We are living in the most moral period of our species' history. Best-selling author Michael Shermer's most accomplished and ambitious book to date demonstrates how the scientific way of thinking has made people, and society as a whole, more moral. Ever since the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment thinkers consciously applied the methods of science to solve social and moral problems. The experimental methods and analytical reasoning of science created the modern world of liberal democracies, civil rights and civil liberties, equal justice under the law, open political and economic borders, free minds and free markets, and prosperity the likes of which no human society in history has ever enjoyed. More people in more places have greater rights, freedoms, liberties, literacy, education, and prosperity - the likes of which no human society in history has ever enjoyed. In this provocative and compelling book - that includes brief histories of freedom rights, women's rights, gay rights, and animal rights, along with considerations of the nature of evil and moral regress - Shermer explains how abstract reasoning, rationality, empiricism, skepticism - scientific ways of thinking - have profoundly changed the way we perceive morality and, indeed, move us ever closer to a more just world.
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©2015 Michael Shermer (P)2015 Michael Shermer
"...It's an honest, clear account of morality and justice that makes those theoretical concepts come alive as ubiquitous real-life choices." (Jared Diamond, Pulitzer-prize-winning author of the best-selling books Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse, and The World Until Yesterday)
"A thrilling and fascinating book, which could change your view of human history and human destiny." (Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University)
"Science can't, by itself, tell you right from wrong. But there's no better tool for the purpose than the style of moral philosophy that's inspired by science, and Michael Shermer is a master of that style." (Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion)
I'm a maths and physics teacher in Dublin, Ireland. I listen exclusively to non-fiction, but have a broad range of interests within that.
I found the subject matter very interesting, but I think it's largely a retelling of Steven Pinker's 'Better Angles of our Nature". Personally, I preferred Better Angles, but that may be because I listened to that one first. Also, I feel this one shows the author's biases in the last few chaptets.
The moral arc of the title is Peter Singers concept of a series of concentric "circles of care" with self & family in the centre, moving outward to friends, colleagues, tribe, Nation, other groups, other humans, animals, the environment etc.
This book sets out to establish two main claims: The first is that human history is a story of moral as well as intellectual progress - an upward and outward extending of the moral arc. The second is that our moral progress is a consequence of our intellectual progress, especially in Science.
For the first, Michael Shermer is very much extending the arguments put forward by Stephen Pinker in "The Better Angels of our Nature", for which this book is a kind of sequel, and he addresses (I think convincingly), the objections raised by sceptics such as John Gray, as to evidence of our moral progress.
Shermer convincingly goes on to argue that advances in Science and technology, involving better education methods, higher literacy, greater cognitive conceptual ability (Flynn effect), lower child mortality, improved physical and psychological health etc. and the spread of Enlightenment values have resulted in an upward curving of the moral arc., He takes great pains to show how an "ought" can be derived from an "is" (Humes fork), and thus moral progress is inevitably linked to progress in understanding. Indeed, he even goes so far as to assert that evil is the result of factual error, corrected through Science, and Voltaire's "Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities" becomes something of a central theme.
His thesis is only slightly undermined by the fact that many thousands of animals are maimed, mutilated, and killed each year, to satisfy our curiosity in the name of Science, whose mechanistic modelling of biological organisms may assuage the obvious cognitive dissonance aroused. Unfortunately, in the chapter on "A Moral Science of Animal Rights", he only tangentially addresses this obvious contradiction.
More disappointingly, having written one of the best secular books on the biology/psychology of religion in "The Believing Brain", his chapter on "Why Religion is Not the Source of Moral Progress" is a most disappointing "straw man" argument. For Shermer religion is clearly a case of believed "absurdity", leading to atrocity.
But was religion really the cause of World War I, because German soldiers had "Gott Mit Uns" on their belt buckles? Was the American Civil War really a religious war because Christians fought on both sides?
