging into the cult of Rand, and wrote on what he found.

    My recollection may be no better than yours, but for what it’s worth, I recall that Shermer only “moved away” from revering Rand personally, not from her views on economics and morality. In my recollection, the chapter was more about how Rand’s inner circle kept rallying around her and whitewashing or ignoring her personal failings, hypocrisies, and downright nastiness to anyone who was deemed to have “betrayed” her.

  35. 35
    And How

    Chris Lawson @ 15 said:

    The closest I can get to an “ought from is” argument is to say that…

    (1) We are primates………..

    Christ Lawson concludes by saying –

    If, for instance, we are aware that cannibalistic infanticide has been observed in humans, chimps, orangutans, bonobos (all true!), we can substitute “cannibalistic infanticide is acceptable” for “fair effort should receive fair reward” and the chain of logic is unchanged.

    Thank you, Chris. Finally, I understand why so many Christians go ape shit when asked to consider the proof that humans evolved from primates.

    But, ask Christians to explain why the cultures of the Bible practiced genocide of infants and other barbaric behavior. Well – that’s simple – this is just the chosen people acting on the wishes of the divine commander, Yaweh. No other options need be considered.

    Now, of course, we couldn’t possibly attribute their barbaric behavior to the explaination that these people were using the primitive regions of their brains to make decisions. Furthermore, we couldn’t possibly believe that their tribal mentality simply represents typical territorial and predatory primate behavior. And of course, we couldn’t possibly believe their socio-ecomonic enviornment having only very crude technology had anything to do with the fact they were relying on their primitive brain regions to drive decision making behavior.

    I propose much of human tragedy might be explained and understood in this light.

    In fact, I have a few people in my life who are well spoken and human; but in some regards they have the moral aptitude of gorillas. No disrespect to any gorillas out there. :)

  36. 36
    jack*

    I’m quite sympathetic to Harris’ project but found his book unsatisfactory. I welcome more attempts to attack the problem of an objective basis for morality, but I fear that Shermer isn’t really the right guy for the job. His suggestion that individuals are the right level to seek moral universals seems pretty bankrupt from the start.

    I really wish more philosophers would take the project seriously. Harris’ book was met with nothing but eye-rolling condescension from the professional thinkers, many (as here) dismissing the idea out-of-hand as a fallacy. I’m quite familiar with “no ‘ought’ from ‘is’”, as I’m sure Harris is as well — we just disagree.

  37. 37
    Scote


    chrislawson writes:

    Actually, now that I think about it, I would love to read a book called “What Evolution Tells Us About Morality (And What It Doesn’t)” by one of the more solid thinkers. What I don’t want to read is a book that ought to be called “Why Evolution Proves That My Beliefs Are More Moral Than Everyone Else’s”.”

    Nicely put. I don’t see how Shermer’s book can be anything other than this. So the question that remains in my mind is whether Shermer realizes what he’s doing consciously or not, because it seems pretty transparent and obvious from the outside. Does he really think the topic of his book and his methodology is objective rather than merely a book length exercise in confirmation bias?

  38. 38
    clamboy

    To screechymonkey and A Hermit (and anyone else interested): it seems the chapter in Shermer’s book that I mentioned is based on (or may be verbatim, I don’t know) this article that was originally published in Skeptic: http://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/the-unlikeliest-cult-in-history/

    screechymonkey, you remembered better than I: Shermer states in the article that he does still adhere to certain tenets of Rand’s, though he does decry the cult of personality built around her and her writings. His continued adherence can be seen in the quotes that Ms. Benson provides above: in his emphasis on the individual to the point of near-obsession, for example (I’ve heard Penn Jillette make such statements as well, in this case specifically in his criticism of feminism – he asserted that there are only individuals, apparently blind to the notion of classes of people).

  39. 39
    Reginald Selkirk

    Landon #1: but not only has he shown, of late, a complete inability to admit when he’s wrong…

    “Of late”? He’s always been that way. He also has a lengthy history of flubbing the science. Here’s an old anecdote for you.
    Michael Shermer’s first book was Why People Believe Weird Things, Copyright 1997. I bought the book (1st edition, 2nd printing) and read it, and found it reasonably enjoyable. Being a pedant, I found a few errors. Most of these were of the small, typographical sort. However, if you look on page 83 you will find this description of genetic inheritance:

    from an evolutionary viewpoint, 25 percent of a child’s genes come from each parent, about 6 percent from each grandparent, 1.5 percent from each great-grandparent, and so on.

