Michael Shermer Publishes Journal Article Promoting "Enlightenment Humanism," But Overlooks Basic Philosophy 101 Concepts
This week, Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer promoted an article he published in Theology and Science (full text here) which constitutes a “manifesto” for “Enlightenment humanism.” The article is an extension of Shermer’s ongoing quest to universalize his own preferences and to argue that the traditional (read: midcentury) American values of his childhood are somehow encoded into the fabric of the universe.
The most obvious of Shermer’s blind spots is the fact that he cannot see a difference between scientific conclusions and moral imperatives. We’ve discussed this many times before, so it doesn’t bear too much repeating. Shermer argues that science provides data about moral decisions, and consequently the decisions made in consultation with that data are guided by “objective” reality and are therefore objectively correct moral decisions. This is prima facie stupid. Scientific investigation can tell us the potential consequences of a given policy, but it cannot tell us whether it is “right” to enact the policy. That is a subjective moral judgment that has no connection to scientific fact. For example, a scientific analysis can tell us that a given policy might save X lives if enacted, or Y dollars if not enacted, but it cannot tell us whether saving lives or money is more morally justified. Shermer, however, believes that there are universally applicable rules that can do just that.
This time, Shermer fudges his absolutism a little bit by celebrating Enlightenment humanism as the one philosophy that is informed by science and therefore best justified by the objective facts uncovered through science. “The application of scientific naturalism in the human realm led to the widespread adoption of Enlightenment humanism, a cosmopolitan worldview that places supreme value on science and reason, eschews the supernatural entirely and relies exclusively on nature and nature’s laws, including human nature.” This might have been humanism’s self-justification (cf. the Declaration of Independence) but it is not actually true in practice, for nature’s laws are exquisitely subjective, with the observer deciding how to define what is “natural” and “unnatural.” Shermer likes to use simple examples—such as whether to choose to combat disease—but tends to skip over more ambiguous applications. Just as an example, humanists have had a devil of a time deciding whether sodomy is “natural” because it seems to violate the presumed “purpose” of genitals and yet is nearly universal. The ambiguity of the term “natural”—with its implication that nature is both moral and good, something belied by predation and poison—allows a great deal of subjectivity to pass under the name of “objective” morality.
But Shermer makes plain his real concern partway through when his high-minded discussion of Enlightenment values takes a nosedive into the parochial concerns of university humanities departments, which Shermer loves for their connection to humanism and hates for their embrace of postmodernism:
Because humanism as a movement became political in the late twentieth century, moving away from its roots in science and objective truth and toward progressive liberal politics and activism. And because at a time when students and funding are fleeing humanities departments, and support for and membership in humanist organizations is dwindling because they’ve alienated all those who do not share their narrow political agenda, the argument that humanism and the humanities are at least good for “self-cultivation” misses their real value, which Bod has forcefully articulated in his 2014 book, The Forgotten Sciences: A History of the Humanities.
Following his foray into explaining why he would stand against postmodernism by attempting to revitalize the humanities in the image of the natural sciences, he proceeds to argue, unconvincingly, that humanism’s use of science created the objectively correct choice to end slavery, expand civil rights to women and minorities, restrict animal cruelty, etc.—as though the people who enacted the moral evils of the past did not think themselves justified by objective truth. As late as the twentieth century, “science” and “reason” were used to justify discrimination through appeal to the “objective” inferiority of women and minorities.
But the fact of the matter is that the social change that Shermer attributes to dispassionate scientific evaluation was just as often the result of emotion, imitation, and convenience—a much more ambiguous legacy. Animal rights are a case in point. The Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II was a child of the Enlightenment, and it certainly shaped his values, but he didn’t act on them through facts and evidence but through ideology and emotion. When Austrian crown lands banned extreme forms of animal cruelty it was not because scientists concluded that cruelty was a moral evil but because the Emperor witnessed cruelty outside his window and was horrified to watch the peasants take pleasure in it. His revulsion was emotional, not rational, born of the values the Enlightenment inculcated rather than dispassionate reason. Similarly, Shermer is rather shortsighted in celebrating the United States Founders for what he says was the scientific spirit of trying things to see what works and checking the results. “Think about the 50 different states, each with its own constitution and set of laws. These are 50 different experiments.” Yeah, well, so were the hundreds of minor territories that made up the patchwork confederations of medieval feudalism. (Each territory of the Holy Roman Empire, for example, had its own traditional customs and laws, guaranteed by imperial edict.) They, too, tried things and imitated that which worked. This isn’t science in action since it occurred before Shermer’s beloved humanism, nor is democracy a prerequisite for federalism. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had a form of it, and it was a quasi-constitutional monarchy.
