The Science of Good and Evil

The Science of Good and Evil

Jende Huang

The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule by Michael Shermer (New York: Times Books, 2004); 292 pages, $26.00 cloth.

I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable with the explanation of the basis of Humanist ethics. It is eminently reasonable to base an ethical system on the real needs of people in the here and now, as opposed to relying on absolutist mores formulated by agrarian-based societies which claimed to receive knowledge from supernatural sources. However, when Humanist ethics respond to human needs, it feels too much like an opening has been left for those who’d accuse us of baseless moral relativism, lumping Humanists with postmodernists. Michael Shermer, executive director of the Skeptics Society and editor of Skeptic magazine, provides a way to ground morals in something a bit more “transcendent” than individual need. He does this in his newest book, The Science of Good and Evil, which completes his trilogy on the power of belief.

Shermer presents a “bio-cultural evolutionary pyramid”–a mix of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Peter Singer’s expanding circle of ethical sentiments–which is his explanation for the origins and evolution of morality. According to Shermer, the base of the pyramid is individuals, their biological needs, and their concern for survival. Moving up the pyramid, the individual is part of a family and an extended family. These widening social circles bring on more needs and more concerns, though moral sentiments are still being shaped by natural selection and biological needs. Because the sizes of these groups are small, Shermer argues, there is no need for wider types of social control (for example, religion) since everything can be taken care of through informal means and conflicts can be easily resolved because everyone in a small band or tribe knows everyone else.

What changed approximately 35,000 years ago was that extended families grew to create communities. With larger and larger numbers of people living in proximity of each other, the old rules could no longer apply and broader social controls were needed to ensure continued cohesion and conflict resolution. During this period culture began to have a stronger influence on moral sentiments. So now, when we view society, our species, and the biosphere as a whole, it’s no longer just in evolutionary terms of how to pass on genes or of being altruistic to direct relatives.

So the pyramid leads to transcendent moral sentiments, shaped by the impersonal forces of evolution. Because it’s literally in our nature to be moral, asking why people should be moral is no different than asking why people should be hungry or why people should fall in love. But with moral sentiments having evolved in human societies, that doesn’t mean one unyielding, absolute set evolved across all cultures. As Shermer explains, instead moral sentiments

are provisional–true for most people

in most circumstances most of the

time. And they are objective, in the

sense that morality is independent

of the individual. Moral sentiments

evolved as part of our species; moral

principles, therefore, can be seen

as transcendent of the individual,

making them morally objective.

So morality can move, at least tentatively, into the scientific realm. And though formed by individual needs, morality is tied to something larger: the species as a whole. Shermer provides a look at his system of morals and ethics that eschews the simplistic either/or dichotomy, which seems particularly prevalent today. In his discussion of contentious issues surrounding pornography, abortion, cloning and genetic engineering, and animal rights he gives examples of how provisional morality works.

Shermer rightly criticizes religious absolutism as an unworkable ethical system. But he could have also made the point that many of the fundamentalist Christians (who might be the strongest objectors to his provisional morality) support capital punishment by arguing the Bible differentiates between murder and killing. Arguing that killing isn’t necessarily bad but that murder is wrong seems so very provisional.

A provisional morality fits in well with Humanism (some may even fully embrace it as Humanist ethics) by the fact that it doesn’t claim to contain all of the answers but instead provides a method for us to try to make sense of our complex world. By virtue of it not providing clear-cut answers, as well as the necessity of actually thinking through moral dilemmas, a provisional morality is sure to be off-putting to many. In Shermer’s system, there’s none of the emotional gratification that usually comes to those who make snap judgments on complex moral issues.

By grounding morals outside of the individual but still focusing on actual human need, The Science of Good and Evil helps make another case for why morality can and should exist outside of a theistic framework. Though surely not the final word on the subject, Shermer helps to illuminate the possibilities that come with making moral choices.

Jende Huang is field organizer for the American Humanist Association.

COPYRIGHT 2004 American Humanist Association

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group