Book review: ‘The Moral Arc,’ science as a force for good, by Michael Shermer

Feb 3, 2015

Image credit: Henry Holt

By  and Michael Shermer

‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told a crowd of protesters in Montgomery, Ala., in March 1965. King’s use of that quote stands as one of history’s more inspiring pieces of oratory, acknowledging that victories in the fight for social justice don’t come as frequently as we might like, while offering hope that progress will come eventually.

But is the contention empirically true?

Michael Shermer, a professor, columnist for Scientific American, and longtime public champion of reason and rationality, takes on this question and more. In “The Moral Arc,” Shermer aims to show that King is right so far about human civilization and that, furthermore, science and reason are the key forces driving us to a more moral world. It is at once an admirably ambitious argument and an exceedingly difficult one to prove.

First, Shermer — defining moral progress as “improvement in the survival and flourishing of sentient beings” — needs to make a case that we humans are, in fact, moving toward such an improvement despite terrorist attacks on cartoonists, Islamic State beheadings, Taliban massacres of schoolchildren and police shootings of innocent civilians, among other seemingly daily atrocities. As he notes in the preface, when they heard he was working on a book about moral progress, “most people thought I was hallucinatory. A quick rundown of the week’s bad news would seem to confirm the diagnosis.”

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15 comments on “Book review: ‘The Moral Arc,’ science as a force for good, by Michael Shermer

  • The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice

    I would would expect this to be true. Injustice favours a small group. Justice favours everyone.

    Over the majority should be expected to prevail, simply because more people prefer it.

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  • 2
    Stephen says:

    Goodness is the greatest force for good. We should continue developing tools like science and share ideas so we are more knowledgeable but we can do a lot to improve the world with the tools we have.

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  • Well said, Stephen!

    defining moral progress as “improvement in the survival and flourishing of sentient beings”

    I can’t see how science ( which leads to advancements in technology) is doing this. Humans are using advanced technology and scientific progress to trash our planet.

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  • 4
    Stephen says:

    Democracy — or “reason” — hasn’t kept pace with technology. It should have been as big as an election campaign, a huge national debate: “scientists have invented a new type of material, called plastic. If we decide to start using it, some predict that we will end up with an island of plastic in the sea and nanoparticles interfering with the chemistry of marine organisms. On the other hand, it has enormous potential. Should we use plastic? or continue as we are, without it.”

    There is a movement that trains scientists to do this sort of thinking. I think it is good, but I like the idea of the whole population voting on science and technology.

    Because, who can we blame for the island of plastic (and other, potentially more serious environmental issues)? If Britain had voted for it, in full knowledge of the facts, I could at least say that we were guilty. As it is? It is hard to say. We slid into it.

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  • 5
    Stephen says:

    Only when we have what rev. King advocated, or what Homer discovered during his vision in the Simpsons Movie: the sense that “other people matter too”, that they are like us. It is an innate natural sense, but there are a lot of things that can obscure it.

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  • Material comfort is the key. A good shelter, enough food, bread and games, you need neither religion nor violence.

    Take slavery in Plato’s times. Perfectly normal for Plato, who was himself captured as a slave once. But what else could they do with war prisoners ? Certainly not build a house for them, lock them in and feed them. If not making them do the hard work for free, the only solution was slaughtering them. So slavery was the “moral” thing to do at that time. To run a humane prison system, you need wealth and food excess.

    I think the main reason why we can proudly consider ourselves as more humane than our ancestors is because we are richer. I see no reason why we would have suddenly grown nicer. Certainly not genetics. Probably not philosophy.

    As Bertolt Brecht wrote in the Three Penny Opera :

    You gentlemen who think you have a mission

    To purge us of the seven deadly sins

    Should first sort out the basic food position

    Then start your preaching, that’s where it begins

    You lot, who preach restraint and watch your waist as well

    Should learn for all time how the world is run

    However much you twist, whatever lies you tell

    Food is the first thing, morals follow on

    So first make sure that those, who now are starving

    Get proper helpings, when we all start carving

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  • 7
    fadeordraw says:

    So much depends upon what is considered moral. Defining moral progress as “improvement in the survival and flourishing of sentient beings” does bring into the equation non-homo sapiens, sentient beings. I’m not sure that the experience of our fellow creatures on the planet would demonstrate such moral progress; i.e., improvements to their survival and flourishing; indeed their diminishment has been very much associated with improvements to our survival and flourishing. Though there is evidence that we are not doing as much violence to one another as we did in the past.