    Hopefully most of you will recognize that this is wrong. I felt this was so wrong that I wrote a letter to Shermer, with the stated intent that if the book had additional printings, he might use the opportunity to correct the mistakes I had found, with the quoted one being the most egregious.
    .
    He sent me a reply acknowledging the small errors. About the above quoted excerpt he said ‘I think we’re both right, and I was just thinking of it differently‘. He also included some material about the Skeptics Society and suggested I might want to join.
    .
    The error was excised from later editions; I don’t know who gets the credit for finally convincing him he was wrong.

  40. 40
    Reginald Selkirk

    Of course, if you agree with me, and/or think of additional examples in support of my theory, then I would appreciate hearing those as well!

    He seems to be setting himself up for confirmation bias.

  41. 41
    Ophelia Benson

    No I don’t think it’s true that Harris’s book was met with nothing but eye-rolling condescension from the professional thinkers. I think it was met with sharp criticism, because it was bad. It was annoyingly bad – bad in an annoying way.

    I don’t think there’s much need for philosophers to take the project more seriously until someone makes a better job of it. There are already plenty of good books on moral philosophy out there; I don’t see why anyone should take amateurish attempts by people from other disciplines seriously.

    I (for instance) wouldn’t dream of writing a book on moral philosophy, because I don’t know enough about it. I think that’s a good reason to not write a book about something.

  42. 42
    Landon

    @Reginald; Yikes! I had no idea Shermer was that bad even on the science!

    @Charles, Ophelia: What amazes me about Shermer et al. is that they seem to be AWARE of the ought/is problem… they seem to even grasp WHAT the problem consists of… but then they sort of ignore it. At best, they wave it away with some unfounded assertion. At worst, they just sort of vaguely reference it as a problem and then go on, as if it’s a problem for OTHER PEOPLE, but NOT THEM. This drives me batty. Shermer is spinning his wheels, making no headway into the issue at all, because he refuses to acknowledge the reality of the problem and address some of the plausible remedies. The worst part is, constructivist accounts often reference evolution, or at least biological facts about humans in the here and now, to underwrite their moral systems. That, of course, does not provide a sufficiently, ah, “objective” basis for morality for these folks.

    Gah.

  43. 43
    Reginald Selkirk

    chrislawson #7: Really, if evolution gives us moral truths, is it OK for a male to kill all the newborns when he takes over a tribe? Or is it only OK for lions?…

    Jadehawk #12: Actually, now that I think about it, I would love to read a book called “What Evolution Tells Us About Morality (And What It Doesn’t)” by one of the more solid thinkers.

    Which brings me to make a point about claims for objective morality: our moral codes tend to be very anthropocentric. To someone trained in evolutionary science, human exceptionalism tends to be a red flag. And our moral and legal systems are rife with it. I prefer the explanation that humans tend to share certain moral values because we have shared biological heritage dating back a few billion years, rather than that certain moral values are truly objective. Someone on Teh Internets once offered up the word intersubjective as an alternative to objective, and it made sense to me.

  44. 44
    Reginald Selkirk

    Yikes! I had no idea Shermer was that bad even on the science!

    Probably the most hilarious episode was in 2007, in which Shermer’s Scientific American column contained multiple flubs, including a mention of hydrogen fission. We all have our bad days, but the really funny part is that Shermer was using that column to castigate others for not getting the science right (he was ripping into The Secret). SciAm did actually run a correction in the next issue.

  45. 45
    Ophelia Benson

    Landon, exactly. Same here. There’s no argument. The breezy way Shermer just slaps down some banalities that could come from a high school discussion, as part of his proposed book on the subject…Oy.

    I can just imagine how Massimo feels about it. :D

  46. 46
    Brony

    Well I dropped my comment on how morality is more about enforcing group sameness than anything else when it comes to evolution and science. We will see if he can actually address it. I usually find that when I try to talk hardcore neurobiology and evolution I get lots of, nothing…

  47. 47
    A Hermit

    Clamboy: thanks for the link…

  48. 48
    screechymonkey

    Clamboy @38:

    (I’ve heard Penn Jillette make such statements as well, in this case specifically in his criticism of feminism – he asserted that there are only individuals, apparently blind to the notion of classes of people).

