The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Ruleby Published 02 Jan 2005
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From bestselling author Michael Shermer, an investigation of the evolution of morality that is "a paragon of popularized science and philosophy" The Sun (Baltimore)
A century and a half after Darwin first proposed an "evolutionary ethics," science has begun to tackle the roots of morality. Just as evolutionary biologists study why we are hungry (to motivate us to eat) or why sex is enjoyable (to motivate us to procreate), they are now searching for the very nature of humanity.
In The Science of Good and Evil, science historian Michael Shermer explores how humans evolved from social primates to moral primates; how and why morality motivates the human animal; and how the foundation of moral principles can be built upon empirical evidence.
Along the way he explains the implications of scientific findings for fate and free will, the existence of pure good and pure evil, and the development of early moral sentiments among the first humans. As he closes the divide between science and morality, Shermer draws on stories from the Yanamamö, infamously known as the "fierce people" of the tropical rain forest, to the Stanford studies on jailers' behavior in prisons. The Science of Good and Evil is ultimately a profound look at the moral animal, belief, and the scientific pursuit of truth.
The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule Reviews
Ever since the kids were old enough to focus on the refrigerator we’ve had the Falk Household rules there, sort of a cross between Asimov’s laws of robotics and basic kindergarten. These are, in order of importance:
1. Don’t hurt anybody.
2. Don’t break anything.
3. Do what your parents and teachers tell you.
(In kindergarten, rule #3 would probably have been “share” or something like it, and I admit it was a somewhat controversial later addition, but we ended up putting it in to assure that 2-year olds would accept third-party foresight to avoid the inevitable, “Ouch!” “Be careful.” “Now you tell me.”) I’m incredibly proud of my daughter that she herself, at age 5, added a zeroth rule: “No whining.”
Well, how would you codify morality? That is precisely the problem that Michael Shermer takes on in this book, after dismissing religion as a viable model (too intolerant of outgroups, see e.g., at p. 233, et seq.) and god(s) as nonplayer(s)/nonactor(s) (a la Dostoyevsky's Brother's Karamazov, discussed GoodReads style on pp. 148-149). In the process, Shermer attempts to reassure us religion and its god(s) are bathwater, not baby, and that for good evolutionary reasons that build basic morality into our species' hardware, ethics will not simply devolve into an anything goes/might-makes-right ethos. The author's reasoning is fairly compelling when he doesn’t ramble (his persuasive discussion of the pre-religious role of trade in promoting positive interrelations is thrown in as an apparent afterthought at page 255 instead of inserted its logical place in the "Why We are Moral" section at the beginning of the book), repeat himself (pages 10-12 and 19-21 are each summaries of the book's entire thesis), or use fuzzy logic in the employment of fuzzy logic (as he does to cast his proposed ethical philosophy as rooted in science, when it appears to be rooted in arbitrarily-defined statistical manipulation -- more on this below). That said, I found Shermer's selected lit-review of state-of-the-art peer-reviewed, published studies in anthropology, cognitive neuroscience, and evolutionary biology itself worth the price of admission.
Shermer defines ethics as the principles, codified or not, that form the basis for cooperative social norms (when trust works to mutual benefit and under what conditions it is likely to be undermined by competition). He defines morality as the way we act on those principles, and philosophically proposes a generic system we might use in order to form a more perfect species. He even goes so far as to play out how his system might be used to address issues ranging from lying and adultery to the contemporary hot-button ethical conundra abortion, cloning, and animal rights. In a nutshell, Shermer suggests that we should view the world as a complex continuum of qualities. Rather than promoting the binary attributes of good-evil and guilty-not guilty he proposes a sliding scale of desirability, the way we read a range of temperatures in terms of personal comfort. This sounds great in theory in the face of nuanced choices (at what stage of development should the rights of a fetus triumph those of the mother/parent/society; under what circumstances is deception more harmful than helpful; etc.), but in practice, it yields some hinky calculus.
Consider, for example, the sanity-qua-culpability of John Hinckley, Jr. at the time of his assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan (ostensibly on behalf of Jodi Foster). Shermer suggests, "We can see in Hinckley's background that the shift from insanity to sanity was a fuzzy one, say, .9 sane and .1 insane in his youth, to .8 sane and .2 insane in his teens, to .7 sane and .3 insane during his two years of college, to .6 sane and .4 insane during his year in Hollywood, to .5 sane and .5 insane during the following year of aimless drifting, to .4 sane and .6 insane as he pursued Foster at Yale, to .3 sane and .7 insane as he contemplated assassinating Carter or killing himself, to .2 sane and .8 insane when he hatched the idea to assassinate Reagan, to .1 sane and .9 insane when he penned his final letter to Foster and headed for the Hilton Hotel with his gun in hand and his moral sense fully disengaged." (pp. 123-124; Shermer supports this unscientific allotment of ratios with three photographs which "show the slow and gradual (and fuzzy) deterioration of [Hinckley's:] mind over time.") At p. 126, Shermer concludes (emphasis mine), "Between .1 and .9 is still not 0 or 1, and so a scientific approach upholds moral culpability."
