About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Towards a Science of Morality. A Reply to Massimo Pigliucci

by Michael Shermer

In this year’s annual Edge.org question “What should we be worried about?” I answered that we should be worried about “The Is-Ought Fallacy of Science and Morality.” I wrote: “We should be worried that scientists have given up the search for determining right and wrong and which values lead to human flourishing.” In response, the evolutionary biologist and philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci penned a thoughtful response, which I appreciate given his dual training in science and philosophy, including and especially evolutionary theory, a perspective that I share. But he felt that my scientific approach added nothing new to the philosophy of morality, so let me see if I can restate my argument for a scientific foundation of moral principles with new definitions and examples.

First, morality is derived from the Latin moralitas, or “manner, character, and proper behavior.” Morality has to do with how you act toward others. So I begin with a Principle of Moral Good:

Always act with someone else’s moral good in mind, and never act in a way that leads to someone else’s moral loss (through force or fraud).

You can, of course, act in a way that has no effect on anyone else, and in this case morality isn’t involved. But given the choice between acting in a way that increases someone else’s moral good or not, it is more moral to do so than not. I added the parenthetical note “through force or fraud” to clarify intent instead of, say, neglect or acting out of ignorance. Morality involves conscious choice, and the choice to act in a manner that increases someone else’s moral good, then, is a moral act, and its opposite is an immoral act.

Given this moral principle, the central question is this: On what foundation should we ground our moral decisions? We have to ground the foundations of morality on something, and we secularists (skeptics, humanists, atheists, et al.) are in agreement that “divine command theory” is untenable not only because there probably is no God, but even if there is a God, divine command theory was refuted 2500 years ago by Plato through his “Euthyphro’s dilemma,” in which he asked “whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods?”, showing how it must be the former — moral principles must stand on their own with or without God. Rape, for example, is wrong whether or not God says it is wrong (in the Bible God offers no prohibition against rape, and in fact seems to encourage it in many instances as a perquisite of war for victors). Adultery, which is prohibited in the Bible, would still be wrong even if it were not listed in the Decalogue. 

How do we know that rape and adultery are wrong? We don’t need to ask God. We need to ask the affected moral agent — the rape victim in question, or our spouse or romantic partner who is being cuckolded. They will let you know instantly and forcefully precisely how they feel morally about that behavior.

Here we see that the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) has a severe limitation to it: What if the moral receiver thinks differently from the moral doer? What if you would not mind having action X done unto you, but someone else would mind it? Most men, for example, are much more receptive toward unsolicited offers of sex than are women. Most men, then, in considering whether to approach a woman with an offer of unsolicited sex, should not ask themselves how they would feel as a test. This is why in my book The Science of Good and Evil I introduced the Ask-First Principle: 

To find out whether an action is right or wrong ask first.

The moral doer should ask the moral receiver whether the behavior in question is moral or immoral. If you aren’t sure that the potential recipient of your action will react in the same manner you would react to the moral behavior in question, then ask… before you act. (This principle applies to rational sane adults and not to children or mentally ill adults. Asking a 12-year old girl raised in a polygamous family belonging to the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints if she feels it is moral to marry a man in his 60s who is already married to many other women is not a rational test because she does not have the capacity for moral reasoning.)

But what is the foundation for why we should care about the feelings of potentially affected moral agents? To answer this question I turn to science and evolutionary theory.

Given that moral principles must be founded on something natural instead of supernatural, and that science is the best tool we have devised for understanding the natural world, applying evolutionary theory to not only the origins of morality but to its ultimate foundation as well, it seems to me that the individual is a reasonable starting point because, (1) the individual is the primary target of natural selection in evolution, and (2) it is the individual who is most effected by moral and immoral acts. Thus:

The survival and flourishing of the individual is the foundation for establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best survive and flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality. 

Here we find a smooth transition from the way nature is (the individual struggling to survive and flourish in an evolutionary context) to the way it ought to be (given a choice, it is more moral to act in a way that enhances the survival and flourishing of other individuals). Here are three examples:

In his annual letter Bill Gates outlined how and why the progress of the human condition can best be implemented when tracked through scientific data: “I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve amazing progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal.”

One notable sign of progress is seen in this graph from Gates’ Annual Letter:

If the survival and flourishing of the individual is the foundation of values and morals, then this graph tracks moral progress because we can say objectively and absolutely that reducing extreme poverty by half since 1990 is real moral progress. On what basis can we make such a claim? Ask the people who are no longer living on less than $1.25 a day. They will tell you that living on more than $1.25 a day is absolutely better than living on less than $1.25 a day. Why is it better? Because individuals are more likely to survive and flourish when they have the basics of life. 

