Ian Garrick Mason

Book Reviews

National Post -- March 6, 2004

The Science of Good & Evil

Michael Shermer
Times Books, 350pp, $38.95

by Ian Garrick Mason

Michael Shermer -- publisher of Skeptic magazine, executive director of the Skeptics Society, writer of the “Skeptic” column for Scientific American, and host of the Skeptics Lecture Series at CalTech -- is, we are informed, a skeptic. According to Shermer, a skeptic is one who maintains “[a] balance between doubt and certainty, between open-mindedness and close-mindedness”, and who believes in “the power of science to understand the natural world."

Which explains both the title and content of his new book, The Science of Good and Evil. This is the third is a series of books that Shermer has written on “the power of belief” -- Why People Believe Weird Things covered pseudoscience and superstition, and How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God covered religious belief. His current book takes on an even more timely issue, in this moment of war and terrorism: the nature of good and evil, and the origins of morality.

Shermer rests much of his argument on the science of evolutionary psychology, which in recent decades has been enjoying something of a renaissance, and on the still-contentious theory of “group selection”. Our moral sense, he contends, originated in the mists of Paleolithic time, when bands of hunter-gatherers competed for scarce resources. Bands with members who happened to have higher propensities for within-group cooperation and trust were more successful in this competition, and as these bands prospered, their moral traits survived and prospered too.

Evolution, however, only accounts for the moral sense itself, for our ability to feel shame at wrongdoing and pleasure at doing right. The specific principles on which humans have constructed their religious or social codes still vary from culture to culture. But if principles vary, how can we know which of them are right? Not via God, says Shermer. Religions seek to place the origin of morality outside the world, making it the writ of a judging, all-seeing divinity. But because religions and sects disagree amongst themselves -- there are now 33,000 different denominations of Christianity alone -- it is difficult to see how this approach provides much certainty. Believers select (or are born into) their particular religion, and even then must cherry-pick rules from their religion’s rulebook. After all, asks the author, do fundamentalist Christians really want us to follow Deuteronomy’s admonition to kill adulterous couples? Or do they quietly skip that part?

The question, for Shermer, is “how we can construct a moral system that is neither dogmatically absolute nor irrationally relative.” He makes a persuasive case for the Golden Rule as the foundation of morality, its strength and universality deriving from its status as the formal expression of a natural reciprocal altruism that goes back to mammals as varied as chimpanzees, dolphins, and vampire bats. And he offers a further set of principles, a “provisional morality” based on science yet flexible enough to take human diversity and varied contexts into account: a “happiness principle” that suggests we should “always seek happiness with someone else’s happiness in mind, and never seek happiness when it leads to someone else’s unhappiness”, a “liberty principle” (same wording as the happiness principle, but insert “liberty” for “happiness”), and an “ask first principle”, which is most amusingly applied to the moral question of what naughty magazines to keep around the house: “asking your partner first is the simplest and surest way to find out what constitutes acceptable pornography.”

These principles, however, do not seem to derive from any particular scientific premises. Indeed, Shermer severely weakens his case by applying the “scientific” label to all sorts of assertions and concepts that don’t warrant it. Enthused by the notion that science is based on “provisional” conclusions, for example, he appropriates the scientific-sounding term “fuzzy logic” to describe his recommended style of moral reasoning -- a reasoning that avoids binary “either-or” judgments in favour of graduated scales of morality (i.e. not 0 or 1, but .1, .2, .3, etc…). Yet all Shermer is really referring to is the idea of nuance -- not exactly a breakthrough discovery in ethical reasoning. Having found a new hammer, he uses it to solve such formerly intractable moral dilemmas as abortion (one-month-old embryo: .3 alive; baby: 1.0 alive), and to plot John Hinckley, Jr.’s escalating level of insanity (.4 sane and .6 insane when pursuing Jodie Foster at Yale). Far too often, Shermer sounds like a philosophy student who has yet to develop a sense of intellectual humility.

This stretching of the proper scope of scientific reasoning is symptomatic of Shermer’s approach to systems he wishes to debunk. Though he begins the book with reasonable musings on the role of religion in codifying and enforcing moral principles, his mask soon slips: “…if you need some source of moral verification and objectification outside of yourself, your society, and your species”, he writes, “then you are living in the grip of a supernatural illusion.” He is still at war with religion, and the reasons are not hard to deduce. Shermer, by his own frank admission, has been a follower of several different belief systems -- born-again Christianity, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, libertarianism, anarcho-capitalism. His present devotion to the power of science thus seems merely his latest attempt to find an “ism” that suits him. The question that readers must ask, then, is whether this book represents the thinking of a skeptic, or of a believer.