    Oh, dear sweet FSM. Is he one of those libertarians who insists that “libertarians cannot be racist/sexist/homophobic, because that’s a ‘collective rights’ concept that libertarians don’t recognize”? (Which is just another way of uttering that classic of douchebaggery, “I don’t see color!”)

  49. 49
    Duke Eligor

    An entire book operating on the teleological fallacy sounds like a terrible idea. And as already mentioned, he doesn’t even get evolution right.

    Morality is more often than not just a self-serving bias that tries to give some people’s interests more importance than others’. His basic concept is summarized as “The things I like the most are most important because I like them the most, therefore they are the most important. And, I can rationalize that with some selected appeals to teleology.” Just like most religious ethics, it’s a concoction of mental bias and woo-woo nonsense. The problem that needs to be adressed is whether or not we even need a “morality,” or if the entire concept should just be dispensed with altogether. A lot of these self-styled “philosophers” like Shermer and Harris simply fall back on whatever morality has been socially programmed into them – typically religious in origin – and just replace the missing deity with a pile of rationalizations. That’s not helpful, or even interesting. Atheism needs books that ask hard questions about ethics, and actually take on the religious ethos, not just the mythos.

  50. 50
    Landon

    @Duke: Fortunately, there are many, many books that ask hard questions about ethics, but they are being written by actual ethicists – moral philosophers who have devoted their careers to addressing these hard questions, rather than dilettantes like Shermer who think that THEIR fields are HARD and that you can’t just go GADDING ABOUT in them without EXPERTISE… but that everything ELSE is EASY, and that they have to hand easy answers to questions that have vexed experts for centuries.

    Try “A Theory of Justice,” by Rawls (though it is slow, dry going); “Morals by Agreement,” by Gauthier (haven’t read it, but am given to understand that it is good); “Liberalism and the Limits of Justice,” by Sandel; and “Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong,” by Mackie (mostly just Chapter One, though, and do that first). These are all excellent books that address just the issues you seem to be interested in. Obviously, there are more , but those four address the core issue of how to underwrite a secular system of ethics without getting caught up in the is/ought problem (at least, in theory).

  51. 51
    Landon

    Of course, as a nice diverse pu-pu platter of ethical issues, I recommend LaFollette’s “Ethics in Practice,” especially since the articles in it are generally easier to read, show both sides of any given debate, and cover a wide range of topics. This is the book I use when I teach Intro Ethics and students seem to like it.

  52. 52
    chrisdevries

    Sounds like an unnecessary and unhelpful book.

    I happen to agree mostly with what Harris has written on the subject. As for the is-ought thing, Harris is only saying that we ought to value the flourishing of conscious creatures and minimize harm to same. There is no objective fact that says *why* we should value this, and certainly, the possibility that we may have evolved to value this doesn’t make it worth valuing. In my opinion, it is simply the most pragmatic and elegant way to judge and compare cultures. People and groups of people who think that morality entails causing and supporting suffering in humanity or a subgroup thereof aren’t worth listening to. They aren’t objectively wrong, they’re just pricks.

    So then, moral behavior and ways of living are those that perpetuate well-being and happiness while eliminating as much suffering and harm in all conscious creatures (including non-human conscious creatures). The only things you have to accept to agree with Harris’s model are:

    (1) There are ways of living as a society that result in increased flourishing, happiness, healthiness, creativity, empathy, innovation, etc., and ways of living that diminish these things while increasing negative qualities [this is patently obvious to most people];

    (2) That we *should*, in most cases, want to increase these things as much as possible while decreasing the negatives, (such as pain, suffering, hatred, violence, racism, sexism, etc.) [obvious to all except blatant misanthropes and sociopaths]; and

    (3) That we can objectively measure how well a society fares in increasing flourishing and decreasing suffering and institute programs from the top-down (government) and bottom-up (grassroots), to improve that society, by the standards established in 2.

