by Felipe Nogueira
Michael Shermer is a psychologist, the Founding Publisher of Skeptic Magazine, the Executive Director of Skeptics Society and monthly columnist for Scientific American (his columns have not been published in the Brazilian edition of SciAm for a long time).
Readers of the portuguese version of this blog are aware of Michael Shermer's work, since I had posted my translation to portuguese to some of his articles. As a leader in skeptic movement and his continuous very well done work to promote science, Michael Shermer is, no less, a true inspirer to me. In response to my first email, in which I had explained how weak is the skeptic movement around here in Brazil, he answered that I should create my own Skeptic Society! Unfortunately, I am not that far, at least not yet, but I am really trying to promote skepticism and science over here.
Michael Shermer´s last book is The Believing Brain, in which he explained the psychological drives for beliefs in things such as conspiracy theory, ghosts, and God. Now, he is focusing on his next book, The Moral Arc of Science. He already posted some articles about this topic here and here. Michael´s Moral Arc of Science thesis is that a science of morality is possible, as he puts it:
the survival and flourishing of individuals is a basis for establishing moral and values, and so determining conditions by which humans best flourish ought to be the goal of science of morality.
Michael Shermer is not alone on this. The neurologist Sam Harris had written a book about the subject titled The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Our Values. Sam Harris argument is based on (quoted from the book):
1) questions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.
2) human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain. Consequently, there must be scientific truths to be known about it.
It's a controversial issue and they engaged on online discussions: Michael discussed with the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci and Sam Harris with the cosmologist Sean Carroll. Science have been studying sucessfully and determined the impacts of human actions in other issues, such as the risk of tobacco smoking and global warming; I think it can do the same with morality. I not only agree that science can study, it should study, like Shermer and Harris are arguing, and it should start now: the best thing to guide our actions is empirical evidence, which is the realm of science. So, I totally agree with the main thesis of Shermer´s theory about science of morality, but I do not agree with him about every detail he mentioned on his last lecture about the subject, presented on the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism 2013.
1) Michael defines the Ask-First principle :
To find out an action is right or wrong, ask first.
I think it's good principle in some cases, like adultery, the example Michael gave. He makes clear (and I agree, of course) the principle can't be applied to all cases, like asking to Hitler or Bin Laden if it's right to kill them. But my concern is that the Ask-First Principle is, at least a little, subjective. Consider the case of female genital mutilation. Two different woman had been mutilated and we go there and ask them if the mutilations were wrong. One says yes, like Michael presented, but the other says no, because, even she was in pain, that was God´s plan for her (or whatever the reason). How can we get out of this situation with the Ask-First Principle? We have two identitical situations. And yet we have two different answers. How can we decide now? Are we (the science of morality) going to say female genitalia mutilation is right in the case of the second woman (I think female genitalia mutilation wrong in all cases!)? The best analogy to the point I am trying to make is with medicine. The two women are analogous of two different patients with same diagnosis and the same disease severity. Are we going to prescribe different treatments for these patients? It is possible that the treatment of choice differs from one doctor to another, but, if we want consistence, the same doctor must prescribe the same treatment. And the difference between one doctors´s choice to another doctor´s is only acceptable in the case there is no conclusive evidence of what is the best treament ; when empirical evidence settles down the issue, all doctors should do the same. Medicine will not say the best available treatment is wrong because a patient does not want to receive that treatment. This is not possible with the ask-first principle: we´re never going to find a empirical evidence of what´s the right answer in the example I gave, because the definition of what is right and what is wrong can be different among different people in the same conditions. We need a better tool, or, at least, we need to define better the cases we would use the Ask-First Principle.
2) The Ask-First Principle should be applied to the individual, the moral agent that has been acted upon. Why the individual? Michael offers the following explanation:
The individual is the primary moral agent because the individual is the principal target of natural selection and social evolution.
He goes on saying he rejects group selection (it is an interesting question by itself: is there any scientist - I mean serious scientist, not figures like creationists or Intelligent Designer proponents that call themselves "scientists" - that still supports group selection?). Is the individual the principal target of natural selection? I rather say the gene is the unit target of natural selection, the individual is the vehicle. So, saying the individual is the target of natural selection is not a good justification for the individual as the primary moral agent. The important point here is that I don´t think the science of morality should constraint itself on evolutionary theory. Even if the group or species would be the target of natural selection, how would that change the science of morality? The individual is the primary moral agent, because it´s the individual that suffers, or in Michael´s words, "it is the individual who is most affected by moral and immoral acts." Suffering, well-being is a function of the individual; there is no way we can, i.e, increase well-being in a group without increasing it at least in some individuals of this group. It's interesting to note that science of morality can have more than one focus: some moral scientists can focus in the individual, studying how to maximize flourishing for particular individuals, and others can focus in a group or society, studying how to maximize flourishing of a group of individuals. Having one does not excludes the other.
3) "If Gay is natural then gays ought Moral Progress: Gay Decriminalization."
I do think it´s very wrong to discriminate people based on race, gender, sexual orientation, weight, height, etc. So, I agree with gay decriminalization, but it´s not because gay is natural. This remembers me the fallacy that everything natural is good or right, everything unnatural is bad or wrong (appeal to nature/naturalistic fallacy). Some conditions like psycopathy or pedophilia can be classified as natural (at least part of it, since neurogenetics plays a huge influence), but I don´t think psychopaths killers, or pedophiles who abuse children, ought moral progress; I think they should be in jail, even it was "natural" for them to do the attrocities they´ve done. Also, science of morality should recommend changes to our nature, if that leads to more flourishing (less suffering, more happiness, more well-being, more freedom, more liberty, more justice, more prosperity, etc).
In this article, since I agree with Michael´s first premise, I tried to mention things I don´t agree with him in order to add something interesting to this discussion or to Shermer´s new book. In the end, we are not asking too much and can be summarized on his following statement:
All moral systems have shortcomings, so why not add one more arrow to quiver of ethics by adding science?
If I haven´t added anything on the discussion, maybe others have learned something, like I did with this discussion and others within the skepticism and science promoting movement. Also, as I said in the beginning, skepticism and science promoting movement is very weak in Brazil, so hopefully this discussion brings some attention to the importance of science, evidence and scientific thinking to Brazilian people; science is making our lifes better, and can make it even better. This is why Michael and I are employing and promoting science, critical thinking, asking for evidence instead of superstitious thinking, pseudoscience, anti-scientific thinking, and faith: science is the best tool to understand how the world works and our nature is and we want a society based on truth, justice, freedom and prosperity.