This is why Bill Gates is backing with his considerable wealth and talent the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals program that is supported by 189 nations, in which the year 2015 was set as a deadline for making specific percentage improvements across a range of areas including health, education, and basic income. Gates reports, for example, that the number of polio cases has decreased from 350,000 in 1988 to 222 in 2012. Is that a moral good? Ask the 350,000 polio victims. They’ll tell you. Or ask the 5.1 million children under the age of 5 who didn’t die in 2011, who in 1990 would have died (Unicef reports that the number of children under 5 years old who died worldwide was 12 million in 1990 and 6.9 million in 2011).

A second example may be found on the opposite end of the economic scale in a study conducted for the National Bureau of Economic Research entitled “Subjective Well-Being, Income, Economic Development and Growth” by the University of Pennsylvania economists Daniel Sacks, Betsey Stevenson, and Justin Wolfers, in which they compared survey data on subjective well-being (“happiness”) with income and economic growth rates in 140 countries. The economists found a positive correlation between income and happiness within individual countries, in which richer people are happier than poorer people; and they also found a between-country difference in which people in richer countries are happier than people in poorer countries. As well, they found that an increase in economic growth was associated with an increase in subjective well being: “These results together suggest that measured subjective well-being grows hand in hand with material living standards.” How much difference? “A 20 percent increase in income has the same impact on well-being, regardless of the initial level of income: going from $500 to $600 of income per year yields the same impact on well-being as going from $50,000 to $60,000 per year.” Contrary to previous studies, the economists found no upper limit in which more money does not correlate with more happiness. As well, on a 0-10 scale measuring “life satisfaction,” people in poor countries averaged a 3, people in middle-income countries averaged a 5-6, and people in rich countries averaged a 7-8 (Americans rate their life satisfaction as a 7.4). The economists’ conclusion confirms my moral science theory that the survival and flourishing of individuals is what counts:

The fact that life satisfaction and other measures of subjective well-being rise with income has significant implications for development economists. First, and most importantly, these findings cast doubt on the Easterlin Paradox and various theories suggesting that there is no long-term relationship between well-being and income growth. Absolute income appears to play a central role in determining subjective well-being. This conclusion suggests that economists’ traditional interest in economic growth has not been misplaced. Second, our results suggest that differences in subjective well-being over time or across places likely reflect meaningful differences in actual well-being.

Here is the figure for the relationship between happiness and GDP from this study:

Why does money matter morally? Because it leads to a higher standard of living. Why does a higher standard of living matter morally? Because it increases the probability that an individual will survive and flourish. Why does survival and flourishing matter morally? Because it is the basis of the evolution of all life on earth through natural selection. 

There are many more examples like these in which we can employ science to derive all sorts of findings that show how various social, political, and economic conditions lead to an increase or decrease of the survival and flourishing of individuals. This is why in my Edge.org essay I discussed data from political scientists and economists showing that democracies are better than dictatorships and that countries with more open economic borders and free trade are better off than countries with more closed economic borders and restricted trade (think North Korea, whose citizens are on average several inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts because of their crappy diets). These are measurable differences that allow us to draw scientific conclusions about moral progress or regress, based on the increase or decrease of the survival and flourishing of the individuals living in those countries. The fact that there may be many types of democracies (direct v. representative) and economies (with various trade agreements or membership in trading blocks) only reveals that human survival and flourishing is multi-faceted and multi-causal, and not that because there is more than one way to survive and flourish means that all political, economic, and social systems are equal. They are not equal, and we have the scientific data and historical examples to demonstrate which ones increase or decrease the survival and flourishing of individuals. 

One final example on the regress side of the moral ledger: On Wednesday, February 6, 2013, a 20-year old woman and mother of one named Kepari Leniata was burned alive in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea because she was accused of sorcery by the relatives of a six-year-old boy who died on February 5. As in witch hunts of old, the conflagration on a pile of rubbish was preceded by torture with a hot iron rod, after which she was bound and doused in gasoline and ignited while surrounded by gawking crowds that prevented police and authorities from rescuing her. Tragically, a 2010 Oxfam study reported that beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft are not uncommon in the highlands of New Guinea, as well as in many parts of Melanesia in which many people still “do not accept natural causes as an explanation for misfortune, illness, accidents or death,” and instead place the blame for their problems on supernatural sorcery and black magic.

By now it seems risibly superfluous to explain why this is immoral and what the solution is, but in case there is any doubt: We know that belief in supernatural sorcery and witchcraft and their concomitant consequences of torturing and murdering those so accused is wrong because it decreases the survival and flourishing of individuals — just ask first the woman about to be torched. The immediate solution is the enforcement of laws prohibiting such acts. The ultimate solution is science and education in understanding the natural causes of things and the debunking of supernatural beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft. And it is science that tells us why witchcraft and sorcery is immoral.

Note to my readers: What I am outlining here is the basis for my next book, The Moral Arc of Science, which I am researching and writing now, so I ask you to post your critiques here or email me your constructive criticisms (mshermer@skeptic.com). My role model is Charles Darwin, who solicited criticisms of his theory of evolution and included them in a chapter entitled “Difficulties on Theory” in On the Origin of Species. Of course, if you agree with me, and/or think of additional examples in support of my theory, then I would appreciate hearing those as well!