    I see this model as a work-in-progress, a first step to something more. As we understand our brains better, we’ll get a sense of how people become the way they are, for example how negative emotions like jealousy and insecurity can lead to rage and violence, and we can find ways to subvert neurological short-cuts and use psychology and neurology to promote things like compassion and empathy. But it’s hard to disagree with Harris if you can accept the three things he asks you to accept. It is emphatically true that there is no reason why we should encourage compassion and discourage hatred, why one is good, the other, bad. And there are certainly situations where hatred can be a good thing, and compassion can cause or increase suffering. There is no easy formula to improve a society. But in agreeing that in most cases, compassion SHOULD be encouraged and hatred discouraged, that we SHOULD care about suffering and act to minimize it, it is possible to build a framework upon which a society can be evaluated and improved.

    In any case, it seems that Shermer is not adding anything useful to this topic, just seeking to justify his own biases. I challenge Mr. Shermer to apply his critical thinking skills to his own beliefs, and seek to eliminate those biases before he wades into this quagmire of moral debate.

  53. 53
    Robert B.

    Who says we should be taking ethical advice from evolution, anyway? Evolution is a blind idiot god – a nasty, wasteful, self-centered horror. It is, in fact, a much worse optimization engine than intelligence, even the clumsy, biased intelligence we humans have.

    Honestly, are there really atheists who think evolution is good, as opposed to just true? I thought that was a lie Christians told about us to make us look bad.

  54. 54
    Richard Treitel

    I’ve just read The Science of Good and Evil back to back with The Moral Landscape. Harris knows how to stay on topic.

  55. 55
    601

    @chrisdevries #52

    People and groups of people who think that morality entails causing and supporting suffering in humanity or a subgroup thereof aren’t worth listening to. They aren’t objectively wrong, they’re just pricks.

    Priceless, thanks.

  56. 56
    And How

    Yes. We should strive for all the things Chrisdevries speaks for.

    The problems are in areas where the population is largely illiterate and impoverished. Also, their society and government is based on primitive customs and tribal mentality. These enviornments allow thuggery to rule often using “holy” text scaremongering tactics.

    That said, we can observe that organized religion is not always in play. We know this because we see the rise of leaders who became gods unto themselves with the formation of personality cults like with our buddy Kim Jong il and the chariman himself – Mao.

    There is a battle going on with the “business” end of religion and the monopoly they have had on morality. Some teachings of these religion do promote civility, but many do not. We need to keep pointing out that these “holy” books are full of myth and are largely a commentary of the psychological, social, and cultural conditions of that place and time.

  57. 57
    Reginald Selkirk

    chrisdevries #52: As for the is-ought thing, Harris is only saying that we ought to value the flourishing of conscious creatures and minimize harm to same. There is no objective fact that says *why* we should value this, and certainly, the possibility that we may have evolved to value this doesn’t make it worth valuing…

    And why do we value consciousness so? Because we are conscious creatures! Precisely the sort of anthropocentrism to which I was alluding. If cheetahs were in charge, you can bet that running speed would be the be-all and end-all of personal worth.

  58. 58
    Ophelia Benson

    Good morning Xenophanes.

    :D

  59. 59
    jack*

    This review, for example, starts by saying that he agrees with Harris mostly, then accuses him of ‘scientism’ (which I take as kind of a slur), defers to Hume, and says Harris should “read a book”. Eyes rolling throughout.

    Amateurs can at least pose interesting questions; it would be nice if the experts would at least address them. Instead we get the counterargument of “what if a scientific study showed that indeed, hitting children does have a measurable effect on improving those desirable traits?” A strawman, actually, since that’s not Harris’ argument, but nevermind that. Isn’t that what people and groups do all the time? Any time a study shows that religious people are better off in some way it’s trumpeted as proof of the goodness of piety. I have the courage of my convictions at least and am willing to do the study.

    People think their values are good (by definition) but scientific results can change those minds. Why? Because they find out that those values aren’t actually good.

  60. 60
    Ophelia Benson

    Sure, amateurs can post interesting questions. That doesn’t mean that all amateurs do so. And some experts do address them, Massimo being one.

  61. 61
    atheist

    @Reginald Selkirk – February 18, 2013 at 6:54 am (UTC -8)

    And why do we value consciousness so? Because we are conscious creatures! Precisely the sort of anthropocentrism to which I was alluding. If cheetahs were in charge, you can bet that running speed would be the be-all and end-all of personal worth.

