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The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule

The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule

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by Michael Shermer

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From bestselling author Michael Shermer, an investigation of the evolution of morality that is "a paragon of popularized science and philosophy" The Sun (Baltimore)

A century and a half after Darwin first proposed an "evolutionary ethics," science has begun to tackle the roots of morality. Just as evolutionary biologists study why we are hungry (to


From bestselling author Michael Shermer, an investigation of the evolution of morality that is "a paragon of popularized science and philosophy" The Sun (Baltimore)

A century and a half after Darwin first proposed an "evolutionary ethics," science has begun to tackle the roots of morality. Just as evolutionary biologists study why we are hungry (to motivate us to eat) or why sex is enjoyable (to motivate us to procreate), they are now searching for the very nature of humanity.

In The Science of Good and Evil, science historian Michael Shermer explores how humans evolved from social primates to moral primates; how and why morality motivates the human animal; and how the foundation of moral principles can be built upon empirical evidence.

Along the way he explains the implications of scientific findings for fate and free will, the existence of pure good and pure evil, and the development of early moral sentiments among the first humans. As he closes the divide between science and morality, Shermer draws on stories from the Yanamamö, infamously known as the "fierce people" of the tropical rain forest, to the Stanford studies on jailers' behavior in prisons. The Science of Good and Evil is ultimately a profound look at the moral animal, belief, and the scientific pursuit of truth.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Drawing on evolutionary psychology, Skeptic publisher and Scientific American contributor Shermer (Why People Believe Weird Things) argues that the sources of moral behavior can be traced scientifically to humanity's evolutionary origins. He contends that human morality evolved as first an individual and then a species-wide mechanism for survival. As society evolved, humans needed rules governing behavior-e.g., altruism, sympathy, reciprocity and community concern-in order to ensure survival. Shermer says that some form of the Golden Rule-"Do unto others as you would have others do unto you"-provides the foundation of morality in human societies. Out of this, he develops the principles of what he calls a "provisional ethics" that "is neither absolute nor relative," that applies to most people most of the time, while allowing for "tolerance and diversity." According to the "ask-first" principle, for instance, the performer of an act simply asks its intended receiver whether the act is right or wrong. Other principles include the "happiness" principle ("always seek happiness with someone else's happiness in mind"), the liberty principle ("always seek liberty with someone else's liberty in mind") and the moderation principle ("when innocent people die, extremism in the defense of anything is no virtue, and moderation in the protection of everything is no vice"). Shermer's provisional ethics might reflect the messy ways that human moral behavior developed, but his simplistic principles establish a utilitarian calculus that not everyone will find acceptable. 35 b&w illus. Agents, Katinka Matson and John Brockman. (Feb. 2) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In this concluding volume of his trilogy on the science of belief (following Why People Believe Weird Things and How We Believe), Shermer applies evolutionary psychology and fuzzy logic to moral questions. Moral behavior, he argues, evolved among the earliest humans as a form of social control, which eventually expanded into an ethical code that allowed greater freedom and more humane treatment for more human beings. People, then, are not simply "good or bad," which calls for a "provisional" morality and ethics, as opposed to a binary (yes/no; good/evil) or absolute ethical system. The author has extensively researched his topic, citing in particular current literature in anthropology (for example, controversies surrounding studies of the Yanomami tribe in Venezuela) and cognitive science (neuroimaging experiments that explore regions of the brain affected by moral challenges); he synthesizes results from disciplines with which he has considerable familiarity. This reach extends across cultures and history to support his argument that while not all moral systems apply to all cultures, this doesn't open the way to moral relativism. Instead, Shermer proposes several principles to test the morality of a particular action. Does it restrict the rights, happiness, and liberty of the other? And since it is so often an individual issue, can one "ask first"? At the same time, the author relies on a rigorous application of statistics and evolutionary logic; there's no place here for a Kierkegaardian "leap of faith." Challenging but engaging reading; recommended for most academic and larger public libraries.-Garrett Eastman, Rowland Inst., Harvard Univ. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Imagine there's no Heaven (as John Lennon suggested): what, then, is the foundation for morality? Skeptic magazine editor Shermer (In Darwin's Shadow, 2002, etc.) seeks to answer that question and to discover a scientific explanation for our notions of good and evil. He quotes Darwin to the effect that all scientific observation must be either for or against some point of view and avers his own viewpoint to be "non-theistic agnosticism": the decision that, since God's existence is unprovable, he will live and act as if there is no God. The origins of morality and ethics, common to every society on Earth, must then lie in human institutions, Shermer concludes. Over hundreds of thousands of years, our ancestors arrived at moral principles designed to maintain peace and order in communities of ever-increasing size and complexity. The earliest "moral" principles are those that many animals recognize, such as protecting one's mate or young. As human society grew, the needs of larger and larger groups became the basis of morality; at the center of many of them lies something like the Golden Rule, treating others as we would wish to be treated. At the same time, early superstitions coalesced into religions, each of which took on the role of sanctioning the moral principles of its parent society. Shermer goes on to argue that evil has no independent existence but is inherent in human nature. Yet no outside authority is needed to make us moral, he argues; atheists (or temporary doubters) seem no more inclined to kill and steal than the religious. The true dignity of our morality arises from its basis in our common humanity. Shermer draws effectively on familiar instances, from the Columbinekillings to the Holocaust, to illustrate and support his thesis. Thought-provoking and well-honed examination of deep questions. Agents: Katinka Matson, John Brockman