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  • Well surely doubling human life expectancy, drastically lowering child mortality rates, engineering chops to feed millions more people, and eradicating horrible diseases all ““improvement in the survival and flourishing of sentient beings”

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  • 9
    mralstoner says:

    Michael Shermer believes in fairy tales. “Progress will come eventually” is a myth.

    1 – A historical perspective would immediately caution against belief in moral progress, but rather, promote belief in civilisational rise and fall. Too often, civilisations collapse from within, after they become so rich, fat, lazy, and disunified that they are easy prey for a fit, lean, hungry, cohesive and aggressive tribe outside the gates.

    2 – A quick glance at the relative strengths of China versus the USA, shows that the USA has all the signs of a collapsing civilisation, whereas China has all the signs of a rising power.

    Conclusion: the future belongs to the Chinese, unless we get our act together very quickly – and that doesn’t seem likely. So, moral progress for humanity, as a whole, will depend on the benevolence, or otherwise, of our new Chinese overlords. Does that sound like progress to you? Or does that sound like a precarious position? No prizes for guessing which. Just ask the Tibetans, Uyghurs, and people of Hong Kong, if they are happy with their new overlords.

    Forget Shermer, and read George Orwell instead, who has a stronger grip on reality: “The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions — racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war — which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action.”

    The Western world is about to get a lesson, not in moral progress, but in group fitness and group selection.
    China’s Secret 100-Year Strategy Exposed:

    The take-home lesson: Chinese goods are not cheap, and free-trade is not always a win-win, if your trade partner does not have peaceful intentions. Evolution does not favour pollyanna dreamers.

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  • China is just as vulnerable to civilizational collapse as the USA.
    In our globalized economy no nation state is safe from collapse because ecology is the elephant in the room.
    Shermer (and Pinker) preach the gospel of “better angels of our nature” and moral progress, citing stats on declining war dead and casualties in human populations as proof of humanity’s ‘moral’ advancement but they fail to link this human flourishing to the rampant violence inflicted on our life support systems that is necessary to maintain this advancement. For Shermer, Pinker and their ilk, it’s all about economy … never about ecology which is the real bottom line.

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  • I can’t see how science ( which leads to advancements in technology)
    is doing this. Humans are using advanced technology and scientific
    progress to trash our planet.

    Science got us into the climate change mire but science is the only rational way out of it. The more we know, through science, about our origins and our place in the natural world the more urgent the need for science to show that further technological fixes are only getting us deeper into the mire.

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  • 12
    mralstoner says:

    Yeah, good points. I’m pro environment, but agnostic on climate change. But it’s a mute point anyway, because China seems to have an “ends justifies the means” mindset i.e. they will pollute the rivers and skys to death, on their quest to become a regional/global superpower. I suppose they think they can clean it all up once they are the new superpower. Westerners, likewise seem fixed in their ways, and can’t give up our polluting ways anytime soon.

    China’s power is concentrated in a small band of Communist leaders, hence that power can easily be taken over, and taken in any direction by the next wannabe dictator. But, as for the key ingredients of group fitness (namely, a racially homogeneous population, a physically healthy population, and a cohesive population working in one direction) China is strides ahead of the USA which is failing on all those fronts, becoming a lazy, diverse, dispirited rabble and economic basket case.

    I’m sure some of what Shermer and Pinker says is true, but like you said, it’s a blinkered view of reality. It doesn’t take into account all the variables that sustain both life and civilisation.

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  • …if your trade partner does not have peaceful intentions.

    I couldn’t read beyond the paranoia of the first paragraph from freebeacon’s terrified xenophobia. A “secret” plan to modernize aye? Those crafty orientals are trying to trick us, you say. Because America paid heed to liberal intellectuals who ruined racial pride and leader worship, you claim.

    A superior explanation is available from Jim Jefferies; Call it a day America, China is comin to get ya’ available here:

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  • 14
    mralstoner says:

    LOL. The video is quite accurate, and only ruined by the last 5 seconds of moronic fatalism.

    And it’s not “xenophobia” if China really is plotting to take down the USA. And they surely are. But this knowledge is not for you. Go back to sleep. Sweet dreams. Dream of Michael Shermer, sunshine and lollipops. Everything will be better in the morning.

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  • I wonder when Michael Shermer composed his subtitle, “Truth, Justice, and Freedom,” if he mused, “Hmmm…sounds familiar..Where have I heard that before?” It’s Superman, Mike,…”Truth, Justice and the American Way.”

    If the arc of morality is controlled by science, what is controlling the arc of science? Predictions foresee Science ushering in a post-human future where our successors, virtual-reality Nimnools -geneticized, bionicized, nano-technologized beyond recognition – might well ask, “What the hell did archaic humans mean by “morality?”

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