  1. I'm grateful that Michael and I are on the same page *in general*, but I still think Massimo is right that he has essentially nothing *new* to add to a Science of Morality.

    I've said before that I favor Owen Flanagan's presentation back in 2002 ("The Problem of the Soul") of ethics as human ecology; and Flanagan expanded on that in his follow up book "The Really Hard Problem". Flanagan argued for a rational/empirical basis for morality and 'human flourishing', and he gives the following example:

    "Beavers flourish in such and such environments; therefore, if you want to create a good habitat for beavers, you ought to do this and that."

    And he says that, in any applied science, even physics, *if* you want to do something, then you *ought* to take certain steps to achieve it; the example Flanagan gives here is sending a rocket to the moon.

    But science still can't tell us *why* we *ought* to send a rocket to the moon; or why we *ought* to see beavers flourish. Likewise, science can't tell us why we *ought* to see humans flourish - collectively or individually.

    I think the true Science of Morality is "Ethics"; that is, Philosophy. But it is Philosophy informed by Science.

    There are competing ideas out there about what flourishing even means, both for society collectively and for the individual; and, indeed, for other beings, and the planet as a whole. And the flourishing of society is often at odds with the flourishing of the individual; the flourishing of our species is at odds with the flourishing of other species.

    So, ultimately I think we can really only conceive of a Science of Morality as this: since each contingent, each 'stakeholder', in the game of Life is going to have a different conception of flourishing, they are going to have to argue along the lines of an "if/then" statement: *if* they want to achieve certain ends, *then* they ought to pursue a certain course of action. What *our* contingent wants (and I'm including both Michael and Massimo), our ethics-as-human-ecology contingent, or whatever you want to call it, wants, is for our best science to inform our ethical intuitions. So therefore we will have to offer the best evidence and arguments supported by science.

    But we will still have to "win hearts and minds" in this ethical discourse. We will have to use Philosophy.

  2. Is there anything added by throwing "science" in to the mix that isn't there already if we just apply common sense. If I want to help a homeless man flourish I'm better off finding him a job than giving him a kick in the teeth. I could pretend that I've just applied scientific principles to the homeless problem, but c'mon. And the examples used here (feed starving kids, don't approach women and blurt out you want sex, don't marry 12 year olds, South Korea's better than North Korea) are equally common sense stuff, with science adding that I can see.

    Is there any example where adding science to morality tells us something that is totally counter-intuitive to most Westerners today? That would be interesting, but I've yet to hear of such an example.

    1. Shermer's point is that we can't rely on common sense in all cases because common sense is based on intuitions that might be wrong. Common sense will usually lead to correct moral judgements, but it cannot be relied upon because it is not rigorous enough.

      For example, whether monogamous or polygamous "free love" relationships are more moral is a question that most people would answer based on intuition and common sense.

      Your common sense might suggest one answer, but that's not enough to come to a conclusion. You need an experiment, such as looking at data from societies that had different practices.

      Common sense might lead people like Marx to conclude that centrally planned economies are more moral, but in practice that didn't work out too well. The data seems to suggest that market economies generate more wealth and are more conducive to human flourishing, and hence more moral.

      So if your common sense tells you that free love and communism don't really work, well done, you're probably right. But what if you're debating these questions with someone who disagrees?

      Shermer's point is that science is the only way to get a definitive answer.

    2. Actually, I think the "free love" example is an interesting one. Lots of people, myself included, argue that consenting adults can do what they want sexually. Even if some measurement showed that free love brought down human flourishing I don't see why we should call them "immoral" for the participants. Mistaken, perhaps, not immoral.

    3. What about selling heroin or some other even more damaging drug to a consenting adult, in the knowledge that it is likely to destroy their lives?

      I'm reasonably liberal about whether these things should be legal, but I'm quite comfortable in saying that this act is immoral, even if between consenting adults.

      If your behaviour is going to hurt other people, then it's probably immoral. The problem with being overly-judgmental about issues like free love is that these objections are not usually based on data. People believe it's wrong because they are conservative and have the common sense of the conservatives. For me, whether it's wrong or not is purely based on whether it is likely to hurt people.

    4. Does anyone really think that science can settle whether it is better to be polygamous or monogamous (to take this example)? I suppose Shermer's position is that data could be collected and crunched with the end being that the mode that is more in keeping with "flourishing" would be the morally right concept.

      But am I just to accept the "science" if I disagree with the judgement?

      To put it another way, should we expect places where they routinely marry off 12 year old girls to old married men to accept the science and change their ways? "See, science proves that you are morally wrong."

      My guess is that the "science" here isn't going to be as persuasive as a discussion that combines science, logic and reason would be. The value of science here, it seems to me, is how it may be used as a reference point to demonstrate the concept of physical equality between beings differing only by gender. But logic and reason are going to have to close the deal -- that physically equal beings should enjoy equal rights and status.

