The Credulous Skeptic: Michael Shermer’s Moral Arc


The Credulous Skeptic:  Michael Shermer’s The Moral Arc

The thesis of Michael Shermer’s new book is that morality is about the flourishing of sentient beings through the application of science and reason; in this, he follows in the footsteps of Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature and Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape.  All three consider science to be the arbiter of all things, and at least Pinker and Shermer argue that moral progress has been made only in the last 500 years or so, i.e., the modern period of scientific discovery and advancement and the Enlightenment.  As far as Shermer is concerned, all that preceded this period is superstition, ignorance, and darkness.  Religion, and especially Christianity, are not only of no use in their projects but in fact actually harmful.

Shermer argues that great strides in moral behavior have occurred since the Enlightenment, particularly in freedom and the abolition of slavery, women’s and gay rights, and animal rights, and that these advances are the direct result of a scientific and materialist worldview and an indirect result of the material prosperity afforded by the industrial revolution, capitalism, and democracy.  He marshals an impressive quantity of evidence to support his claims, and any reader is likely to concede that he has made a compelling case.  That is, if said reader is already sympathetic to Shermer’s libertarianism and as worshipful of science, the Founding Fathers, and the Enlightenment.

Any less naïve reader, however, is likely to notice a number of problems with Shermer’s book, not least of which is its Western bias.  Although early in the book Shermer refers to the moral progress of our species, virtually all his evidence and examples come from Western Europe and the United States, as if “we” were all that needed to be said about the species in general—even though the populations of Europe and the United States taken together constitute a minority of the world population, and this minority status applies even when the white populations of Australia and New Zealand and elsewhere are factored in.  Thus it would seem that in order to establish that the “species” has made moral progress since the Age of Enlightenment, data from non-Western societies would have to be taken into account.  In other words, Shermer is guilty of a sampling bias.

Compounding this problem—or perhaps the source of the problem—are his naïve and simplistic views of history.  Apparently, Shermer believes that the Enlightenment arose by spontaneous generation, for he dismisses everything that preceded it, most especially religion.  Or rather, Christian religion, which apparently has no moral tradition or intellectual history worthy of the name (never mind the moral and intellectual traditions of any other religious tradition, such as Buddhism or Hinduism).  In fact, Shermer’s notion of Christianity appears to be limited to that version with which, as a former born-again, he is most familiar, American evangelical fundamentalism.

For example, in his chapter on slavery, Shermer reads Paul’s letter to Philemon without any sense of the context in which Paul was writing and in fact explicitly dismisses contextual interpretations.  In this, he is more fundamentalist than the fundamentalists.  He is also guilty of presentism, i.e., the logical error of reading the past through the lens of the present; because “we” (Westerners) today abhor slavery, it must therefore be that any moral person at any time in history, regardless of how long ago or of what culture or civilization, should also explicitly abhor slavery and also openly call for its abolition.  Never mind that at the time of Paul’s writings, Christians were a distinct minority in the Roman world, no more than a few thousands out of a total population of millions; Christianity had barely begun, and it would be centuries before it had built up anything like a coherent intellectual tradition or widespread influence.  Meanwhile, Paul lived under the Roman system, which was exploitative and brutal in a way we today would find extreme.  Paul was certainly smart enough to know that calling for the abolition of slavery, by a small group of marginal people following a bizarre new religion, would have no impact on anything.  Thus when he urges Philemon to treat his slave Onesimus as a brother, he is making as radical statement as one could imagine, in context.  He was not asking Philemon to do anything useless or dangerous—he was asking him to treat Onesimus as a fellow human being, a radical idea at the time, but in doing so Paul planted the seed that eventually grew into the Western ideal of the individual, an ideal which is at the center of Shermer’s own libertarianism.