To his credit, Shermer tries to deal with the criticisms of his contentions, highlighting the is-ought problem and the problem of equating “natural” with “good”:
I think some confusion arises here from what is meant by is or natural. For example, I would agree that the statement, there has always been war, so war must be natural and the way things ought to be, is a fallacy. But here I mean something different by is. I mean the true condition or nature or cause of a thing. When we undertake a study of war in order to understand its causes so that we may lessen its occurrence and attenuate its effects, this is an is-ought transition grounded in the true nature of war. And by nature I do not just mean the biological propensity (or not) of humans to fight. I mean all of the factors that go into the causes of war: biology, psychology, geography, culture, politics, economics, ideology, etc. That is the is we want to understand so that we can do something about it (the ought). In this sense, if morals and values ought not to be based on the way something is--reality—then on what should they be based?
Did you catch the assumption in there? Shermer assumes that we all agree that war is by definition bad and should be avoided or eliminated. This may be a widespread assumption among modern Westerners, but it is not a prima facie true fact. Cultures that value the individual, as ours does, will likely see war as bad because it takes untold lives and restricts the freedom of individuals. But cultures that value the collective may not agree because they might see the individual life as unimportant compared to the continued success of the society as a whole, a success guaranteed by war. Science cannot tell us which view is “objectively” correct. So even if we grant Shermer all of his conceits and agree that morals and values should rely on science to support their conclusions, science still cannot tell us which morals and values to hold. All Shermer has done is to try to justify his own preferred values with an appeal to science, as though other moral systems could not be justified in similar ways.
Thus, when Shermer tries to argue that the universe itself has universal rules of right and wrong, he descends into a parody of a freshman overly enamored with an introductory philosophy course. Consider this: Shermer contends that there are three principles that “prove” that moral values can be derived objectively from scientific laws. These are as follows:
First, that there is a “Principle of Moral Good”: “Always act with someone else’s moral good in mind, and never act in a way that it leads to someone else’s moral loss (through force or fraud).” This so-called principle, which is actually a more specific and thus less defensible version of Kant’s categorical imperative, wouldn’t stand through a freshman philosophy course. Must we act with Hitler’s moral good in mind when speaking with him, or is it sufficient to have the Jews’ moral good in mind while treating Hitler in a way that leads to moral loss? Who defines the correct “someone”? Must we always put ourselves last? In what universe do the quarks and protons and molecules, and rocks, and stars give two shits about what one hominin says or does in the presence of another in one random corner of space-time? (You can see my influence from Lovecraft! But that doesn’t make it a wrong question.)
Second, that “morality involves how our thoughts and actions effect the survival and flourishing
of sentient beings.” This is another slipshod, solipsistic claim. The universe has no interest in sentience and would indifferently wipe us out through random chance. Even among human beings, this moral principle leads inexorably to ridiculous conclusions: e.g., that we would be justified in executing 10% of our population so long as it meant that the rest of us live longer and better lives and can prolong the species by conserving resources.
However, Shermer cops out on this by adding a third rule, which I will paraphrase as it truly is and then give in his fancy wording: Third, that Western individualism is the only scientifically justified lifestyle. Or, as Shermer gussies it up: “The survival and flourishing of individual sentient beings is the foundation for establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which sentient beings best survive and flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality.” To do so, Shermer offers this justification, with all its paradoxes:
…given that moral principles must be founded on something natural instead of supernatural, and that science is the best tool we have for understanding the natural world, applying evolutionary theory to the ultimate foundation of morality, it seems to me that it is individual sentient beings that is our 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 trouble is that evolution doesn’t act on individuals; it is a force that governs populations. The individual is not the “target” of natural selection but the random victim of its blind action. The individual lives or dies based on random chance, but (barring an individual who carries a new mutation) no one individual’s life or death makes much of a difference to evolution over the size of a population and the timeframes involved. Instead, Shermer is projecting into the realm of science the individualism of Western societies, one that sits uneasily with the collectivist bent of evolutionary theory. Indeed, just from the perspective of trying to match science with philosophies of roughly similar character, the emphasis on the population over the individual and collective fitness better fits with East Asian communitarian systems, where the good of the population of a whole is prioritized, just as evolution ruthlessly favors the species over the temporary individual—and isn’t too kind to species either!
It's frustrating to read Shermer’s efforts at philosophy because he speaks with the confidence of the dilettante, convinced that he has discovered the key to philosophy that has eluded the greatest minds in the field for thousands of years. It is doubly frustrating that he is unable to understand that human preference and even so-called human nature does not translate into universal moral rules discoverable through science. If he had confined himself to arguing that his system, as simplistic as it is, was merely the best, the most efficient, or the fairest way to make moral decisions, I doubt I would have paid it much mind. But by claiming that science itself can discover moral rules and then basing that claim on his own myopic preferences as a wealthy, educated, twenty-first century American, he accidentally proves the point the postmodernists, despite their absurd and indefensible excesses, wanted to make: Moral and ethical values are a figment of the human imagination, and right and wrong are relative. Systems designed to be “objective” merely reflect the values of those who design them.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter, The Skeptical Xenoarchaeologist, for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.