      Why does it smell like Shermer et al are just looking to establish a science based morality cudgel that they could use with righteous indignation to attack those they find morally reprehensible? Is it because they don't trust their own ability use logic and reason along with the science to try and change egregious moral practices when they encounter them?

    5. @Disagreeable Me, yes, I don't find it immoral to sell heroin to an adult even though it would probably cause more harm than good. But maybe I'm wrong. So how do we decide if you're right or if I'm right? It doesn't seem that science will be much help here, and I think we'll have to fall back on philosophy.

  3. >Adultery, which is prohibited in the Bible, would still be wrong even if it were not listed in the Decalogue.<

    Shermer knows for sure that adultery is always wrong? Explain that one to me a little bit better.

    Some societies are quite content with polygamous relationships. If you ask the affected party they may tell you that they are perfectly content with their partner having sex with someone else.

    What of serial polygamy? If you ask an ex-spouse (the affected moral agent) if they are o.k. with their partner being married to someone else they may tell you "no" -- does that mean no one should divorce and take a second partner?

    What of competing interests? If we ask the affected moral agents we may get conflicting stories. For example, if we raise taxes on the rich to provide health care for the poor, whose interests are more important? The rich will complain they are being robbed to provide for someone else (see libertarian arguments) while the poor will complain that society should provide for minimum care (see liberal arguments).

    And if Shermer supports keeping the affected moral agents happy, where does he stand on societies whose majorities WANT Sharia law to be imposed and would be unhappy with any other system?

    It is absurd for Shermer to pretend that science can answer these questions.

    1. It doesn't appear to be absurd a priori that science could answer such questions, as long as you interpret morality to pertain to the promotion of human flourishing.

      You could in principle measure if societies that tolerated/punished/encouraged adultery or polygamy were better at promoting human well-being and development. The same goes for equal or unequal distribution of wealth.

      It may be hard to answer these questions scientifically in practice, but to propose that it might be possible is certainly not absurd.

    2. On whether adultery is wrong, I think you're reading too much into what was just an example.

      The point is that whether adultery is wrong or not has nothing to do with what it says in some holy book.

    3. "The point is that whether adultery is wrong or not has nothing to do with what it says in some holy book."

      But the larger point is that whether adultery is morally wrong is a question for science.

      And that just seems highly dubious to me. Leaving aside the problems of choosing "flourishing" as the standard, how would you every be convinced that adultery is morally right (if that is how the data came down)? There are many scientific facts that are astounding, but none cause me to be incredulous.

      They other problem I see here is obvious overlooking of the cultural and political underpinnings of the "science." Why shouldn't I expect that western moral scientist would simply confirm every cultural bias we currently hold, while a saudi scientist may use science to confirm his own?

      Science isn't some pure process free from persuasion. That's just naive, Dr. Shermer.

    4. Kevin: >Science isn't some pure process free from persuasion. That's just naive, Dr. Shermer.<


      To get a feel for how naïve Shermer really is, follow the link to his article “The Is-Ought Fallacy of Science and Morality” in which there is the following:

      >Question: What is the best form of governance for large modern human societies? Answer: a liberal democracy with a market economy. Evidence: liberal democracies with market economies are more prosperous, more peaceful, and fairer than any other form of governance tried.<

      There are a million things wrong with that, but I have limited space. Here goes:

      DEFINITIONS: What are called “Market Economies” are often command economies with high subsidies and protectionism for various sectors. As Dean Baker wrote:

      > For example, there was the government bailout of the banks... By offering trillions of dollars in loans and guarantees the government kept Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and other Wall Street giants in business. In a market economy, the top executives of these companies would be walking the unemployment lines right now instead of getting bonus checks in the tens of millions of dollars.<

      Likewise, many countries are only nominal “democracies” as shown by the over-representation of plutocrats in governing bodies, and the under-representation of women and minorities. If once every four years you are granted the privilege of pulling the lever for one plutocrat or another – that’s called “democracy”.

      Likewise, many countries call themselves “peaceful” by blaming their aggression on their victims.

      Likewise, the term “fair” is a very subjective term.

      Many studies cherry-pick their definitions to get to a pre-determined result. That’s not science – it’s propaganda. I could do a “study” proving the exact opposite – if I am allowed to set my own definition of what is a "democracy", what is a "market economy", what constitutes “fairness”, what constitutes “prosperity” and what constitutes “peacefulness”.

      CONFUSING CORRELATION WITH CAUSE: There are many reasons why a country may be prosperous: to assume prosperity is caused solely by the form of government is asinine. There is geography, native plants and animals, resources, climate, diseases, warfare etc. Many countries grew rich through force of arms and colonialism. Some countries are monarchies sitting on oil resources that produce a higher per-capita income than the U.S. – by Shermer’s reasoning, we should become a monarchy.

