»  The New York Sun

February 2nd, 2004

  The Devil Made Me Do It


The Science of Good and Evil
by Michael Shermer
Times Books; 416 pp. $ 25

The God of the Gaps had a hard time of it in the 20th century. By 1900 thoughtful people had long since reconciled themselves to the fact that the Sun is not the chariot of a god, but a ball of incandescent gas whose apparent motions follow natural laws. They knew that lightning and thunder are caused not by vis superum but by electrical discharges in the atmosphere. They understood that the world was not created one Friday afternoon in 4004 b.c., but had existed for eons. The physical sciences had been reduced to cold mathematical equations. The human sciences were another story, though. Plenty of gaps there! The wrath-of-Poseidon theory of earthquakes might no longer be tenable, but how could one explain the human conscience without invoking Divine inspiration? What do "good" and "evil" mean in the absence of supernatural ordinances and sanctions? Must it not be the case, as Dostoyevsky famously wondered, that if there is no God, then anything is allowed?

Now, a hundred years later, the God of the Gaps has very nearly been chased out of the human sciences, too. The general air of triumphalism was caught nicely by novelist Tom Wolfe in a 1996 essay for Forbes ASAP titled "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died." (Though Wolfe left an escape hatch for God at the end of the essay.) A few folorn rearguard actions are still being fought — in biology, for example, by the proponents of Intelligent Design — but all in all the human sciences at the beginning of the 21st century are not far behind where the physical sciences were at the beginning of the 20th in explanatory power and the production of testable hypotheses, and in the dwindling requirement for supernatural explanations of anything at all.

Michael Shermer, who is the editor of Skeptic magazine, has set himself the task of deriving a universalist ethic suitable for these times, without any appeal to the God of the Gaps, or indeed to any other manifestation of the transcendental. The ethic he comes up with is "provisional morality." Shermer explains the roots of this doctrine as follows:

I believe that morality is the natural outcome of evolutionary and historical forces operating on both individuals and groups. The moral feelings of doing the right thing (such as virtuousness) or doing the wrong thing (such as guilt) were generated by nature as part of human evolution.

He goes on to derive some simple "golden rules" that will allow us to determine whether an action is right or wrong. There is, for example, the Happiness Principle: "It is a higher moral principal to always seek happiness with someone else's happiness in mind, and never seek happiness when it leads to someone else's unhappiness." That would seem to rule out any kind of competitive activity — running for President, for example — since the losing competitors are bound to be left unhappy. I guess the author's principles need a few hundred pages of qualification. Was there ever a system of ethics that didn't?

Shermer tells us that he became a born-again Christian when a senior at high school. He went on to attend Pepperdine, studied theology, and only emerged into, as he sees it, the cool clear light of agnosticism after long questioning and wide reading. Certainly he is no angry, dogmatic God-hater. The Science of Good and Evil is a good-natured book, full of useful and curious facts about the history of ethics. I had forgotten, for example, the calculus of felicity worked up by Jeremy Bentham (beneath whose embalmed head I used to walk on my way to college classes every morning). Bentham tried to quantify the ups and down of life, with "hedons" as units of pleasure and "dolors" as units of sorrow. Kant's Categorical Imperative gets an airing here, too; and there is a useful thumbnail guide to the menagerie of ethical systems available to the curious enquirer nowadays: Consequentialism, contractarianism, deontology, natural law theory, and so on.

I would have liked this book more if it had been better written. Clunky clichés abound. The anthropologist Ken Good, struggling with the morality of his love for a Brazilian tribeswoman, "was on an emotional roller coaster." Vegetius's qui desiderat pacem, præparet bellum is attributed to Liddell Hart. We learn that: "There is a maxim anthropologists often cite …: The enemy of my enemy is my friend." One expects at any moment to be told that man is the animal that drinks when he is not thirsty and makes love in all seasons. At times one seems to be reading a Mission Statement cooked up for one's corporation by one of those tiresome diversity consultancies:

Provisional ethics accommodates the range of individual variation found in human populations and suggests that we should pass judgments, make awards, and heap penalties only with regard to our great diversity. Such accommodational flexibility leads irrevocably toward greater tolerance …

These slight blemishes aside, though, I think Shermer has made his case very well. The thing one wants to know, but which of course he cannot tell us, is: Will a few decades more of peace, prosperity, and advances in our understanding of the human sciences cause the human race at large to abandon ethical systems based on supernatural premises? Shermer quotes the great evolutionary biologist Edmund O. Wilson on this point: "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 … or shift toward science-based material analysis."

The problem with "science-based material analysis" is that it is a cold temple whose pale blue flame gives little warmth. However well Michael Shermer's provisional ethics may satisfy sanguine middle-class American intellectuals with a good grasp of the human sciences, no such system will attain widespread acceptance if it fails to nourish key components of the human personality.

Most people will always follow the moral precepts favored by their family, neighbors, and culture, without much reflection. It is an admirable thing for an ethical system to be founded on nothing but the latest results in published scientific papers. It is, however, much more important that it has a clear appeal to the broad mass of unreflective humanity, offer some consolation to them in misfortune, and cannot be easily misapprehended as a license for sloppy situational morality. Michael Shermer's prescriptions, though admirable in all sorts of ways, do not, in my opinion, pass that test.