Shermer has built a career on being a skeptic (even editing a magazine of that name), but his skepticism tends to be selective (in the same way, ironically as a fundamentalist is selectively skeptical—of evolution, or climate change, i.e., of things he already rejects).  This selective skepticism is displayed not only in his tendentious reading of Paul but also in his takedown of William Wilberforce, one of the most successful abolitionists, whom he characterizes as “pushy and overzealous” in his “moralizing” and as worrying “excessively about what other people were doing, especially if what they were doing involved pleasure [and] excess.”  Meanwhile, Shermer’s Enlightenment heroes get a complete pass:  he never mentions Locke’s rationalization of the taking of American Indian lands for white settlement (because the Indians did not have “property”), nor that Jefferson, whom Shermer hero-worships, and Washington owned slaves (which would certainly be relevant to his chapter on slavery), or that Franklin favored using war dogs against Indians who were too stubbornly resisted white theft of their real estate.  One has to wonder:  What has Shermer ever read of American history?  Why does he apparently take his heroes at their written word, without investigating the context in which they wrote?  Would that reveal that his idols have feet of clay?  Why is he skeptical of Wilberforce but not of Jefferson?

When Shermer turns to the issue of animal rights, he seems at first to be on firmer ground.  There certainly does seem to be a positive movement in the direction of extending at least the right not to suffer at human hands to domesticated animals.  Animal welfare groups have proliferated, laws protecting animals from harm continue to be expanded, and more people are embracing a vegetarian lifestyle—in the United States today, somewhat more than 7 million people are vegetarians, which is an impressive number until one realizes that they represent only 3.2% of the American population (however, that compares unfavorably to India, where 42% of households are vegetarian).  While Shermer does recognize the cruelties of industrialized meat production, he misses an opportunity to connect some dots.  One of the effects of industrialization is to specialize the production of goods and services, and the effect of that is to remove the means by which things get done from the view of most people.  In an urbanized world, for example, the making of a ham or a pound of ground beef is invisible to the typical supermarket shopper, who never has to raise an animal from birth, slaughter it, carve up its corpse, etc., so that a cook can look at a hunk of muscle from a steer and call it a beautiful piece of meat; our farming ancestors knew what that hunk of meat really was from firsthand experience.

Likewise, an urbanized population can keep cats and dogs as pets solely for their companionship, can even confer on them the status of humans in fur because dogs and cats (and to some extent horses) no longer have any utilitarian function; thus giving them moral status of the kind promoted by animal welfare groups and PETA is something we can afford.  We don’t need them to aid in the hunt, keep down rodent pests, or herd our sheep anymore.  Yet every year we kill 2.7 million unwanted dogs and cats, not to mention those that die from neglect, and while those numbers are down, one has to wonder how long we can afford to keep excess animals alive.  However, the point here is that the mistreatment of animals is removed from most Westerners daily lives.

As is violence to other human beings.  As the nation state grew, it appropriated violence to itself and diminished individual violence; justice has replaced revenge, most of the time.  But we have also exported violence, outsourced it so to speak, so that most of our official military violence is committed overseas.  Shermer might do well to read a few books on that:  perhaps those by Chalmers Johnson, or Andrew Bacevich, to name just two authors worth consulting.  Or he might refresh his memory of our involvement in the death of Allende and our moral responsibility for the deaths caused by Pinochet, or of the numbers of Iraqi civilians who died in the second Iraq war (approximately 150,000).  He also could consider the number of people who died as the result of the partitioning of India (about a million).  And since Shermer claims to be speaking on behalf of the species, perhaps he should consider the deaths and oppression of people in, say, China or North Korea, or many other places in the non-Western world.

In some ways, we Westerners are like our pets—domesticated and cuddly.  But remove the luxuries of domestication and, like feral cats and dogs, we will quickly revert to our basic instincts, which will not be fluffy.  The “long peace” since World War II has not been all that peaceful, and certainly not, within historical time, very long.  As Peter Zeihan (The Accidental Superpower) and others are warning us, the post-World War II global order is fraying, and disorder and its symptoms (e.g., violence) could once again rise to the surface.

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