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The Science of Good and Evil

Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule

By Michael Shermer

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2004 Michael Shermer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-9675-4



One should accept the truth from whatever source it proceeds.

— Moses Maimonides, Eight Chapters, twelfth century

In one of the most starkly honest and existentially penetrating statements ever made by a scientist, Oxford University evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins opined that "the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference." Here we cut to the heart of what is, in my opinion, the single biggest obstacle to a complete acceptance of the theory of evolution, especially its application to human thought and behavior, particularly in the realm of morality and ethics: the equating of evolution with ethical nihilism and moral degeneration. If we are nothing more than the product of sightless natural forces operating within a mercilessly uncaring cosmos, from whence can we find absolute ethical standards or ultimate moral meaning? My answer to this question follows, although Charles Darwin said it more succinctly in his magnum opus, The Origin of Species, in which he presciently provided an answer to Dawkins's observation: "When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Cambrian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled." What can possibly be ennobling about evolution, and how can we construct a transcendent morality out of evolutionary ethics? Here is how.

A Moral Dilemma

In his dialogue The Euthyphro, the Greek philosopher Plato presented what has come to be known as "Euthyphro's Dilemma," in which his favorite protagonist — the cantankerous political gadfly Socrates — asks a young man named Euthyphro the following question: "The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods?" The underlying assumption for Plato, as it has been ever since for most philosophers and theologians, is that moral principles are and must be linked to a God or gods in order to be considered absolute, eternal, and meaningful. Socrates is trying to show Euthyphro that a dilemma exists over whether God embraces moral principles naturally occurring and external to Him because they are sound ("holy") or that these moral principles are sound because He created them. It cannot be both.

Regardless of which choice is made, under this paradigm, theologians and religious philosophers have made God an integral part of the moral process. The thirteenth-century Catholic scholar Thomas Aquinas laid the foundation for a natural law theory of moral development by arguing that God supports moral principles that occur naturally, instills them in us, which we then discover through rational analysis, prayer, and our God-given intuitive mental faculty for moral reasoning. William of Ockham and Samuel Pufendorf, by contrast, preferred the second choice in Euthyphro's Dilemma, arguing in what has come to be known as Divine Command Theory and voluntarism that God freely created moral principles through divine fiat. Hugo Grotius gave the nod to the first choice, claiming that God endorses certain already-existing moral principles. The assumption made by all these commentators, of course, is that at some level God is involved in the process of creating and/or sanctioning moral principles.

By the eighteenth century, however, particularly within the intellectual and cultural movement known as the Enlightenment, a number of philosophers challenged the very premise of Euthyphro's Dilemma — most notably the atheist Scottish philosopher David Hume — by taking God out of the moral equation altogether. Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, and others, while not appropriately classified as atheists (rather, deism was a common belief among many Enlightenment intellectuals, in which God created the world and then stepped aside to allow matters to run their course), attempted to ground moral principles in natural law — a sort of deification of nature to make ethics transcendent of mere human convention. We see this in one of the founding statements of the United States of America: "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." Even if the creator (small c) is nature, rights are still unalienable — society or people cannot take them away, simply because society or people did not create them.

