5.0 out of 5 stars good read
It is a very interesting read if you like evolutionary biology and psychology. Science and evolution is expanded to explain morality and ethics.
Published 6 months ago by Jennifer
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars ...But is it "science" simply because it is naturalistic?
I'm torn between the naysayers and the wide-eyed on this one. First, I am a naturalist who believes, like Shermer, that ethics doesn't need god. Unlike Shermer, though, I don't think that this is anything close to a 'science'. Seeing people conflate 'it's a naturalistic explanation' with 'its a scientific explanation' forgets that science is a process, not an ideology...
Published on Feb 8 2004 by Kevin Currie-Knight
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5.0 out of 5 stars good read,
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This review is from: The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule (Paperback)It is a very interesting read if you like evolutionary biology and psychology. Science and evolution is expanded to explain morality and ethics.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars ...But is it "science" simply because it is naturalistic?,
This review is from: The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule (Hardcover)I'm torn between the naysayers and the wide-eyed on this one. First, I am a naturalist who believes, like Shermer, that ethics doesn't need god. Unlike Shermer, though, I don't think that this is anything close to a 'science'. Seeing people conflate 'it's a naturalistic explanation' with 'its a scientific explanation' forgets that science is a process, not an ideology. Yes, Shermer gives us a naturalistic explanation, but just like most evolutionary psych, it is simply naturalistic "puzzle filling" of what MIGHT have happened, not experimental and falsifiable conjecture that makes for science.
For his part, Shermer does a decent job (so long as we see his as that of a philosopher, not a scientist; Shermer, I think, would protest this). He presents a case for a naturalistic ethic and goes into a fair amount of detail.
Here's the problem: not only has everything here been proposed before by those more apt than Shermer (Mary Midgley, JL Mackie, Steven Pinker, William James) but the things he says here are quite common, and really in need of little defence.
Shermer's point is that moral 'rules' are naturally endowed by evolution (or so it seems) and are provisoinal - they hold for most people, in most situations; they are more like guilelines for action. Okay, I believe it (just as I believed it when the said authors wrote it). But he really doesn't follow this up with what exactly that means. What are 'most people' and what are 'most situations'? Most troublingly, does merely saying 'evolution did it' and showing that homo erectus shared food (thus enforcing altruism by pasing along their genes) really mean that the theory is 'scientific' (even though it is non-emprical albeit good conjecture?)
I am giving the book a three-star rating, though. Truth be told, I enjoyed it and think its judgments (although better defended, say, by Mackie) are sound (and easier to read than Mackie). Particularly if you are into biology and haven't really done much thinking in philosophy, this book is great! Shermer is an entertaining, and widely learned writer (even though I disagree with some details about, say, group selections power to explain).
If a more detailed, less lay-like book is what you are looking for, I'd suggest: Mackie's "Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong", Midgley's "Beast and Man", and even Paul Ehrlich's "Human Natures".
If you've read and liked this book, read Ridley's "Origins of Virtue" and Flanagan's "Problem of the Soul".
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Reasonable Effort,
By A Customer
This review is from: The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule (Hardcover)This is a good overview of how ethics might have originated, but not a particularly good (pun intended) justification of ethical rule. Shermer is always entertaining, but he lacks philosophical rigor. A much better exposition on both can be found in Michael Berumen's: Do No Evil.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Shermer fails in half his mission,
This review is from: The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule (Hardcover)To a large extent, a book like this (like any book that tries to make some case) should be judged by how well the author succeeds in making their case. In The Science of Good and Evil, Shermer attempts to explain at least three basic things:
1. Why we have certain moral attitudes (e.g. altruism) towards members of our own social group.
2. Why we have moral obligations to members outside of our social group.
3. Why #2 above (or for that matter why we're even obligated to care about in-group members) follows from our biological origins and evolution.
Shermer does a relatively decent job in explaining #1 above(though Robert Wright's "The Moral Animal" is FAR superior). He utterly fails in #2 and #3 above however.
Aside from the fact that evolutionary biology gives no reason why people would should care for the well being of out-groups that are competing for resources (especially if our group can kick their group's ass), Shermer runs head first into two seemingly insurmountable problems: The Fact/Value gap (and it's cousin the naturalistic fallacy), and the difference between prescriptive and descriptive ethics.
Shermer attempts to address the claim that without God, moral claims would just be subjective expressions of personal attitude and hence anything would be permissible, since one person's preferences and attitudes are no more objectively valuable than anyone else's.
