Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Michael Shermer: The Science of Good & Evil:
Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule

Our group was strongly split on this book. Most people liked it a lot, but a couple people intensely disliked it.

Kirby really liked the book and agreed with it. However he thought the first 4 chapters were a little annoying and rather weak, while the rest of the book was much better. Rich, too, very much liked the book and enjoyed reading it. However he commented that the book was "not really science", or perhaps was only "soft science". Barbara and Kevin S. both liked the book, and Kevin felt the author had a very good writing style.

John had mixed feelings about it, and in fact remarked that he both liked and disliked the book. He felt Shermer rather laborously made the case that we can be good without God, which he (and others of us) view as pretty obvious. John said the book didn't excite him.

Rosie said "I really disliked this book." She thought Shermer was just expressing his own opinions and calling it science, and that he was putting forward a moral theory of a sort of utopian society. Shermer didn't seem to recognize that there are elites running things who have their own interests mostly in mind. Rosie also didn't care for his writing style, and said she was "so disappointed" with the book.

Scott also very strongly disliked and disapproved of the book. While admitting that there were some things in it of interest, and even some things he agreed with (such as Shermer's position on the abortion issue), he still felt the overall ethical and social theory in the book was totally mistaken from beginning to end. Shermer claims that his theory of "provisional ethics" is based on evolutionary theory. But what has "evolved" biologically and culturally is not his theory, but simply a social animal, with a need to cooperate with others in order to survive, and with the brain/mental agencies (such as the conscience) which can serve to promote such cooperation and morality. (And that much is the basis for many different ethical theories.) In practice Shermer's "provisional morality" usually just amounts to the dominant views in his rather privileged sector of contemporary American bourgeois society. The exploitation of workers and whole countries does not exist in his imagination, and is therefore not a moral or political problem for him. The only moral issues he directly addresses (abortion, pornography, etc.) are ones where there is disagreement within his bourgeois milieu, and none of what he claims as "provisional" and "scientific" morality ever departs from this one libertarian stream of bourgeois convention that he has always upheld, even when he was a fan of Ayn Rand.

Scott had a great number of specific criticisms, such as against Shermer's logically incoherent "solution" to the supposed problem of free will. Shermer says free will is in logical opposition to determinism, but that he will nevertheless regard them both as true. In actuality, free will and determinism are both true, but there is no real logical opposition them. Free will simply means we can make choices. Of course there are reasons why we make those choices, or in other words, causes for those choices. Who would want it otherwise?? Our free will derives simply from the fact that we are part of material causal chains which include both our internal choosing mechanisms and the reasons/causes we have for making particular choices. The strange thing about Shermer's discussion of free will is that he presents the basically correct theory of Daniel Dennett, but appears to be unable to appreciate it.

Scott felt that Shermer actually employs a different ethical technique than the one he claims to. He adduces several rules with which to judge specific moral positions, such as the "Golden Rule", the "happiness principle", the "liberty principle", and the "moderation principle". He uses these principles to determine the moral correctness of the right of women to choose to have an abortion, for example. But he fails to notice what he is doing! This is a rule-based system of ethics, not really any "provisional" or "evolutionary" ethics, such as he claims. (These rules do not come from "evolution", but simply from what people in his milieu believe.)

On top of this, Shermer fails to see that his small handful of moral rules are themselves problematical in several ways. First, they can sometimes be in conflict with each other. Second, they are themselves not as absolute and rational as he seems to think they are. For example, the "liberty principle" states that one should "always seek liberty with someone else's liberty in mind, and never seek liberty when it leads to someone else's loss of liberty." (p. 188) But this means that it would be wrong for a slave to seek his freedom, because that freedom for him could only come at a cost of less freedom for the slaveowner (who would lose the freedom to exploit the slave)! Similarly his "moderation principle" would presumably mean that it would be wrong to go to war against the Nazis, even when they were murdering people by the millions in gas chambers. In reality, the means of struggle we have to use against what is wrong are often determined for us by those who are in the wrong. If imperialists attack another country, the people of that country have to fight back against them. To argue for "moderation" in their response to aggression is in reality to oppose their resistance, and to support those who are committing the aggression.

What all this means, says Scott, is that these principles that Shermer adduces must themselves be judged in light of higher principles. And, at the top of everything is this prime principle: what is good, right and just is that which is in the common, collective interests of the people. (True, in class society, where there is no general uniformity of interests, things are a bit more complicated, but group interests are still the essential starting place in ethics. Shermer might have been able to figure this out for himself if he had applied another science to the subject, namely linguistics, and focused on the meaning of the word 'good'.)

(If Scott wants to say more about everything that he views as wrong in Shermer's book, he'll have to write a separate essay!)

One thing about this book that all of us (pro or con) agreed on: It certainly led to a serious and enthusiastic discussion, with everybody participating. Our group average for the book, on a scale of 0 to 10, was 6.0.

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