An additional problem arises in Euthyphro's Dilemma, and that is if God is linked to moral principles — indeed, many argue that He must be in order to create a meaningful ethical system — then does that mean every moral statement of right and wrong ever made is infused with divine inspiration? What about moral principles espoused by Osama bin Laden, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, or Tomás de Torquemada? Did their questionable ethics derive from on high as well? Or, alternatively, did their "right" moral actions arise from a correct understanding of God's will and their "wrong" moral actions from a corruption in their understanding of the divine process? And what about the morality of nonbelievers, atheists, and agnostics? Did their moral sentiments arise simply from the surrounding religious culture, whereas believers' principles came from God? Problems of consistency in Euthyphro's Dilemma are legion.

There is a simple way around the dilemma: leave God out of the discussion altogether and adopt the methodological naturalism of science, in which all effects have natural causes subject to scientific analysis. The supposition is that the moral sense in humans and moral principles in human cultures are the result of laws of nature, forces of culture, and contingencies of history. I am not interested here in placing a value judgment on whether God exists or not, because it is not relevant to a scientific approach. Believers need not feel alienated, however, since if there is a God, it is acceptable to believe that He created and utilized the laws of nature, forces of culture, and contingencies of history to generate within humans a moral sense, and within human cultures moral principles. Thankfully for the future of our species — and perhaps all species — science can illuminate an answer, or at least many testable answers that can be confirmed or rejected based on the evidence.

Yet even in a strictly scientific explanation of morality we encounter an apparent dilemma. If morals have a natural instead of a supernatural origin, then there apparently can be no transcendent being or force to objectify them with absolute standards. If there are no absolute standards, then morality must be relative. Harvard evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson presented the dilemma this way: "Either ethical precepts, such as justice and human rights, are independent of human experience or else they are human inventions." On the one side, says Wilson, are the transcendentalists, "who think that moral guidelines exist outside the human mind." On the other side are the empiricists, "who think them contrivances of the mind." Wilson is an empiricist: "I believe in the independence of moral values, whether from God or not, and I believe that moral values come from human beings alone, whether or not God exists." For Wilson, there is no debate on the table with greater import. "The choice between transcendentalism and empiricism will be the coming century's version of the struggle for men's souls. Moral reasoning will either remain centered in idioms of theology and philosophy, where it is now, or shift toward science-based material analysis. Where it settles will depend on which world view is correct, or at least which is more widely perceived to be correct." But must we accept either-or (either transcendentalism or empiricism)? Can't we have both-and (both transcendentalism and empiricism)? I would like to propose a both-and consilience of transcendentalism and empiricism.

Ennobling Evolutionary Ethics: A Moral Dilemma Resolved

In virtually every dialogue I have about religion and science, I am inevitably challenged to explain how any ethical system not rooted in divine inspiration can be anything but relative, and thus meaningless. Without transcendence, believers argue, moral acts and principles can have no firm foundation on which to stand.

My thesis is that morality exists outside the human mind in the sense of being not just a trait of individual humans, but a human trait; that is, a human universal. Think about it this way: evolution created moral sentiments and concomitant behaviors over hundreds of thousands of years, so that today even though we agree that humans created morality and ethics (and thus we are empiricists), it is not us who created the moral sentiments and behaviors, it was our Paleolithic ancestors who did so in those long-gone millennia. We simply inherit them, fine-tune and tweak them according to our cultural preferences, and apply them within our unique historical circumstances. In this sense, moral sentiments and behaviors exist beyond us, as products of an impersonal force called evolution. In the same way that evolution transcends culture, morality and ethics transcend culture, because the latter are direct products of the former. Given this presupposition it seems reasonable to be both a transcendentalist and an empiricist, or what I call a transcendent empiricist. Transcendent empiricism avoids supernaturalism as an explanation of morality, and yet grounds morality on something other than the pure relativism of culturally determined ethics. It has the added advantage of being a testable hypothesis in the same manner that any evolutionary trait might be subject to the scrutiny of empirical science.

