On Being Right about Right and Wrong

An Interview with Michael Shermer
January 26, 2015

Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, the host of the Skeptics Distinguished Science Lecture Series at Caltech, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His latest book is The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom.

Michael was kind enough to answer a few questions by email:



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Harris: You appear to believe, as I do, that morality can (and should) arise out of a concern for the well-being of conscious creatures. But this normative claim is distinct from an evolutionary account of how we came to have moral emotions and preferences in the first place. It seems to me that there are two worthy, but distinct, scientific projects: (1) understanding how we got here and (2) understanding how to maximize our well-being going forward. Both projects are based on facts—facts about how we evolved, and facts about how conscious minds like our own can flourish in this universe. I’m wondering if you agree with this distinction and whether you have any further thoughts about the role science can play in deciding questions of right and wrong and good and evil.

Shermer: The criterion I use—inspired by your starting point in The Moral Landscape of “the well-being of conscious creatures”—is “the survival and flourishing of sentient beings.” By survival I mean the instinct to live, and by flourishing I mean having adequate sustenance, safety, shelter, bonding, and social relations for physical and mental health. I am trying to make an evolutionary/biological case for starting here by arguing that any organism subject to natural selection—which includes all organisms on this planet and most likely on any other planet as well—will by necessity have this drive to survive and flourish. If it didn’t, it would not live long enough to reproduce and would therefore not be subject to natural selection.

By sentient I mean emotive, perceptive, sensitive, responsive, conscious, and therefore able to feel and to suffer. Here I’m following the argument made by Jeremy Bentham with regard to animals: It isn’t their intelligence, language, tool use, or reasoning power that should elicit our moral concerns, but their capacity to feel and suffer. To this I add the recent Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness—issued by an international group of prominent cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neuroanatomists, and computational neuroscientists—that there is continuity between humans and non-human animals, and that sentience is the common characteristic across species.

When I talk about a moral arc of progress, I mean an improvement in the survival and flourishing of individual sentient beings. I emphasize the individual for four reasons: (1) Natural selection operates on individual organisms, not groups (see Steven Pinker’s dismantling of group selection arguments here.). (2) It is the individual who is the primary moral agent—not the group, tribe, race, gender, state, nation, empire, society, or any other collective—because it is the individual who survives and flourishes, or who suffers and dies. It is individual sentient beings who perceive, emote, respond, love, feel, and suffer—not populations, races, genders, groups, or nations. (3) Historically, immoral abuses have been most rampant, and body counts have run the highest, when the individual is sacrificed for the good of the group. It happens when people are judged by the color of their skin—or by their X/Y chromosomes, or by whom they prefer to sleep with, or by what accent they speak with, or by which political or religious group they belong to, or by any other trait our species has chosen to differentiate among members—instead of by the content of their individual character. (4) The rights revolutions of the past two centuries have focused almost entirely on the freedom and autonomy of individuals, not collectives—on the rights of persons, not groups. Individuals vote, not races or genders. Individuals want to be treated equally, not races. Rights protect individuals, not groups; in fact, most rights (such as those enumerated in the Bill of Rights) protect individuals from being discriminated against as members of a group, such as by race, creed, color, gender, or—soon—sexual orientation and gender preference.

In this sense, my argument is one for natural rights. I know that Bentham called “rights” nonsense and “natural rights” nonsense on stilts, but he came before Darwin and all the rights revolutions.

Also following your lead in The Moral Landscape, in which you make the argument that if one agrees that it is better to be healthy than to have cancer (a physical health analogy), I employ a public health analogy. I argue that if you agree that it is better that millions of people no longer die of yellow fever and smallpox, cholera and bronchitis, dysentery and diarrhea, consumption and tuberculosis, measles and mumps, gangrene and gastritis, and many other assaults on the human body that hardly even enter our conscious awareness today, then you have offered your assent that the way something is (diseases such as yellow fever and smallpox kill people) means we ought to prevent it through vaccinations and other medical and public health technologies.

By extension, I then make the case that social problems such as homicide and violence ought to be—and in fact are—treated as public health issues. Over the centuries the rates of violence in general and homicide in particular have plummeted, primarily as a result of better governance, better policing, and numerous other social policies grounded in reasoned arguments and empirical data. If you agree that millions of lives have been saved over the past couple of centuries by a reduction in violence due to improved technologies and policies, then you might well concur that applying the methods of the social sciences to solving problems such as crime and violence is also something we ought to do.

Why? Because saving lives is moral. Why is saving lives moral? Because the survival and flourishing of sentient beings is our moral starting point.

Harris: Clearly, some people have strongly felt convictions that they consider “moral”—disgust at the very idea of homosexuality, say—which we would consider pseudo-moral, in that they are based on dogmas and taboos that fail to align with a truly rational approach to maximizing human flourishing. Do you think we are making progress in reducing this kind of moral confusion?

