If you’d been born a few thousand years ago, before the invention of the state, every decade you’d have stood a 1-in-20 chance of a violent death. Today, your skull might be on display in a museum somewhere with an arrow hole through the cranium. Fortunately those odds have decreased a hundredfold for modern Americans. Martin Luther King Jr. might have been on to something when in 1965 he told a crown in Montgomery, Ala., “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Michael Shermer — the founding editor of Skeptic magazine and a columnist for Scientific American — argues in his ambitious new book of history, psychology and political science, “The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom,” that long-term moral progress is evident and that it’s been led by scientific ways of thinking. Advances in morality (which Shermer defines as allowing others to flourish) are easy to document: For a long while, rates of violence have declined and basic rights have been granted to more and more people: blacks, women, gays and now animals.
Shermer writes that the road to progress was paved by a rationality that increased through the Enlightenment and then the Industrial Revolution. Our advancing ability to think abstractly has led us to take others’ perspectives and to recognize the mutual benefits of cooperation. Science destroyed false beliefs, such as the notion that Jews cause plagues or that some women are witches. Logic led us to see the effectiveness of restorative over retributive punishment — rehab over cruelty (although the penal system still has a ways to go on this one). And increased facility with numbers has allowed for more advanced market economics binding nations’ interests together.
As a prominent critic of superstition, Shermer is predictably harsh on religion, blaming it for the Crusades and Inquisitions (fair) but also the Civil War and World War I (hmm). Sure, he says, we’re taught to “love thy neighbor,” but what the Bible originally meant by “neighbor” extended only to one’s kin and kind. “The Bible is one of the most immoral works in all literature,” he proposes, offering its 2 billion readers instruction on how to beat their slaves and sell their virgin daughters. Some religious leaders have come out against slavery or for gay rights, but Shermer says they’re usually late to the party; he remarks on “religion’s lag behind the cultural curve toward justice.”
Shermer offers a set of reasonable principles to replace the Ten Commandments, which he finds lacking — particularly the first four, which violate First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and religion by restricting behavior such as using the Lord’s name in vain. His replacements highlight, for example, the Golden Rule and the importance of forgiveness. Pressed to condense the list into one takeaway, he offers this: “Try to expand the moral sphere.”
“The Moral Arc” includes psychological studies and sociological statistics (with lots of line graphs) but also relatable anecdotes and asides. Shermer finds lessons in an episode of “Star Trek” (the power of mercy) as well as on a trip he took to the Galápagos Islands (the complexity of ecological tradeoffs) and finds inspiration in sculptures of strong women carved by his aunt that sit near him as he writes.
After chapters documenting the history and methods of moral progress, Shermer ends the book by outlining his Libertarian vision of a world defined by proprietary city-states and “conscious capitalism,” where benevolent mayor-CEOs steward the pursuit of happiness.
Although it’s well researched and entertaining, the tome does have a tendency to tangent. And there are a few non sequiturs — for instance, in his muddled take on free will. More damningly, many of his larger points were argued — better — in Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” a work Shermer praises as an “inspiration” for his own.
Shermer also overstates his case, failing to acknowledge the limitations of science in the moral realm. How does one empirically settle disputes about what constitutes human “flourishing”? Perhaps he sees no limits to science. He suggests that pro-lifers can be brought around with biology lessons — a possible insult to the many educated pro-lifers.
Tellingly, Shermer advocates moral realism: “morality is real, discoverable, ‘out there’ in nature.” Can a microscope or experiment locate human rights or reveal whether loyalty is a higher virtue than honesty, or prioritize my interests over yours? No; ethical judgments are inherently subjective. And attributing subjective preferences to the cosmos — locating morality “out there” — is a form of magical thinking. It seems there’s slack in Shermer’s skepticism.
Despite some forgivable imperfections in execution, Shermer fights an important fight. We may never find a formula for virtue, but using reason and evidence we can approach a world more people can live with. In some small way, this book bends the moral arc just a bit toward justice.
Hutson is a science writer and the author of “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane.”
The Moral Arc
How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom
Henry Holt: 560 pp., $32