      CONFUSION OVER GOALS: Assuming a value, such as “prosperity” ought to be the goal – to the exclusion of other values. While most would not disagree with choosing a value such as “prosperity” Shermer gives no discussion of at what price prosperity is obtained. Would a society that achieves prosperity by employing slave labor be admirable? How about achieving prosperity through colonialism? Economic hegemony? An 80-hour work week?

      These are questions that can be settled by human choices but they do NOT magically“emerge” from some objective analysis of the data as Shermer would have it. The bias is inherent in the definitions you make and the data you choose to examine from the infinite choices before you.

      For a supposedly scientific person, Shermer naively swallows an awful lot of garbage without critical analysis. Shermer should get horse-laughed out of the business for this boner.

  4. "Why does survival and flourishing matter morally? Because it is the basis of the evolution of all life on earth through natural selection."

    This is a non sequitur. It is the naturalistic fallacy. Just because it's the basis of the evolution of all life on earth doesn't mean it matters morally. According to "Red Queen" theories of the evolution of sexual reproduction, the threat of parasites allowed sexual reproduction to evolve. Does this mean that we should be bringing parasites into the bedroom because they are the "the basis of the evolution of sexual reproduction of all life on earth"?

    Also, while increases in income are generally a good thing, taking an evolutionary perspective suggests that absolute income shouldn't matter as much as relative income. We are social primates that possess instincts for learning status hierarchies, and our happiness is largely defined by where see ourselves on that status hierarchy. Therefore, if my relative income goes down, even my absolute income goes up, I'm going to be less happy, not more. Many psychological experiments show this, and indeed, income inequality may be a better predictor of subjective wellbeing than GDP.

    1. Agree that this was a non sequitur and Shermer shouldn't have said it.

      However I also think that this is really not crucial to the point he wants to make, which is that the question of how to improve human flourishing is an empirical one.

  5. One of the best criticisms I've ever seen of too-simple forms of utilitarianism is that it "cheats" by making things obviously calculable, but sneaking on philosophical baggage (values) into the qualitative to quantitative converter. When it comes to economics, we've got the situation where we only have theories about things we can measure...this is where I think economics and sociology diverge from morality at large. Facts are largely relevant to any workable morality, but to think we can have any kind of scientific basis for justifying our (sometimes differing) notions about the value of friendship, love, justice, fairness, and all sorts of values.

    There was a story I heard at one point about the economics of cheating on your spouse, and using the kind of effort required to show its minimum value. Apparently, maintaining a separate relationship and keeping it secret are expensive undertakings, particularly in terms of time (the opportunity cost for which is more expensive if you earn more money per hour). Having this extra relationship must therefore provide some value. I don't think anyone is fooled by this example, though, that the economics makes the relationship immoral. It merely confirms that our society has built up expectations around the idea of extra-marital affairs, and expects a social cost to be paid if that ever becomes public. Also, to think that people do cost-benefit analysis before deciding to begin an extra-marital affair is laughable, much less saying that people must do it "in the back of their heads".

    This is what a lot of the "ground morality in science" seems to me. Science has an epistemological privilege that it has earned, so people seek to ground it there (rather than in God which has lost its epistemological validity for us). But these are just post-hoc reasoning or naturalistic fallacies gone wrong...we're seeking ways to justify what we already believe...there is no discovery here. There is discovery, however, in letting scientific facts stand on their own in challenge to your moral views. Oh yes, we can measure the results of these apparent moral judgements on society and have a normative view, but we're again importing our non-scientific values in that need to be investigated, which makes the conclusions from these scientific facts into something that is not a scientific conclusion.

  6. I really think the two sides in this debate are simply talking past each other.

    As far as I can see, Shermer takes it as self-evident that morality is about human flourishing, so much so that he doesn't seem to realise that others may not see it this way. He then argues that Hume's Is/Ought problem is a fallacy because science can show us what we ought to do (to improve human flourishing).

    Pigliucci and others recognise that there is no rational basis for why we "ought" to care about human flourishing at all and so focus all their efforts on criticising Shermer's argument from this perspective.

    I think Shermer needs to acknowledge that Hume was right but that if we can take as granted that we care about human flourishing, his point stands that scientists have a lot to contribute in determining how to achieve our goals. Moral questions become scientific empirical questions if and only if we take for granted that we value human flourishing.

    Once we agree on this principle, I think most of the other disagreements evaporate.

  7. But how do we measure human flourishing? Yes, in some cases it's obvious--it's clear which of the two Koreas is better off.

    But lots of government policies in democracies, say, will make some people better off at the expense of others. To judge the policies, do we just figure out whether, on average, people are happier after they're put into place? Is increasing happiness inequality ok if you rais total happiness, or average happiness? Lots of disagreements about morality come down to questions like these, and I don't think they can be answered with easy remarks about "human flourishing".

