Remember how I said that so much “new” fringe history content is really reposted material from the last few years? The Express took the cake this weekend when they published an article on the Piri Reis Map that simply summarized Erich von Däniken’s chapter on it from Chariots of the Gods, complete with quotations from that volume. That book was published half a century ago. In what world is that news? To this, they added a video of Graham Hancock discussing the map, and that video was an excerpt from the 1996 NBC special The Mysterious Origins of Man, more than two decades ago!
Speaking of outdated arguments, this week Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine and self-righteous radio host Dennis Prager got into a tiff over whether murder is wrong if God does not exist, prompting Shermer to create a video explaining his view of why there is a morality that exists beyond God. Personally, I find the entire argument to be tedious, but Shermer’s views on morality have a sort of naïve simplicity to them that practically invite us to critique them.
Shermer believes that science can give us a morality that is more logical than the moral codes of religion, and like many in the skeptical / secular humanist movement, he mistakenly believes that the universe has both a “moral arc” and a moral order that is inherent in the nature of reality. Shermer opposes what he considers “absolute” moralities in favor of what he calls “provisional” moralities. Those with training in philosophy will recognize his argument as a somewhat naïve form of the debate between Kant’s universalism and Bentham’s and Mill’s utilitarianism. What, after all, is “provisional” morality that works for “most people in most circumstances most of the time” except utilitarianism’s “greatest good for the greatest number” under another name.
Consider his argument against murder, which he seems not to recognize is utilitarian:
All societies throughout history and around the world today, for example, have sanctions against murder. Why? Because if there were no proscription against murder no social group could survive, much less flourish. All social order would break down. We can’t have people running around killing each other willy nilly.
This is not actually an argument that murder is “wrong” in any objective sense, but is instead a conditional argument based on a stated preference for social order, and, inherent in that, the authority of social hierarchies and the state. Even a freshman philosophy student would see that this is not an inherent facet of nature but rather a projection of Shermer’s preferences. Even if we grant that they represent most humans’ preferences, it does not follow that these preferences are consequently defensibly moral.
Anyway, in his response to Praeger, Shermer says: “As I documented in my book The Moral Arc, there is a real moral universe with real moral values about right and wrong, and there is an arc to that moral universe that really does bend towards truth, justice, and freedom.” Nope. There isn’t. The “moral universe” is a human construct, made up of human preferences and values, and it makes me uneasy that he seems to mistake human social constructs for an objective reality. I’m also uneasy about the fact that his Moral Arc chooses not to deal with the philosophers whose work he has accidentally aped. The book has, for example, only one reference to Jeremy Bentham (in the context of prison reform, not utilitarianism) despite the fact that Bentham’s claim that science can inform how to make rational decisions that benefit the greatest number is essentially Shermer’s own. Shermer, for example, dismisses utilitarianism by saying we should “use reason and science as the arbiters of truth and knowledge.”
In fact, in the few references he makes in the book to utilitarianism, he mostly dismisses the entire school of philosophy as too contaminated with Nazis and witch-burners (seriously) to consider. The deeper end of the theory, such as the difference between act-utilitarianism (which is what Shermer actually opposes) and rule-utilitarianism seem to escape him.
But it was on Twitter that Shermer really got my goat. When he was challenged on his claims, Shermer argued that human civilization is (a) more moral today than ever because (b) we are less racist, sexist, classist, etc. and (c) less violent than at any time in the past.
Leaving aside the fact that such -isms are inherently products of hierarchical societies that cannot be shown to have existed in the most ancient past, I don’t believe that (a), (b), and (c) are the result of Shermer’s mystical “moral arc.” Nor do I believe that morality inherently bends toward “justice,” because that is another human construct. What seems just today is not what was just 500 years ago or 500 years from now. The data, as best I can tell, actually show that we see increases in tolerance for diversity and decreases in violence during periods of greater economic prosperity. I’m sure that this generalization doesn’t hold true at all times and places when other forces play a bigger role. But if this is generally the case, then the “moral” arc might actually be closer to an economic one—better standards of living reduce competition for resources and create greater tolerance and peace. Since the Industrial Revolution, Western society has generally seen living standards improve, and this correlates with the gradual expansion of rights that Shermer equates with morality and justice. But when we look at the collapse that followed the Roman Empire, and intolerance and violence that rose up in its wake, it reminds us that cosmopolitanism is not a guarantee.