Shermer argues that morality is grounded in the evolutionary biology of humans, and evolution has generated attitudinal proclivities in humans that have helped our survival as a species (or the survival of our genes, to put it another way). Since such morality is universally based in human biology, then the very nature of humanity would be the objective basis of morality that would still exist even if the idea of God was disposed of.
However, Shermer fails to distinguish betweem "prescriptive" amd "descriptive" ethics. Descriptive ethics merely gives an objective account of moral attitudes and behavior. To say "Jones thinks doing X is immoral" would be an exaple of descriptive ethics, since it just describes a fact about what Jones thinks, rather than saying anything about whether Jones has any actual moral obligation to do X. Prescriptive ethics attempts to prescribe what people ought to do. So a statement like "Jones shouldn't do X, because that would be immoral" would be an example of prescriptive ethics.
Arguing that moral attitudes are a part of human biology is an example of descriptive ethics. It objectively describes something about morality, without talking about what we actually ought to do (i.e. prescriptive thics) in any situation. In other words, so what if the history of evolution has instilled in the vast majority of humans certain moral attitudes? That doesn't say athing about whether I should obey such attitudes or not (assuming one has them). In fact, if we conclude that such attitudes aren't a result of some objective truth regarding right and wrong, but simply the result of countless generations of my genes trying to maintaing their survival, then what good reason is that to respect such attitudes when doing so isn't in one's best interests (e.g. as in when one can steal a large amount of money and get away with it)?
In short, Shermer engages in the naturalitic fallacy: It's natural, therefore it's good. This fallacy is doubly problematic for Shermer since he gives biological reasons for some of our immoral behavior as well. So if both immoral and moral attidues are hardwired in us as humans, why should we follow one instinct when it conflicts with another instinct? Shermer gives no good reason. And in fact, the "fact/value gap" says that descriptions of nonmoral facts acn never result in demonstrating (by itself) what we ought to do or not do.
Then, Shermer makes a giant leap by asserting certain moral values respecting the happiness and liberty of people which he thinks are important, but in no way follow from his evolutionary analysis, nor follow from any other reason he gives. The most he does is "test" the values he proposes by seeing how they work with respect to certain moral issues (abortion, animal rights, etc.). Shermer describes himself as a pretty radical libertarian. What a surprise then that the values he personally espouses (but gives no reason why anyone whould adopt them) produce political results acceptable to a libertarian! Amazing discovery: A libertarian's values entail libertarian conclusions.
In short, Shermer gives no good reason why people should not screw over and exploit others when douing so is in their (or their group's) best interests to do so.
That's not saying there is no reason not to, period. It just says that Shermer's attempt to provide some "sceintific" basis for morality fails.
4.0 out of 5 stars Evolutionary morality.,
THE SCIENCE OF GOOD AND EVIL picks up where HOW WE BELIEVE ended, defining religion as a social institution that "evolved as an integral mechanism of human culture to create and promote myths, to encourage altruism and cooperation, to discourage selfishness and competitiveness, and to reveal the level of commitment to cooperate and reciprocate among members of a community" (p. 7). Shermer divides his book into two parts, first examining how morality evolved as a species-wide mechanism for survival to enforce the rules of human interactions before there were such things as state laws and constitutional rights, and then by disputing the religious position that without God, there can be no morality. In developing his notion of "provisional ethics," Shermer observes that some form of The Golden Rule (i.e., "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you") provides the foundation of morality in all human societies.
Calling himself a "free rider" (p. 22), Shermer argues that humans don't need God to be moral, but that evolution has equipt the human brain with a tendency toward moral behavior. In other words, humans are moral by nature. "I may be free from God," he writes, "but the god of nature holds me to her temple of judgment no less than her other creations. I stand before my maker and judge not in some distant and future ethereal world, but in the reality of this world, a world inhabited not by spiritual and supernatural ephemera, but by real people whose lives are directly affected by my actions, and those actions directly affect my life" (p. 22).
5.0 out of 5 stars A bible for nontheists. If only the others would listen.,
5.0 out of 5 stars Raises the bar for the all too human.,
Shermer's lens seems greatly shaped by Darwin. That may be because one of his books between How We Believe and this on was In Darwin's Shadow (about Alfred Wallace), or perhaps Darwin's science is pretty solid stuff. At any rate, to apply a scientific approach to morality is to try and replace thousands of years of mythology which did the job until recently. Can morality be explained without religious ties? That's the interesting part of it.