    1. I agree with Steve. Shermer is much too simplistic. Even if we agree with his arbitrary dictum that morality ought to be based upon "human flourishing", the interpretations of "human flourishing" are many and varied.

      Even in the case of the two Koreas, we can't say with certainty which is better -- only which would seem more enjoyable to us during our limited time frame. Perhaps it will be North Korea that ultimately survives -- due to the people being tougher, being able to get by on less, consuming less resources, damaging the environment less, etc. It is impossible to say. What may seem to be a disadvantage can turn out to be an advantage in the long run.

      There is no way to determine what will ultimately cause the human race to "flourish". Is an increasing population better -- or should birth control be mandated? Is education better than strength or toughness? Is liberty better than discipline? Is cooperation better than competition? Is the happiness of the population more important than a given risk to their survival? Are material goods more important than leisure and pleasure?

      To think you can determine all of that on your slide-rule is plain silly. It will ultimately come down to human values and human choices about which science has little or nothing to say.

    2. I agree with you, this is a problem with the scientific approach.

      However, this objection can be partly met by agreeing some objective criteria. These criteria may be somewhat arbitrary, but as long as we agree to them in advance the question of which policies meet those criteria best is an empirical one.

      The example you give about happiness inequality is a case in point. Your particular examples of the metrics of total happiness versus average happiness is a good example. Total happiness might be increased by having a higher population but a slightly more miserable average. I think most of us would agree that average happiness is a more worthy goal than this. If we agree to this, then we can set about discovering which policies promote average well-being.

      But maybe greater equality is better than average happiness. Would you prefer to live in a perfectly equal society where everyone was comfortable, or would you prefer to live in an unequal society where some were very well-off and some were poor, but had a higher average than the former? I agree it doesn't seem immediately apparent that there's an obvious best answer. But there may be scientific data about which kind of society is more likely to succeed in the long term.

      Precisely which criteria we should choose is perhaps a question that is difficult for science to answer (unless we do so in terms of some more fundamental criteria, for example measuring literacy rates as an aspect of the broader goal of human flourishing).

      The difficulty in choosing criteria is not sufficient to justify the position that science has nothing to offer in the debate, and while that is probably not your position it is the position I believe Shermer to be arguing against. I think most of us probably agree on a lot of this stuff, which is why I think we're just talking past each other.

    3. Tom D:
      "To think you can determine all of that on your slide-rule is plain silly. It will ultimately come down to human values and human choices about which science has little or nothing to say. "

      You may be right that it is impossible in practice to determine answers to these questions.

      I think you're being a bit too dismissive of the opposing viewpoint however. A lot of these questions are in principle empirical. Just because they're hard to answer in practice doesn't mean we shouldn't attempt to do so or at least be open to the possibility of doing so.

      The main thing I take away from what Shermer is saying is that we shouldn't dismiss a priori scientific claims about particular moral questions, and that seems reasonable enough to me.

    4. Where do values enter the equation? For example, there are those people that prefer "equality of result" (and policies that push that in the the public) even if it limits some of their liberties. Others may prefer the other way around, preferring more liberty in the society even though it may mean others won't have as much.

    5. Most values are probably derived from more basic values. If I asked someone "Why do you value liberty", they might respond in terms relating to happiness, well-being, etc.

      When we get people to agree on some fundamental values such as these, then the question of how best to promote those values might be answered with science.

      When we cannot get people to agree on values, for example where one person fundamentally values obedience to God and another fundamentally values human flourishing, then science will not be of much help.

  8. Science and religion are much like dinosaurs, a thing of the past. Truth is the future,
    = is.

  9. It isn't clear at all that it is the individual that is the "foundation" of morality (or evolution for that matter). "Pragmatists understand why we are inclined to think that morals are personal; after all, individuals are typically the immediate source from which actions proceed. However, this should not lead us to forget that society plays the central role in creating, transmitting, and reshaping our habits." (www.hughlafollette.com/papers/pragmati.htm)

    It is ultimately the society, rather than the lone individual, that achieves morality. Thus one can say that a nation, for example, without universal health coverage is immoral just as much as one can say that an individual who hurts another individual is immoral.

  10. I have reservations about the way Michael Shermer has framed his Principle of Moral Good. What exactly does he mean by 'moral good' or 'moral loss' here?

    Could his meaning not be expressed more clearly and simply in terms of, say, taking account of the well-being of others?

    1. That is close to my perspective, Mark: I wonder why there's the need to use moral terminology in this supposed science. Wouldn't a well-defined scientific vocabulary in lieu of moral terminology be wiser? Good scientists - those who like clarity and precision - will balk at this attempt to use complicated, highly controversial terminology as the basis of a science (especially when the proposed practical benefits of the science do not appear to depend on the use of such terminology). Good philosophers will find Mr. Shermer's "analysis" of moral terminology insultingly bad. I say *bad* because Mr. Shermer is clearly out of his league with conceptual analysis. I say *insultingly* bad because Mr. Shermer seems to assume that understanding the workings moral terminology should be easy and straight-forward, which suggests the attitude that philosophers who have labored to try to understand these terms in the last 2500 years (e.g., Plato, Kant, J. S. Mill, Rawls) have been just unscientific pedantic fools.

