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Speaking of outdated arguments, this week Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine and self-righteous radio host Dennis Prager got into a tiff over whether murder is wrong if God does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.
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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