4/16/2017 10:57:20 am
Timely discussion, Jason, as we look Southward. I think America is still in the Dark Ages when it comes to murder in the form of capital punishment. A new dispensation called for something different in the hearts of men and women today. Being from the South shouldn't make such a difference, but it does.
4/16/2017 11:28:25 am
>>>Shermer, for example, dismisses utilitarianism by saying we should “use reason and science as the arbiters of truth and knowledge.” Bentham<<<
4/16/2017 12:27:05 pm
Well, yes... Bentham's hedonistic utilitarianism was distasteful to many Victorians. John Stuart Mill tried to refine it by introducing higher and lower pleasures, and rule-utilitarianism tried to sand off the most objectionable of what Shermer calls the "utilitarian calculus" of killing people for profit.
4/16/2017 01:00:50 pm
4/16/2017 02:49:12 pm
Ah! I think that was a pasting error. I'll fix it.
4/16/2017 11:50:47 am
Ever since the first two cavemen recognized that it was easier to share the rabbit than beat each other over the head and take it there has been one rule that has guided practical living. “Do unto others as you would have then do unto you” is the way it was taught when I was young.
4/16/2017 01:30:06 pm
"All societies throughout history and around the world today, for example, have sanctions against murder. Why? Because if there were no proscription against murder no social group could survive, much less flourish. All social order would break down. We can’t have people running around killing each other willy nilly."
4/16/2017 03:41:30 pm
There was quite a bit of violence and intolerance during the entire existence of the Roman empire, republic, and monarchy.
4/16/2017 03:57:27 pm
There always has been. There still is in much of the world. Shermer's thesis depends on Steven Pinker's claims about humanity being nicer and less violent than ever before. It's true in a sense, but it has more to do with less competition for resources, greater state authority to police individuals' behavior, and probably even technology working to isolate us more from one another than it does with mystical forces of justice.
4/16/2017 07:50:39 pm
Shermer like so many is looking for an absolute morality that is out there. He is unable to accept that morality contains a great deal of unprovable assumptions that are not out there.
4/16/2017 10:52:33 pm
I have seen first hand how people act in the absence of law. There I no moral arc. I have worked in areas where police have actually stopped and said, "We are leaving at sundown, and you need to do the same." I think these assumptions are based on how safe his area is compared to some imaginary wild west past, forgetting about genocides, chemical attacks, etc. You did a post within the last three months about someone who believed that history was a series of epochs, but the starting points were all Eurocentric and Americentric. I think we are seeing the same here.
4/17/2017 08:40:54 pm
The problem with your post is that "moral" and "legal" are not the same thing. There are a number of things that are perfectly legal to do that are not, according to most moral codes, "moral." Likewise, there are things that are illegal that are perfectly "moral." A really good example is same-sex marriage. It is LEGAL in all 50 states at this point, but a whole lot of people find it entirely immoral. Another example would be use of marijuana--not immoral in a lot of moral codes, yet still illegal in many states and Federally.
4/18/2017 01:55:08 am
"Shermer believes that science can give us a morality that is more logical than the moral codes of religion, and like many in the skeptical / secular humanist movement, he mistakenly believes that the universe has both a “moral arc” and a moral order that is inherent in the nature of reality."
4/18/2017 04:26:22 pm
Unsure about the "moral arc" assertion, which is almost ambiguous enough so as to be meaningless, but the "science can give us morality" isn't unheard of in atheist circles. Sam Harris, one of the Four Horsemen himself, wrote a book on it: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.
4/19/2017 12:17:53 am
Like I said, just because I hadn't heard it doesn't mean it doesn't exist. I tend to avoid the Four Horsemen, so that's probably why...
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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.
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