      So what's going on? I don't know but I suspect two things: 1) an attempt to complete a scientistic ideology by trying to normalize the idea that science can deal with morality and values, things that otherwise mean a continuing need for philosophy and religion; that is, to complete science as total knowledge; 2) to sell books to people who are neither good scientists nor good philosophers. I don't like to be negative and cynical, but unfortunately that seems to be the right response.

  11. In a world where so few accept established science, especially when it conflicts with their biases - like the theory of evolution, for example - I'm not sure what hope Mr. Shermer holds for this far flimsier project.

    Moral relativism would be dealt a bigger blow if Mr. Shermer could convince science deniers to accept the evidence for evolution. From there, it is easier to reason one's way into considerations of equality, justice and fairness. Or perhaps his efforts would be better spent in convincing people of the worthiness of science in general, in principal.

  12. I asked above for counter intuitive example of a moral act that's allowed by the human flourishing argument. I think I have one. Imagine that I want to steal money from Scrooge McDuck to give to a very poor family. We can dispute whether that's moral or not, but by the standard of human flourishing, it seems to pass the test.

    So what if I want to steal from Scrooge McDuck to help myself? I'm middle class, so not really going to starve. But $100 should do more good for me than for him. So is that a moral act?

  13. Steve ~
    You anticipated an argument by Michael J. Sandel ("Democracy's discontent"). His version is take a million from Bill Gate's (won't even notice it is missing) and give $10k to 100 people:
    make 100 very happy; no change to Gates. It's a utilitarian argument based upon Shermer's "flourishing".

    A more graphic example (from "trolly-ology") is harvest 5 organs from a living person to help 5 people who need transplants: better to help 5 than 1?

  14. Tom D., right. Or you could look at the Singer/Unger type arguments that we're morally culpable if we do nothing to alleviate dire poverty. Except that he seems to think inaction should be considered morally neutral. OK, I don't know that Singer and Unger are right, but surely their arguments need to be refuted rather than axiomatically ruled out.

    My guess is that as far as morals go, Shermer and I are fairly close. And if he called his rules heuristics that tend to work well, I wouldn't have a problem. But pretending that these rules of thumb are leading to a science of morality doesn't make much sense. "Ask first"? So killing Hitler in the '40s would have been immoral since he wouldn't have approved. It's just one of those rules of thumb that works well until it doesn't. Not really science.

  15. “Given that moral principles must be founded on something natural instead of supernatural…” entails

    “moral principles must be founded.”

    I think this is plain false. “Y is the foundation of morality” is a moral statement. If we accept the rule then it needs a foundation, itself a moral statement. We have an infinite regress. There’s nothing special about the word “gods” in the Euthyphro, the Euthyphro depends on the meaning of morality (or “piety” or “holiness”) and “gods” can readily be substituted:

    “Is it good because Y dictates it, or does Y dictate it because it is good”?

    But allowing that moral principles must be founded doesn't get you out of the woods. Moral principles must be founded, or what? You could answer that the “or what” is ontological: “or morals don’t exist”. Or you could argue that the “or what” is methodological: “without a foundation we cannot construct a system of morality”.

    The ontological response doesn't support the next stage in your argument. That there must be X tells you nothing about X other than “it founds morality”. It does not tell you that X is known, knowable, or even that we can coherently speculate on it. Saying that we know it is not the supernatural, then, does not even gently lead towards its identification with evolution/human flourishing/whatever. Your argument here is a bit like saying “well the foundation of morality is certainly not Marmite, so it must be Vegemite”.

    Now a nice, complete system of morality would need some base axiomatic assumptions which were “known”. The methodological response does support the next stage of your argument. But there is no contradiction in supposing that you have axioms and morality doesn't exist: what you’re describing with a “system of morality” is a “system of morality” not morality.

    Your attempts to objectively ground morality are doomed to failure.

    Doomed to failure and entirely useless. You seem to have fallen for the common error that to criticize a moral statement you must be in a position to furnish your opponent with a complete and authoritative alternative system of morals. You need to establish a complete and authoritative system of morals to offer proof of a particular moral stance, you do not need to establish a complete and authoritative system to offer a refutation of a particular moral stance. And you can use science to offer a refutation without pretending that science gives you sufficient basis for a complete and authoritative system of morals.

    Take the example at the end of your piece. The argument , as any specific moral injunction does, mixes moral and factual assertions. In this case the factual assertion, that someone is a witch, is simply false and, so, the statement “we should burn her because she is a witch” is false: there is no need to say what we should do with witches or even argue that burning witches is wrong. “We should always burn witches” may even be true and the statement “we should burn her because she is a witch” is false. Indeed your own system of morality gives an argument that we should always burn witches. Witches are people who put spells on others, causing illness and death. So if a witch existed the flourishing of those around her would be seriously diminished and burning her would increase human flourishing.