    “I used to think my brain was my favorite organ. But then I considered: which organ is telling me that?”
    –Emo Phillips

  62. 62
    Duke Eligor

    Landon: Yes, I’m familiar with many good books on ethical philosophy, as it’s a topic I’ve been interested in since my youth. I’ve even taken classes on ethical philosophy at my old university, and have been studying it since. Moreover, different ethical systems and descriptive ethics have been of significant interest to me as a student of the social sciences. Although, I still wouldn’t consider myself an expert, it seems that a lot of people haven’t even done a lot of the basic research to ask the difficult questions that better-read people are familiar with. More often than not, moral sentiments among Westerners seem to simply presume a set of axioms that are only obvious to someone from a modern capitalist and Judeo-Christian culture. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if we’re going to be skeptical atheists, it seems appropriate to challenge all of the “gods” that have been passed down to us, even the one’s that aren’t as obvious as the bearded Dude in the sky. And as you said, there are already many wonderful books that do this. Your suggested readings are appreciated.

  63. 63
    jack*

    Nice article from B&W no less pointing out where Massimo missed the mark.

    What makes me upset is that now more than ever we’re confronting all kinds of odious ideologies that claim nontheless to be morally superior. Anti-gay, anti-choice, men’s rights, prayer in school, anti-affirmative action, libertarians, the Catholic hierarchy — all have national sway and wrap themselves in moral arguments. Moral philosophy — which should be providing the theoretical foundation for these fights — is instead considered so rarefied that when even intelligent people try to approach it they’re attacked for being unsophisticated.

    I’m sick of it. These things matter — some of them are life or death. We can’t approach each issue like it’s brand new to argue from first principles. A schoolchild can learn to recognize logical fallacies and employ them in their reasoning. The math behind physics can often be solved on a napkin. Where are the easily understood moral fallacies? Where are the basic moral relations that can be generally applied?

    We all deal with ethical problems every day. If the theory is too complex for anyone to understand it’s useless. You can keep it, and I’ll keep trying to get science to do the job if it can be made to work.

  64. 64
    Raging Bee

    Given that … science is the best tool we have devised for understanding the natural world, applying evolutionary theory to not only the origins of morality but to its ultimate foundation as well…

    Non-sequitur: just because “science” in general is our best tool for understanding the natural world, does NOT mean that one particular branch of science (evolution) is the best tool for understanding or developing morality. Why evolution, and not, say, psychology or economics?

    …it seems to me that the individual is a reasonable starting point…

    Another non-sequitur: “the individual” is not a “reasonable starting-point” because of evolution; it’s a reasonable starting-point because we’re individuals, not a hive-mind, and we’re devising morality that suits our interests as a species of sentient individuals. And this would be the case whether or not evolution is true.

    Right-wing Christians have a longstanding stereotype of atheists as mean, amoral, selfish individualists who reject morality and think the “religion of evolution” can tell us what is right. And Shermer now seems intent on reinforcing that stereotype in his own writings. Is he knowingly doing this as a right-wing-Christian plant? Or does his ignorance and naievete allow him to be manipulated into following that script, without knowing he’s being played? I really can’t think of anything else Shermer can hope to accomplish with a book based on such piss-poor premises.

  65. 65
    And How

    Raging Bee:

    just because “science” in general is our best tool for understanding the natural world, does NOT mean that one particular branch of science (evolution) is the best tool for understanding or developing morality. Why evolution, and not, say, psychology or economics?

    Ragine Bee:

    Right-wing Christians have a longstanding stereotype of atheists as mean, amoral, selfish individualists who reject morality and think the “religion of evolution” can tell us what is right.

    Both excellent points. I agree with the point I believe is being made that too much emphasis on evolution in discussing ethics is a trap.

    It also seems to me that the more relevant “hardcore’ science field would be neuroscience, rather than evolution. A book that is too scientific would be lost on the general public. If it is too heavy on evolution it will be dismissed by religous people.

    A book which is very elementary and light on neuroscience, but explains morality from a psychological, socio-economic would be much more relatable. I am thinking something having the format, quality and feel of The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell might do well.

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