I have to admit, I looked forward to a nuanced examination of the evolutionary rationale for religion such as David Sloan Wilson gives in "Darwin's Cathedral", or analysis such as Joshua Greene's "Moral Tribes". For, having convincingly established our "moral progress" over the course of history, Shermer's case against religion seems largely to rest on the barbarity of ancient laws and peoples in the Bible judged by modern standards. Why didn't the Bible forbid slavery? Why did Yahweh encourage so much genocide? Wouldn't an alternative 10 commandments be better? Leviticus especially is highlighted as full of cruel and unusual laws, executing recalcitrant teenagers and ways to sell your children as slaves.
Great stuff, if the debate was whether the Bible is a rule book written by God! However, that's not the issue. As it has all the hallmarks of being written by humans - about God, one might expect it to be full of messy contradictions, outdated tribal mores, in places seeming nonsense, and in places timeless wisdom. I felt I was trapped in the worst sort of fundamentalist bible class, with no attempt to understand, interpret or explain within a historical or geographical context.
But, all this theologising in the book is beside the point, which is whether religion has been a source of moral progress. Greene in his book, usefully differentiates between me vs. us, and us vs. them. In most cases religion promotes prosocial "us over me" behaviours but too often exacerbates "us vs. them" sectarian divisions, while Wilson compares harsh desert conditions where danger and competition may favour harsh religions promoting strong group tribalism (think IS), with more liberal religions thriving in less perilous, more affluent temperate zones. I really wanted Shermer to have provided some similar level of intelligent objective analysis.
Moreover, the missing central element of the whole book is cultural evolution. While Shermer does a great job explaining the dilemma of collaboration vs. exploitation in terms of genes, it is surely through a process of cultural evolution - the spreading of knowledge, skills, values and ideas and the competition and selection between them, that we are evolving ethically. Of this he says almost nothing.
I feel I've been quite critical, and overall it is a well researched book, containing lots of insights, research data and theory, covering a wide remit. I really liked the contrapuntal readings by the author and Melody Zownir, a technique which has worked well for Richard Dawkins in his audiobooks. In the end, the message is optimistic and celebratory. As we widen the global network of relationships, and progress in science, education and literacy, our moral arc will continue to broaden and curve upwards. The evidence is overwhelming that we are becoming more reasonable, ethically aware and humane, showing concern for the welfare not only of our own species, but for non human animals, ecology and the planet.
This is not Shermer's best work.More original material would have improved this work rather than much of it being a compilation of the work of others. The first half especially seemed to drag in interminably. There was some improvement in the second half and it became less noisome.I would sincerely recommend that Shermer employ a professional to read his work aloud. The voice of the female performer was all but indistinguishable from that of Siri on the iPhone. This was especially evident in her inability to pronounce several words properly.
"Us is getting bigger, them is getting smaller"
This book tries to fill in some of the whys in Steven Pinker's book "Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined". The author starts off by defining morality as the "flourishing and surviving of sentient beings". It's not a perfect definition but in general the listener can latch on to it.
The author does go beyond Pinker's book and tries to fill in more of the reasons why violence has declined by looking at the facts from a morality point of view. Shermer knows it is more profitable to realize that man is the measure of all things and that our values are not etched in stone and aren't externally given to people, but are derived by people.
The continuous contextual approach (inductive) is almost always better than a binary, absolute approach (deductive). Using reason, science and observation can make us understand and appreciate the flourishing and surviving of others who aren't necessarily in our tribal group, be it kin, friend, community, or other self selected but always exclusionary group which divides 'us' from 'them' in some manner and leads to the widening of our moral sphere.
He looks at how our moral sphere is constantly becoming more inclusive. Slavery is the ultimate us against them. The realization of the wrongness of slavery and its abolition was a slow continuous process. For those who derive their values from external sources, the revealed religion sources just get it wrong on slavery. He considers in detail the widening of the moral sphere for less misogynistic attitudes towards women, the slow process of no longer making gays the other and even considers some of the issues in speciesism (the author is a specieist, as I am too, but I understand the issues).
It's hard for me not to fully embrace a book were I admire an author as much as I admire Michael Shermer, I read his articles frequently, I love his debates on the internet, he quotes accurately from Gene Rodenberry and Star Trek, he seems to love the same episodes of Twilight Zone that I do, and he quotes Michio Kaku extensively and other such things that I love too.
