I love The Good Place. In addition to being a hilarious sitcom about the misadventures of flawed people in a morally dubious afterlife, it is also a clever reflection on moral philosophy. What is astonishing, though, is that the show has a better handle on understanding the limits of universalist moral philosophies than many of the secular humanists who have put forward claims for “scientific” morality.
I know it sounds like I’m beating a dead horse, but Michael Shermer has published yet another argument in favor of using science to create a “correct” code of morals and ethics. His newest article on the subject, published in the forthcoming edition of Scientific American and times to the release of his new book Heavens on Earth, takes aim at critics, like me, who have objected to Shermer’s earlier arguments that the universe has an inherent moral code based objectively beneficial criteria. Shermer has heard the objections and has a new argument.
Regular readers will remember that I am not a fan of the idea that science can tell us how to behave rather than simply quantify the effects of different choices. For example, science might tell us which policy choice will save the most lives or the most money, but it can’t dictate whether lives or money are ultimately a “good” thing. I’ve complained about the tendency of skeptics to conflate science, skepticism, and secular humanism for years, especially when the late Paul Kurtz and the atheist Sam Harris both tried to argue that skepticism and science could dictate moral choices.
Shermer, in the new piece, concedes that the universe does not care about human morality. He agrees that in the course of the cosmos, in the absence of a cosmic arbiter such as God or gods, the amoral workings of physics are utterly indifferent to human action.
However, he introduces two new postulates to try to get around this, both of which weaken his argument in ways he never quite grapples with.
His first postulate, based on, of all things, the 1977 Woody Allen movie Annie Hall, is that morality must be viewed at a human level of analysis, and therefore it is wrong to consider the larger cosmic level of analysis, where questions of good and evil are meaningless. There is great irony that Shermer is using the work of morally dubious Woody Allen to make the case that we must judge actions at the local level, but I’ll let that pass. Let’s instead look at Shermer’s claim:
The level at which we should assess our actions is the human timescale of days, weeks, months and years—our life span of fourscore plus or minus 10—not the billions of years of the cosmic calendar. It is a mistake made by theologians when arguing that without a source external to our world to vouchsafe morality and meaning, nothing really matters.
So, one might object, who exactly chose the timescale of 70-90 years—meaning the immediate gratification of one human life—and not, say, centuries—the timescale of generations, or peoples. It is a characteristic of American individualism, not a law of science, to favor the individual’s lifespan over that of a family, a tribe, a people, or all of humanity. Shermer often has difficulty conceiving of non-Western and non-American frameworks for evaluating moral decisions.
His second postulate is derived from philosopher Shelly Kagan’s argument that actions must be judged by their subjective worth to the persons acted upon, not against objective standards. Kagan used the example of torture and said that even though the cosmos doesn’t care if you torture someone, the victim cares, and therefore any action carries moral value because it matters to the people involved. Shermer revised this in the language of science to make it sound like a law of the universe:
Why does it matter? Because we are sentient beings designed by evolution to survive and flourish in the teeth of entropy and death. The second law of thermodynamics (entropy) is the first law of life. If you do nothing, entropy will take its course, and you will move toward a higher state of disorder that ends in death. So our most basic purpose in life is to combat entropy by doing something “extropic”—expending energy to survive and flourish.
The first fallacy is in the second sentence, which implies a teleological fallacy. According to the current neo-Darwinian modern synthesis, evolution did not “design” humanity for any purpose. Our existence is the random accretion of chance happenstance. We are, in the eyes of the impersonal forces of physics, no more required to make moral decisions than the stars made the moral choice to burn. It might be beneficial to us personally to avoid death, but that doesn’t make it either a moral imperative or an ultimate good. Shermer here conflates the utilitarian—what is immediately good for us—with the “good,” which remains undefined. Adding scientific language about entropy and extropy does nothing to hide this fundamental fact.
While it may sound like Shermer is defending utilitarianism in the face of cosmic indifference, he doesn’t see it that way. Recently, Shermer tweeted his dislike of utilitarianism with the standard Philosophy 101 argument that it can be used to justify genocide and other extreme acts. He seemed unaware that this was a criticism of act utilitarianism (in which each moral act is justified individually) and that a whole separate concept of rule utilitarianism (in which general rules are said to be more important to the overall good than individual acts) has been developed and explored for exactly this reason. (A Google search returned no examples of Shermer making reference to rule utilitarianism in his writings, but that is not conclusive.)
Ultimately, the problem I have with Shermer’s views is that he claims greater grandeur than what is justified for a very simple, utilitarian moral philosophy, that we ought to do things that make people healthier and happier. This is neither a compelling insight—it’s basically John Stuart Mill, with a gloss of scientism—nor one that needs an elaborate scientific framework to sidestep the fact that it is, at heart, simply a question of doing what feels good. It still annoys me that the secular humanists who have proposed “scientific” moral philosophies have all coincidentally discovered that turn of the Millennium American upper middle class liberal* values are dictated by the laws of physics or evolution nor whatever, but at this point, there is nothing that will convince them otherwise, not even the fact that “evolution” has somehow also managed to produce billions of people, most of whom are fertile and reproducing, who hold completely different moral and ethical positions.
* I mean “liberal” with a small “L,” not the political ideology. Shermer offered up a right-wing tweet storm this morning supporting claims about the unique violence of Islam, gender essentialism, and other conservative bromides.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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