An Exegesis of Why and How We Are Moral

If, perforce, I had to explain the why and the how of morality — that is, the origins of morality and how we can be good without God — in five minutes, the following exegesis encapsulates the theory presented in this book.

1. Moral Naturalism. This is a secular and scientific approach to the study of morality. As such, whether there is a God or not is irrelevant to the theory because in science our approach is a naturalistic one — all effects have natural causes subject to scientific analysis. Since I am a nontheist, my assumption is that the moral sense in humans and moral principles in human cultures are the result of laws of nature, forces of culture, and the unique pathways of history; theists who embrace the findings of science may assume that God created and utilized the laws of nature and forces of culture to generate within humans a moral sense and within human cultures moral principles.

2. An Evolved Moral Sense. Moral sentiments in humans and moral principles in human groups evolved primarily through the force of natural selection operating on individuals and secondarily through the force of group selection operating on populations. The moral sense (the psychological feeling of doing "good" in the form of positive emotions such as righteousness and pride) evolved out of behaviors that were selected for because they were good either for the individual or for the group; an immoral sense (the psychological feeling of doing "bad" in the form of negative emotions such as guilt and shame) evolved out of behaviors that were selected for because they were bad either for the individual or for the group. While cultures may differ on what behaviors are defined as good or bad, the moral sense of feeling good or feeling bad about behavior X (whatever X may be) is an evolved human universal.

3. An Evolved Moral Society. Humans evolved as a social primate species with an ascending hierarchy of needs from self-survival of the individual (basic biological needs), to the extension of the individual through the family (the selfish gene), to a sense of bonding with the extended family (driven by kin selection of helping those most related to us), to the reciprocal altruism of the community (direct and obvious payback for good behaviors), to indirect altruism of society (doing good without direct payback), to species altruism and bioaltruism as awareness of our membership of the species and biosphere continues to develop. The most basic human needs and moral feelings are largely under biological control, whereas the more social and cultural human needs and moral feelings are largely under cultural control.

4. The Nature of Moral Nature. Humans are, by nature, moral and immoral, good and evil, altruistic and selfish, cooperative and competitive, peaceful and bellicose, virtuous and nonvirtuous. Such moral traits vary within individuals as well as within and between groups. Some people and populations are more or less moral and immoral than other people and populations, but all people have the potential for all moral traits. Most people most of the time in most circumstances are good and do the right thing for themselves and for others. But some people some of the time in some circumstances are bad and do the wrong thing for themselves and for others. The codification of moral principles out of the psychology of the moral traits evolved as a form of social control to ensure the survival of individuals within groups and the survival of human groups themselves. Religion was the first social institution to canonize moral principles, but morality need not be the exclusive domain of religion.

5. Provisional Morality. Moral principles, derived from the moral sense, are not absolute, where they apply to all people in all cultures under all circumstances all of the time. Neither are moral principles relative, entirely determined by circumstance, culture, and history. Moral principles are provisionally true — that is, they apply to most people in most cultures in most circumstances most of the time.

6. Provisional Right and Wrong. In provisional morality we can discern the difference between right and wrong through three principles: the ask-first principle, the happiness principle, and the liberty principle. The ask-first principle states: to find out whether an action is right or wrong, ask first. The happiness principle states: it is a higher moralprinciple to always seek happiness with someone else's happiness in mind, and never seek happiness when it leads to someone else's unhappiness. The liberty principle states: it is a higher moral principle to always seek liberty with someone else's liberty in mind, and never seek liberty when it leads to someone else's loss of liberty. To implement social change, the moderation principle states: when innocent people die, extremism in the defense of anything is no virtue, and moderation in the protection of everything is no vice.

7. Provisional Justice. Although we are all subject to laws of nature and forces of culture and history that shape our thoughts and behaviors, we are free moral agents responsible for our actions because none of us can ever know the near-infinite causal net that determines our individual lives. Good things and bad things happen to both good and bad people. There is no absolute and ultimate judge to mete out rewards and punishments at some future date beyond human existence. But since moral principles are provisionally true for most people most of the time in most circumstances, there is individual culpability and social justice within human communities that produce feelings of righteousness and guilt, and administer rewards and punishments such that there is at least provisional justice in the here and now.

