The Moral Arc

The Moral Arc

How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom

Book - 2015
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"From Galileo and Newton to Thomas Hobbes and Martin Luther King, Jr., thinkers throughout history have consciously employed scientific techniques to better understand the non-physical world. The Age of Reason and the Enlightenment led theorists to apply scientific reasoning to the non-scientific disciplines of politics, economics, and moral philosophy. Instead of relying on the woodcuts of dissected bodies in old medical texts, physicians opened bodies themselves to see what was there; instead of divining truth through the authority of an ancient holy book or philosophical treatise, people began to explore the book of nature for themselves through travel and exploration; instead of the supernatural belief in the divine right of kings, people employed a natural belief in the right of democracy. In this provocative and compelling book, Shermer will explain how abstract reasoning, rationality, empiricism, skepticism--scientific ways of thinking--have profoundly changed the way we perceive morality and, indeed, move us ever closer to a more just world"--
Publisher: New York :, Henry Holt and Co.,, 2015.
Edition: First edition.
ISBN: 9780805096910
Branch Call Number: 501 SH
Characteristics: pages cm


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Feb 11, 2018

Oh good grief.

I didn't know much about Michael Shermer except that he likes to make fun of people who believe things he doesn't. Apparently he wrote an actual good book on that once, and maybe I should have read that instead. But the word "Justice" in the title caught my eye, and so I decided to see what he had to say.

Friends, do not read this book.

He seems to think that People of Color and women of all races have it better now than at any time in history (in the case of many PoC, demonstrably not true) and so therefore all is well with people. Sure we have war, but less than at any time in history! Sure, women and people with uteri don't have the rights to decide what happens to their own internal organs, but hey, the vote! Sure, people of color are still being held as slaves in some parts of the world, but it's not very many so we can totally say the struggle for justice is done! Religion did all this nasty shit, but since the number of open atheists is higher it's only a matter of time till religion dies out, and then we'll REALLY be able to tackle all this because religion is the root of all of it!

Good grief. His chapter on animal cruelty is longer than the chapter on womens' rights (And by the way? Don't read that chapter if you're soft-hearted, because he does not mince words about animal cruelty - if he'd been half as upset about police brutality, I would perhaps be giving a different review, but he clearly isn't).

Shermer is absolutely right that science and reason improve humanity as a whole. I agree with that. But I disagree that everything is just fine where he seems to think it is. He'll even give a single paragraph about where things need serious, hard, soul-tearing work, and then lead off with a "but..." in the next paragraph! We're not nearly as far along as he thinks, and I don't think that atheism is the system responsible for what improvements we have.

Honestly, it reads like a self-congratulatory to cis guy atheists screed, and I have better things to do with my time.

Two of five stars, and that's being generous.

Dec 30, 2017

The 475 pages are a quick read because it is so easy to agree with the many assertions of fact and moral claims. Also, the typography - extra leading between lines - makes reading this into a downhill jog. The author founded Skeptic magazine and contributes to Scientific American. And he is a political liberal, carrying on the program of the Enlightenment. Moreover, the entire presentation is wholly compatible with the intentions of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

“As I documented in The Mind of the Market, trade breaks down the natural animosity between strangers while simultaneously elevating trust between them, and as the economist Paul Zak has demonstrated, trust is among the most powerful factors affecting economic growth.” (page 126)

“The effects of trade have been documented in the real world as well as in the lab. In a 2010 study published in Science titled “Markets, Religion, Community Size, and the Evolution of Fairness and Punishment,” the psychologist Joseph Henrich and his colleagues engaged more than two thousand people in fifteen small communities around the world in two-player exchange games in which one player is given a sum of money equivalent to a day’s pay and is allowed to keep or share some of it, or all of it, with another person. You might think that most people would just keep all the money, but in fact, the scientists discovered that people in hunter-gather communities shared about 25 percent, while people in societies who regularly engage in trade gave away about 45 percent. Although religion was a modest factor in making people more generous, the strongest predictor was “market integration” defined as “the percentage of a household’s total calories that were purchased from the market, as opposed to homegrown, hunted, or fished.” (page 127). That is especially telling as both preppers and greens advocate for economic and ecological self-sufficiency, living from the land and close to the Earth

Shermer goes into some statistical detail demonstrating that trade leads to democracy, and democratic government lessens the likelihood and damages of war. He does the same for domestic war, that is, for crime, showing a decrease in violent crime and a concomitant decline in capital punishment.

In Chapter 12, Shermer outlines his “Protopia” not the impossible Utopia, but the world of the actual present in which things are getting better. Discussing income inequality, for instance, he demonstrates via IRS statistics that in America we still have social mobility. Some of the poorest rise and some of the richest fall, even as most of us remain in the middle three quintiles for most of our lives. “… 60 percent of those in the top 1 percent in the beginning year of each person had dropped to a lower centile by the 10th year. Less than one-fourth of the individuals in the 1/100th percent in 1996 remained in that in 2005.” (Citing a report from the National Tax Journal.)

Shermer became a scientist late his academic career. His doctoral dissertation (Clarmont Graduate University) was a biography of Alfred Russell Wallace. However, Shermer was at first a fundamentalist Christian. Not raised that way, he chose it as a teenager. Only the strict requirements Pepperdine for studies in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic kept him from pursuing a D. Th. He was interested in psychology, but although a behaviorist, he was not interested in lab rats. He eventually settled on studying the history of science. He later produced and hosted Exploring the Unknown for Fox TV.

That lays some foundation for Chapter 4: Why Religion is not the Source of Moral Progress. He joins Christopher Hitchens (cited twice in that chapter) in a complete refutation of any claim to material or moral value in religion. Shermer presents two pages of graphs correlating religiosity positively with divorce, homicide, abortion, and suicide.

Apr 14, 2015

If you think faith and the Bible provides the answers to all of life's problems, this is not the book for you. If you want to think logically about the biggest problems the world is facing today, you're going to like this book.


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