Scientific, huh? Good luck with that line of argument before opposing counsel, Mr. Shermer. Allow me to cross-examine the witness, Your Honor. Mr. Shermer, would you please read the underlined passage from pages 164-165 of this same book? "[I:]t is clear that you can cook the numbers to make it come out almost any way you like. Doing this on a societal level is simply impossible." I see. Would you please proceed by substituting the words 'fuzzy logic' for 'utilitarianism' in the following passage? "Fuzzy logic [the process of assigning fractional values to incremental aspects of a continuum of qualities to promote statistical analysis:] is very much grounded in pre-twentieth century psychological, social, and economic theory that presumed humans (at least Western industrial peoples) to be rational beings who make choice calculations along the lines of a double-entry bookkeeper…. Moral choices, then, were simply a matter of looking at the bottom line." Mr. Shermer, would you care to distinguish your application of fuzzy logic to morality from Jeremy Bentham's 7-tiered hedonic scale of utility which you so tellingly dismiss? What's that? Crickets, and unfortunately I don't mean Jiminy.
There's a bit more Victorian-era pseudoscience on page 48, where Shermer presents his Bio-Cultural Evolutionary Pyramid. This is a vision of moral “progress,” the broad base level of which is a selfish struggle for survival and reproduction which proceeds gradually by way of care for immediate and extended family, community, society, preservation of the species as a whole, to the currently crunchy pinnacle of serving as Lord High Protectors of the biosphere. Curiously, this is as far as Shermer goes, apparently being unwilling or incapable of envisioning personal identification with still broader nets of creatures and things in the space-time continuum. This is probably just as well, given that even Shermer will admit that acknowledgement of the preeminence of the biosphere in even a plurality of the world's individual human moral decision-making is yet some ways away. Leaving aside questions of the shape or extent of this theoretical scale for measuring human evolutionary moral development (where the greater the scope of the group with whom a person identifies, the greater the sphere of enlightenment/righteousness one can claim), I think Shermer faces a huge problem operationalizing it.
Why propose a hierarchy for ethical motivation at all? Shermer does not argue his pyramid should form a basis for the moral principles he espouses, nor is it apparent that it serves to structure a reading of human history (and the author is vague or at least too long-view when it comes to parsing whose history we are here considering, over what period of time, and how motivational benchmarks are determined). In fact, defining the sheer quantity of variables over any proposed measurement scale seems impossible to me. How should a person (or a group or a state or a scientist) determine what actions are good for humanity as a whole? For the biosphere? Over what period of time? In a reasoned dispute between even two bona fide, intelligent, well-informed people over what course of action to pursue how are we to judge rightness or success? Using this hierarchy as a guiding philosophy seems like crewing a circular trireme -- with everyone pulling on the oars that ring the boat, you expend a lot of energy and still get nowhere.
Shermer more or less begins and ends this book by considering the pre-biblical, anthropologically and historically universal, (and arguably therefore logically endemic) behavioral success strategy known affectionately to game theorists as "Tit-for-Tat" in its simplest form, "Firm-but-Fair" in a slightly more sophisticated version, and as the Golden Rule as codified variously in Western philosophy/theology. This is the old saw, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you/do not unto others that which is hateful to you." The questions then become who decides and what, if any other limits to behavior are there? Shermer is a self-described "provisional libertarian." That is, he'd prefer "a stateless society governed entirely by free markets and private contracts" but has "decided that such a society probably would not work," pending 100 years or so of definitive social experiment demonstrating otherwise (p. 252). His "provisional ethics" are equally personal (pp. 187-190):
1. Seek your own happiness in ways that best avoid stomping on the happiness of others.
2. Seek greater freedom and autonomy in ways that best avoid stomping on the liberty of others.
3. When in doubt, ask those others.
4. No matter what, killing people is unacceptable. (Admittedly, Shermer waffles here between killing as an absolute wrong and the killing of "innocents" though he would surely fall back on personal calculus to determine the extent to which them innocents needed killing.)
Now before digressing into his fascinating, if belated treatise on the evolutionary value, history, and anthropology of trade, Shermer offers this truism at p. 253: "population abundance plus resource scarcity equals war." I tend to think that all morality comes down to how you define solutions to this problem, depending on the circumstances in which you find yourself. We adults at the Falk household aspire to at least the first two of our three rules and (I hope) treat our third rule more critically.
The thing of it is (and a point that Shermer sort of makes throughout this book), morality and ethics are highly personal, changeable things. It's extremely difficult to articulate clear, consistent principles without coming across as overly simplistic or worse, draconian. Along these lines, I've heard much moral philosophy boiled down to respect for oneself, for others, for property. In fact, I work for an organization that actively promotes greater tolerance throughout the world, and therefore would like to believe myself occasionally capable of understanding that our world is not so simple a place as it might be reflected in kindergarten or our kitchen. But however we each choose to formulate and operationalize our own refrigerator rules, I wonder if we will never escape Rodney King's oversimplification (as popularly corrupted): can't we all just get along?