I was going to give this book 4 stars because of the slight disappointment I had with Shermer's writing style, but the topic is so vast and this book gives one of the best discussions of it I've seen in a long time. So it's a Fiver!
5.0 out of 5 stars A Believable Basis For Morality,
5.0 out of 5 stars The Golden Rule is a Human construct.,
certain I can address this concept. It is, as history has proven time and again, simply incorrect. A better understanding of the "Golden Rule" as it has come to be known can be seen in Shermer's latest book, as in the white papers of John Nash (especially Bargaining, Zero Sum Games and Economics), in the work of Charles Darwin, (most specifically his later ideas on an evolutionary ethics); the writings of Edward O. Wilson, (especially The Ants), and finaly with even a meager
observation of nature itself. We do bargain, we do make social "deals." This is observable in Chimpanzee groups, and so far as I know, they have no "religion." That we have to make
"golden rules," not out of a religious ideal but for the survival of our species seems obvious to anyone. Shermer's time line indicates that morality and a social ethic were in development some 100,000 years ago. This seems about right, as ample social anthropological evidence indicates a turn toward large group hunting, and social coopertation far before this period. That some form of norm is required for an understanding of allowable and un-allowable actions within the group seems at most apparent from simian studies. This seems to me common sense, despite some reviewers inability to follow it. That a divine figure is necessary to explain morality, especially a very human-like human deity, seems to me silly at best. In the fine tradition of Darwin, Wallace, Dawkins and Sagan, Shermer points out that, which once read, seems obvious. Shermer, in the fashion of Carl Sagan, uses plain and simple concepts to explain the formation of a morality, not as a divine order, but as a aid to survival and social progress. The few issues I have with this book are more semantic than substance. I cannot
scientifically, or in this case "morally" argue with anything put forward in this excellent account the development of modern moral thinking. Clearly hunger motivates us to eat, and pair
bonding (love),besides the obvious advantage for child rearing (seen in avian species as well as many Mammalian)motivates us to cooperative hunting. That some reviewers fail to agree with this straightforward page-turner perhaps speaks more to their own "beliefs" than the evidence put forth in Shermer's book.
3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Can there be morality without God?,
The first inherent limit Shermer struggles against his own upbringing wherein he indicated that his mother did not believe in God. It is very fascinating that regardless of what education one goes on to attain they invariably ultimately return to the religous views of their upbringing later in life. This is not a bad thing but it is interesting that whenever writers attempt to assert some grand new theory all they're really talking about is what their parents believed. Perhaps it is for this reason that truly revolutionary religious thought is such a rare thing.
Shermer also struggles against the evidence. In the first part of his book, Shermer is quick to assert that morality is the natural product of human evolution. However, and this is according to Shermer's own cited figures, for 84% of the people on this planet that morality ACCOMPANIES MEMBERSHIP IN AN ESTABLISHED RELIGION. In other words, one cannot fairly gainsay that morality is an evolutionary by product without also conceding that religion as well is an evolutionary by product. To be sure, an absence of religious belief cannot be said to be an absence of morality any more than the presence of religious belief can itself be said to be evidence of morality. Still the same there has been, and remains, an undeniable and as yet unfully explained relationship between religion and morality. In this sense, Shermer's first half of his book serves as a great starting point for further study of this important topic.
However, and again, we are talking about a starting point and definately not the last word.
Finally, Shermer is limited by logic. If one is to believe his earlier referenced studies that humans only appear to have free will, then why should recourse be made to the many philosophers he cites in the second half of his book? For that matter, if human behavior really is a "science" then why resort to philosophy at all? Logically, one would have to concede that that which is possible would have to yield to that which is. Phenomenon, not paradigm, is paramount.
In all, the book had a certain endearing quality. After having read the two predecessor works by Shermer in this series -- Why People Believe Wierd Things and Why We Believe -- it's strangely comforting to see Shermer admit to such a detailed knowledge of the television program Star Trek. (As he was quoting the Kirk monologue, I found myself mentally inserting the appropriate pauses between the words...just as Kirk did in the original TV episode.)
So in the end the question remains: Can there be a morality without God?
I don't know. Maybe this question should be asked when we can really be sure that we even have morality with God.
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The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule by Michael Shermer (Paperback - Jan 2 2005)
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