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The Moral Arc by Michael Shermer|
“Again, I am not arguing that reason alone will get us there; we need legislation and laws to enforce civil rights, and a strong police and military to back up the state’s claim to hold a monopoly on the legitimate use of force to back up those laws. But those forces are themselves premised on being grounded in reason, and the legislation is backed by rational arguments.” (page 257)
This book is 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 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. The entire presentation is wholly compatible with the intentions of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
That may well seem paradoxical to both conservatives and progressives for whom reason, reality, ethics, politics, and economics are unrelated. Religious fundamentalists and academic postmodernists both deny the validity of science. While both camps claim the vocabulary of political freedom for their headlines and rubrics, their narratives quickly devolve into further controls and harsher punishments for their respective enemies. Both are racists; they just favor different groups. Both would quickly constrain and ultimately abolish the open global market.
The economics of capitalism are inseparable from the politics of equality, which in turn rest on the epistemology of reason. Instead, the conservatives of the 20th century ignored or fought against every opportunity for progress. They still do so today, echoing the protests of Dinesh D’Souza, Ann Coulter, and Glenn Beck, that change is not natural.
On the other hand, Ayn Rand insisted that politics rests on morality which depends on epistemology. For her, the significant struggles were about the theory of knowledge. Shermer devotes a chapter to the problem of free will, “10: Moral Freedom and Responsibility.” I believe that ultimately, he does not answer the question. But he does encase it in four replies: the modular mind; free won’t; degrees of moral freedom; choice as part of the causal net. The facts that he marshals are interesting, though no one is compelling. That, perhaps, is his strongest implicit argument. He never says it, but his approach defeats the attempts at reduction. You cannot have free will, the argument goes, because each action has a cause, and so on… Shermer cites physiological studies of brain activity to show that your mind is more complicated than that, working deeply in parallel networks, not sequential steps. And at several junctions, the “you” that is “you” has the ability to say “no” to redirect your own thoughts. Usually. He does examine several severe cases of psychopathic behavior and shows them to be materially caused by cephalic defect. That only raises more questions. But to me the important feature was recognizing that the essence of material progress is good thinking.
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. The narrative only underscores the fact that religion has not led us to our material comfort or self-satisfied happiness.