Shermer is a reformed theist (by that, I mean, he wasn't always an atheist). He's attempting to answer that age-old, annoying question, "If there is no God, why not be as bad as you want?" He presents a pretty good treatment of the issue of morality without religion, and the evolutionary origins of morals and the behavior enforcing morals. Shermer also lays out a moral system based on what he believes to be the fundamental morals of being human, that is, the morals our evolutionary heritage have programmed into us. Does he make convincing arguments? I think the first part of the book, about the origin of morality, is the better half, and the moral system he lays out in the second part is nice but didn't wow me.
The book attempts to offer a middle way between absolutism and relativism in morality by arguing that morality is a universal human trait that evolved under the pressures for within group cooperation and between group competition.
The attempt is generally successful yet seems more of a just-so story because at every fork in the road there does not seem to be much explanation of the path taken.
The second point of the book is that you do not need a transcendental source for morality. This point is argued well yet the simplest reason gets no mention. I think that in most cases the problem is not what is the moral action to do, it is whether we will actually do it. This means that the real problem is not to find a rule (or to bridge the is-ought gab) which makes the source irrelevant in mosy cases.
Shermer, being a skeptic, has brought together a compilation of historical, research and anthology data to assist in his reasoning that human behavior is a violent one which distrusts, protects, coverts and is war-like.
This book was a perfect companion to "Ishmael". Would recommend reading both at the same time.
Took some time to read as it is not your "typical" pleasure read. However which ever way you wish to interpret his findings still gives one a keen view into the nature of beings. As for if God (religion) is the determining factor in a person choice, I side with Skermer. His arguments are very persuasive and logical.
Traditional view of social scientists has been that over time culture dabs a natural human behavior as moral and another immoral. So morality is an arbitrary notion that can be created and built upon a specific behavior and nature of humanity. In other words, morality is a social construct, thus it is culturally relative. But evolutionary psychologists such as Michael Shermer and sociobiologists like E. O. Wilson argue that there is a “science of morality”, that is, morality, like any other features of humanity, is emerged over the course of human evolution and it existed before civilization and religion. Shermer argues that humans are not the only ones in possession of morality. “premoral sentiments,” as Shermer calls them, are the behaviors that humans share with other social animals, particularly with other great apes:
attachment and bonding, cooperation and mutual aid, sympathy and empathy, direct and indirect reciprocity, altruism and reciprocal altruism, conflict resolution and peacemaking, deception and deception detection, community concern and caring about what others think about you, and awareness of and response to the social rules of the group.
These premoral sentiments, according to Shermer, are evolved as restraints. They are evolved in societies in order to restrain individual selfishness and encourage cooperation and altruism. To restrain belligerence, evilness, immorality, non-virtuousness, and encourage peace, goodness, morality, and virtuousness.
Traditional opinions on human nature are divided into two classes: pessimists and optimists. Pessimists share Machiavelli’s version of human nature in which he believes that people never do good unless they are forced to. Optimists agree with the intellectuals of the eighteenth century enlightenment called philosophes, who believed human nature to be benevolent. Or even Marxists can be called optimists, for they believe(d) that if humans get the economic conditions right, class will disappear and people will live naturally in egalitarian harmony.
Neither pessimists nor optimists, evolutionary psychologists like Shermer believe that humans are, by nature and intrinsically, good and evil, moral and immoral, altruistic and selfish, cooperative and competitive, peaceful and bellicose, benevolent and brutal, virtuous and non-virtuous.
Shermer argues that moral sense is “evolved out of behaviors that were selected for because they were good either for the individual or for the group.” And immoral sense is the opposite of it, that it is evolved out of behaviors that were selected for because they were bad either for the individual or for the group. In terms of “feeling,” moral sense is the “the psychological feeling of doing ‘good’ in the form of positive emotions such as righteousness and pride,” as Shermer says. Immoral sense, on the other hand, is the psychological feeling of doing “bad” in the form of negative emotions such as “guilt and shame.”
But it is wrong to say that the definition of morality and immorality in every culture and society throughout the history is fundamentally the same. In other words, cultures may differ in tagging a particular behavior as good or bad, as moral or immoral. Although there will always be conflicts between distinct sides of human evolved nature, with some societies and cultures favoring and moralizing one side and some another side, but there is an evolved universality in humans, in all cultures through history that has a tendency toward the moral sense of feeling good or feeling bad about a particular behavior. That is, a sense of right and wrong is a shared characteristic of all human societies, both civilized and pre-civilized.
Summing up of the main points of the book:
* Culture is in close relation with nature and is channeled and limited by it.
* Morality is intrinsic.
* Morality is evolved through history and selected by natural selection and forces of culture in order to adapt humans with nature; it is the result of gene-culture coevolution.
* Morality is continuous with animal social instincts.
* Humans are both moral and immoral, good and evil.
* Some individuals and people some of the time in some circumstances are more or less immoral and moral than other individuals and people.