Shermer: If you believe that the cavorting of women with demons in the middle of the night causes bad weather, crop failures, diseases, accidents, and assorted other maladies, then either you are insane or you lived 500 years ago, when almost everyone accepted the witch theory of causality, and burning women at the stake was considered to be a moral good in the name of improving the community. The people who torched women were not so much immoral as mistaken. They undoubtedly truly believed that what they were doing was right and good, but their actions were grounded in an incorrect understanding of causality.

Today we no longer accept the witch theory of causality because science debunked it. In its stead science created natural and more accurate explanations for such phenomena as weather and diseases. Science has also debunked other superstitious beliefs, such as demon possession; the need for animal and human sacrifice to appease God; that Jews caused the Black Death; that African Americans are an inferior race; that women are the weaker gender; that animals do not suffer, so it’s okay to harm or eat them; and—to your question—that homosexuals have a “gay lifestyle” or “gay agenda” that they want to force on straights and that will corrupt the morals of the youth. 

With the exception of psychopaths and sadists, who seem to enjoy harming others, most people act in what they consider to be moral ways, so when we can clearly see (and measure) that they are in fact behaving in ways that lead to the suffering or death of sentient beings, it is probably more accurate to say that they are mistaken in their beliefs than that they are simply immoral or evil. And the solution is not so much that we need to make them more moral as it is that we need to correct their mistaken beliefs. Science and reason are the best tools we have for doing just that, so ultimately moral progress comes about from generating better ideas rather than better morality.

Harris: What role has religion played in our moral progress?

Shermer: I like to paraphrase Winston Churchill in his description of Americans: You can always count on religions to do the right thing…after they’ve tried everything else. It’s true that the abolition of slavery was championed by Quakers and Mennonites, that the civil rights movement was led by a Baptist preacher named Martin Luther King Jr., and that gay rights and same-sex marriage were backed early on by some Episcopalian ministers. But these are the exceptions, and for the most part people who opposed abolition, civil rights, and gay marriage were (and still are, in the latter case) their fellow Christians. In my debates with Dinesh D’Souza, he holds up William Wilberforce—the British abolitionist—as an example of how religion drives moral progress. But when I looked into that history a bit more carefully, it turns out that Wilberforce’s opponents in Parliament were all his fellow Christians, who justified slavery with religious and Bible-based arguments. (Plus, as I note in my book, “Wilberforce’s religious motives were complicated by his pushy and overzealous moralizing about virtually every aspect of life, and his great passion seemed to be to worry incessantly about what other people were doing, especially if what they were doing involved pleasure, excess, and ‘the torrent of profaneness that every day makes more rapid advances.’”)

The gay rights revolution we’re undergoing right now is a case study in how rights revolutions come about, because we can see who supports it and who opposes it: The vast majority of conservative and fundamentalist Christians have opposed (and still do oppose) same-sex marriage and equal rights for gays, whereas secularists and non-religious people support the movement; and those religious people who do endorse same-sex marriage are members of the most liberal and the least dogmatic sects.

So, while I acknowledge that many religious people do much good work in the world, manning soup kitchens and providing aid to the poor and disaster relief to those in temporary need, religions overall have lagged behind the moral arc, sometimes for an embarrassingly long time.

Harris: Where do you think we are headed? Is moral progress nearly inevitable at this point, or is serious moral decline a real possibility?

Shermer: I’m optimistic for the future. I titled the final chapter of The Moral Arc “Protopia,” in contrast to unrealistic utopias and dystopias. The word was coined by the futurist Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired magazine, who tracks trends in science, technology, and society. Protopia consists of gradual, steady, stepwise improvements in humanity. Today is ever so slightly better than yesterday, and tomorrow will be ever so slightly better than today, and so on. The moral arc is not a smooth curve—there are periodic setbacks such as ISIS/ISIL, Syria, and Putin—and it is not impossible that something like a global nuclear exchange could lurch us back into barbarism, but it is highly unlikely. No terrorist organization has ever overturned the government of a state and established its own. Putin will never reconstruct a Russian empire on par with the USSR. The taboo against using nuclear weapons is stronger than ever before, and it’s now even shifting toward possessing nuclear weapons. The chances, say, that the French will ever march through the Chunnel and advance on London to conquer England are so remote as to be almost laughable. I seriously doubt that the nations of the world will change their minds about slavery and make it legal again, or disenfranchise blacks and women, or reinstitute the death penalty for such petty crimes as shoplifting or insulting the king.

I believe that the moral progress we have made is real and lasting. We can do a lot more, to be sure, and there will always be episodes of violence and other setbacks on the protopian journey, but the long-term trends are extremely encouraging, and we have many good reasons for optimism about the future of humanity.