8. Ennobling Evolutionary Ethics. As an evolved mechanism of human psychology, the moral sense transcends individuals and groups and belongs to the species. Moral principles exist outside of us and are products of the impersonal forces of evolution, history, and culture.

Free Rider: Facing the Judge

In a review of How We Believe that appeared in the Washington Post, Michael Novak made this observation about my confidence in science and the freedom I found through a scientific worldview: "Science is a method for gaining important forms of knowledge; scientism is the reduction of all forms of knowing to scientific method. Shermer certainly comes perilously close to the latter. Still, he tries valiantly to maintain a sense of the sublime, the sacred, even the mystical, as in describing his exchange of eternal love with his soul mate over lit candles inside Chartres Cathedral, or standing 'beneath a canopy of galaxies, atop a pillar of reworked stone, or inside a transept of holy light,' when 'my unencumbered soul was free to love without constraint' and was 'emancipated from the bonds of restricting tradition, and unyoked from the rules written for another time in another place and for another people.'" Novak's denouement is as thought provoking as it is poetic: "The beauty of being Shermer is that he faces no Judge, undeceivable, transcendent of nature, and within him as well as beyond him; and stands in no long pilgrim community, struggling down the ages, falling, rising, and throwing cathedrals like Chartres up against the sky cathedrals. He is a free rider."


Excerpted from The Science of Good and Evil by Michael Shermer. Copyright © 2004 Michael Shermer. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Michael Shermer is the author of The Believing Brain, Why People Believe Weird Things, The Science of Good and Evil, The Mind Of The Market, Why Darwin Matters, Science Friction, How We Believe and other books on the evolution of human beliefs and behavior. He is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, the editor of Skeptic.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University. He lives in Southern California.

Michael Shermer is the author of The Moral Arc, Why People Believe Weird Things, The Believing Brain, and several other books on the evolution of human beliefs and behavior. He is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, the editor of Skeptic.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. He lives in Southern California.

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Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
M_L_Gooch_SPHR More than 1 year ago
As a firm believer in the spirituality of man I still seek answers to the hard questions. I purchased this book as a small part of this quest. I was not disappointed. Michael Shermer - a former Church of Christ (same religion of my childhood) member - provides us finely constructed arguments for the basis of morality and ethics. While I agree with the overall premise of the book, I do question the morality statements and studies that point to relative and provisional morals. For an older view of this area, I would suggest a person may want to read the classic mere Christianity. Knowledge may age but wisdom never does. For a more modern view, I would suggest the recently released Fingerprints of God. Even though he is an atheist (or maybe agnostic) I greatly admire the author. He is a libertarian at heart who seeks to dispel the myths of our cultural histories. However, where I see a divine source, he sees biological heritage. In the end, it doesn't matter if I agree or disagree. What matters is the book has exposed me to other realms of thought and provided a richer understanding of morality structure. I hope you find this review helpful. Michael L. Gooch
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Name: Karlea looks brown hair blue eyes wears black long sleeps with thumb holes black converse and jeans
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im changing my name skinny ligt tan brown hair black shades shorts black tank top and leather jacket throwing knives next to my hip gun in the back of my shorts black army boots flexible can fight tough tattoo on my arm that says fly
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Boy Evil Has a black cloak that blends into the surrounings and hat casts a shadow over his face..the only thing you see are his dark piercing gray eyes that seem to look int your soul and see all your fears ad desires...he wears a black t shirt and dark gray pants with black boots and a gray omega symbol on them..he has a quiver of arrows and a silver bow on his back and what looks to he a sword strapped to his waist but you can tell that those are only the physical weopons and that he has other more dark ways of wreaking chaos
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Shermer is always a reliable proponent of reason and an entertaining expert at demolishing the nonsense perpetrated by religion. I would recommend Michael Berumen's Do No Evil for a much better philosophical understanding and justification of ethical rules. Like Shermer, Berumen shows how ethics might have originated....but more importantly, he shows how ethical rules can be justified using the concepts of rationality and impartiality, which does not rely on historical or anthropoligical evidence, just simple reason.