Monday, April 17, 2006

Book Review: The Science of Good & Evil

One of the most significant arguments from conservative religious believers is that, without God, there is no basis for morality. In The Science of Good & Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule, skeptic Michael Shermer attempts to construct a morality without God. There are 8 essential premises to his argument: 1. Moral naturalism: Shermer's starting premise is that God is irrelevant to a scientific theory of morality. Shermer is a self-confessed agnostic so doesn't see his scientific project as negating the possibility of the existence of God -- just that, in a scientific enterprise, it is appropriate (indeed necessary) to proceed without God as a postulate. 2. An evolved moral sense: Shermer believes that the human moral sense has evolved through the process of natural selection. More specifically, by group natural selection (a controversial theory) where some groups derive an advantage over other groups from practicing various moral principles. 3. An evolved moral society: For Shermer, evolution has proceeded from individual survival towards a more hierarchical social structure. According to Shermer, 'the most basic human needs and moral feelings are largely under biological control , whereas the more social and cultural human needs and moral feelings are largely under cultural control.' (p. 20) 4. The nature of moral nature: Shermer understands humans to be 'moral and immoral, good and evil, altruistic and selfish, cooperative and competitive, peaceful and bellicose, virtuous and nonvirtuous.' (p. 20) As far as he is concerned, 'most people most of the time in most circumstances are good and do the right thing for themselves and for others. But some people some of the time in some circumstances are bad and do the worng thing for themselves and for others.' (p. 20) 5. Provisional morality: Shermer has constructed what he calls a provisional morality which is neither absolute nor relative. It consists of four principles: the ask-first principle, the happiness principle, the liberty principle, and the moderation principle. It is worth quoting these principles in full (emphasis in original): 'The ask-first principle states: to find out whether an action is right or wrong, ask first. The happiness principle states: it is a higher moral principle to always seek happiness with someone else's happiness in mind, and never seek happiness when it leads to someone else's unhappiness. The liberty principle states: it is a higher moral principle to always seek liberty with someone else's liberty in mind, and never seek liberty when it leads to someon else's loss of liberty. To implement social change, the moderation principle states: when innocent people die, extremism in the defense of anything is no virtue, and moderation in the protection of everything is no vice.' (pp. 20-21) 7. Provisional justice: Shermer believes in personal responsibility and culpability. He, obviously, rejects any notion of an ultimate Judge who will mete out rewards and punishments at some cosmic judgment. 8. Ennobling evolutionary ethics: Shermer believes that, because evolution has produced a moral sense along with a provisional morality that transcends individuals that evolution has had an ennobling effect on humanity. In this sense, moral principles are understood to exist outside of us but are 'the products of impersonal forces of evolution, history, and culture.' (p. 21) Well... it is all very nice. There is no doubt that Shermer is an engaging author but there are a number of problems with his approach. Firstly, the title of the book (The Science of Good & Evil) highlights the fact that Shermer does not distinguish between two different types of ethical study: descriptive ethics and prescriptive ethics. Descriptive ethics is a science in the broadest sense of the word - prescriptive ethics, at the very least, is philosophical. Descriptive ethics describes what individuals, groups, and cultures believe; prescriptive ethics deals with what we should believe. What Shermer does is attempt to construct a scientific hypothesis of how the moral sense arose in humans on the assumption that it has evolved from what is considered to be natural processes. In that sense, I suppose, he does a reasonable job, although I am no specialist in the theories he proposes and will leave its evaluation to others. In addition, I am not sure how you would prove such a hypothesis correct. But, even if Shermer is right about the way moral sensibility arose in humans, it doesn't provide a way to decide what humans should do in any situation. If morality is merely the result of 'impersonal forces of evolution, history, and culture' there is nothing inherently good or evil about any particular action or choice. Secondly, it is highly debatable whether humans have actually improved in their morality of history. Are we any more loving now than before? Are we really more tolerant as a society? Are there less wars now than previously? Shermer makes a huge assumption in accepting the progressive morality of society. Thirdly, what would happen if another group decided that, for example, the ask-first principle didn't suit the survival of their group? On what basis could it be argued that the group should ask first. At most, Shermer's evolutionary theory may account for the development of feelings of right and wrong in an individual. But what about the morality of the content of those feelings? If evolution, history and culture have produced certain feelings of right and wrong, why can't these feelings be consciously extinguished by someone to their own ends? Why should individuals follow Shermer's provisional morality if they don't want to? This is the age-old problem articulated by Hume - how do we go from is to ought? Finally, for many people, including Christians, reducing morality to science is an inadequate basis for morality. This could be seen as a form of scientism rather than science. It is, perhaps, hard to see how a person who has genuinely suffered and experienced the full force of evil will accept that it is all really just a product of evolution, history and culture. The question is really whether Shermer's construction of morality is really big enough to cater for the depths of evil experienced by humans. For most Christians, at least, the only way of explaining the evil of evil is to appeal to something way beyond natural causes. And, for most Christians, the resolution of evil is going to require something way beyond humanity's own capacities - it is going to need the intervention of God - an intervention that has already begun in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Related Links

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