  16. Hi Mr. Shermer,

    I have what I hope are some constructive challenges to your efforts from an interesting point of view. As a person with Tourette Syndrome my experience of morality has been very different, and yet of the same kind as everyone else's.

    First let me say that your image of the connection between morality and evolution is muddled. If as you say,

    "...the survival and flourishing of the individual is the foundation of values and morals..."

    ...than this is not a way of phrasing it that is compatible with the theory of evolution. Evolution acts on populations, not individuals. Individuals are what carry genetic differences that can affect morality, but those will tend to act as biasing agents on individual behavior. The mind is a network and when you look at individual bits they will alter that network in subtle ways that make you appeal to System One and System Two.

    With that fix to your concepts in mind I guess part of my issue is that when considering the "Is-Ought" dichotomy, at what point are we calling something completely different, "Morality"? You say,

    "First, morality is derived from the Latin moralitas, or “manner, character, and proper behavior.” Morality has to do with how you act toward others."

    ...and I respond that if morality is a function of populations of individuals, and I believe that it is, the focus of it in an ultimate sense cannot be for individuals. Challenging you with my own condition, it has been described as an “illness of the observer” (1) since the greatest trauma to individuals with TS is the perception of others. So I have to say that from my perspective morality has always been about enforcing group sameness on individuals. Think birds preening thier feathers as an analogy. You need to get rid of the "odd one that does not fit in" and the only way to really change the moral landscape is to be the new "king of the hill" in your societal niche for a bit.

    1. "A Jangling Journey:Life with Tourette Syndrome"

  17. So, let me clarify here, Dr. Shermer.

    When Dr. Pigliucci asked you (and I'm paraphrasing here):

    'Do you understand the difference between an Evolutionary Biologist and a Mathematician?'

    You are responding with:

    'No, I do not. Also, here is my idea for a book, to make it absolutely clear that I do not understand that difference.'

    I undestand that, perhaps, you do not intend for your response to read this way.

    Would you care to try again? And this time perhaps try directly addressing Dr. Pigliucci's point?

    1. I'm enthralled by how contentious this science/morality issue is, even among like-minded intellectuals.

      Shermer pointed out that, like anything else, morality is improved and better understood through the application of science.

      If I understand Pigliucci correctly here, I think he means to say it makes no sense to apply science to mathematics whereas it makes perfect sense to apply science to biology. I agree, but that is only because math is a system of logic that begins with empirically derived premises/axioms and then no longer needs requires external feedback to continue. Morality on the other hand is a tangible, real-world thing entirely dependent on the conditions of the physical world. When seen this way, Pigliucci's analogy does well to illuminate Shermer's conclusion rather than his own!

  18. But Randy Thornhill says rape is adaptive! Put that in your Pop Ev Psych pipe and smoke it, Shermer!

  19. >Why does survival and flourishing matter morally? Because it is the basis of the evolution of all life on earth through natural selection.


    Evolution by natural selection is a theory about how we got here. It is completely value-neutral, just like the (true) phrase "I got home by bus today" is completely value-neutral.

    Survival and flourishing matter because they are terminal values for humans, full stop. They're like axioms.

  20. "Why does money matter morally? Because it leads to a higher standard of living. Why does a higher standard of living matter morally? Because it increases the probability that an individual will survive and flourish. Why does survival and flourishing matter morally? Because it is the basis of the evolution of all life on earth through natural selection."

    Why should we care what the basis is for evolution, in terms of morality?

    In the end, that's what all such things come down to. You can point out logically and empirically that A leads to B leads to C . . . leads to Z, but that final question -- why should we give a damn? -- is not and cannot be a scientific question.

    This would not be so hard for some people to accept if they could just free themselves from the false dichotomy of a scientific morality or an authoritative religious morality. In fact, all morality is based on human value judgment. A scientific morality is impossible, and religious authority only exists because people make moral judgments in its favor. That entirely subjective and human judgment requires no outside support, either from God or from science.

  21. "Why does money matter morally? Because it leads to a higher standard of living. Why does a higher standard of living matter morally? Because it increases the probability that an individual will survive and flourish. Why does survival and flourishing matter morally? Because it is the basis of the evolution of all life on earth through natural selection."

    Why should we care what the basis is for evolution, in terms of morality?

    In the end, that's what all such things come down to. You can point out logically and empirically that A leads to B leads to C . . . leads to Z, but that final question -- why should we give a damn? -- is not and cannot be a scientific question.

    This would not be so hard for some people to accept if they could just free themselves from the false dichotomy of a scientific morality or an authoritative religious morality. In fact, all morality is based on human value judgment. A scientific morality is impossible, and religious authority only exists because people make moral judgments in its favor. That entirely subjective and human judgment requires no outside support, either from God or from science.


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