But, he doesn't stick to the narrative and falls off the track. For example, I am not sure why he uses Piketty and his "Capital in the 21st Century" to try to refute Piketty's own thesis. Inequalities are real in the world (and within America) and have been getting worse. He seems to think corporations aren't a threat to moral development and represent moral good. For me, corporations are not people, and can be a force of bad. He had a lot of things like that in this book which only gets in the way of his own thesis.
It's a minor thing, but I can't help myself. The author says "Alan Turing is agruably the most important man for the Allied's victory in WW II". Alan Turing is a hero of mine, but I don't think that statement is defensible. Betchley Park was a cooperative, and the Polish Mathematicians (God Bless the Poles!), cracked the enigma code first. For a marvelous audible book on the subject read, "Seizing the Enigma". Also, he states "most people agree that for WW I both sides are to blame". I would strongly recommend Max Hasting's recent book, "Catastrophe 1914" for a refutation of that statement.
I would say, Pinker's book, "Better Angels of our Nature" is my favorite book. It opened my eyes to how the world has improved since the dawn of time and how our moral sphere keeps getting wider (less of us against them and more of us). Most of what is good in Shermer's book is in Pinker's book. I realize Pinker's book is very technical. This book is not. Even though the author does ramble (much like this book review!), this book is a fine substitute for Pinker's book for those who don't love sets of tables, long historical reviews, an author who keeps on his narrative and summaries of scientific papers.
"The arc not only bends towards justice but it contributes light."
Enjoyable, informing and entertaining throughout. Will reinforce and elucidate many of the ideas you have been exposed, questioned or were curious about as well many you never heard.
A learning experience to be remembered and passed to others.
Great audio book, wish Shermer had more audio though. This audio book is split between him and a woman/AI sounding Cortana reading the book.
This was a fantastic and enlightening read! It really gave me confidence that, despite the news, Earth is improving in regards to violence.
"Thoughtful but questionable data and thesis"
Thoughtful but questionable data and thesis.
A collection of studies and subjective conclusions. Conclusions do not take into account that the "current moral arc" is the result of countervailing force and threats of violence. The author appears oblivious to his personal cherry picking. Take a closer look at reality.
I think Michael Shermer is a decent person with a good outlook on life. Had this book been my first introduction into this topic, I think it would have been a fine primer. But it wasn't. This book is largely based on the work of Prof. Steven Pinker. It isn't an exact copy, mind you, but is focuses more on a single aspect covered by Prof. Pinker in his book "The Better Angels of Human Nature", a tome of a book that takes us from pre-history to modern day violence. Thus one would expect that this particular focus would yield even greater detail into the target issue of science and the enlightenment; alas it does not. Again, it is a fine book on its own and it does approach things in a Shermer-esce novel way, it just falls flat against its competitor and, importantly, predecessor.
I think going into far greater detail, perhaps in regards to the biological and evolutionary evidence for empathy and how the scientific approach to life alter our course would have been good. Ultimately I felt this was a pale rendition of one part of Prof. Pinker's book.
I think Michael Shermer did a fine job in reading his book. Nothing earth shattering but more certainly more than merely competent.
I think this book would be best recommended to those who really like Michael Shermer and have yet to pick up Prof. Pinker's work. A nice way to edge into the topic. I imagine that was one of the goals for the book: a gateway drug as it were.
"Thoughtful but with some flaws"
Shermer presents a survey of moral attitudes over time arguing, quite convincingly, that morals are improving with time and scientific advancement. There are chapters focusing on different topic areas tied together under the theme of a moral arc. While generally convincing to this listener, there are some flaws in his conclusions. For example, in the chapter on animal rights, the value of these magnificent sentient beings is laid out and the horror of factory farms pointed out. His conclusion, buy meat from local farms. As if that makes much of a difference to the exploited and killed animals. Shermer is behind the moral arc in that case.
"thorough and uplifting"
Shermer always manages to combine thorough and well sequenced research and logic with infectious humanism
"clear, concise, responsive"
absolutely fantastic. extremely thorough, and most importantly, an encouraging work of inspiration. do yourself a favor and absorb this information.
"Great, insightful book."
Many great points. I particularly liked the compare and contrast between punitive and restorative justice.
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