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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 58

Ben Shapiro — The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great

The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great (book cover)

In this wide ranging conversation, the noted conservative political commentator and public intellectual Ben Shapiro makes the case that what makes the West great is its foundation in Judeo-Christian values. We can thank these values, Shapiro argues, “for the birth of science, the dream of progress, human rights, prosperity, peace, and artistic beauty.” Shapiro says “Jerusalem and Athens built America, ended slavery, defeated the Nazis and the Communists, lifted billions from poverty and gave billions spiritual purpose. Jerusalem and Athens were the foundations of the Magna Carta and the Treaty of Westphalia; they were the foundations of the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

As you might expect, Dr. Shermer disagrees on the source of these values, attributing them instead to the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment and the secular thinkers who used reason and evidence to make the case for human rights and progress. For example:

  • people are never to be treated as a means to an end but as an end in themselves (Kant)
  • people have an inalienable right to life, liberty & happiness (Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence)
  • people have an inherent right to privacy, speech, thought, and action (U.S. Constitution)
  • governments may not infringe on such rights (John Stuart Mill)
  • people should be treated equally under the law (John Locke)
  • punishments should fit the crime and society should be based on the greatest good for the greatest number (Jeremy Bentham).

These are all purely secular moral values derived from Enlightenment science and reason.

Shermer also asks Shapiro how he derives “all men are created equal” from “we were created in God’s image”. Shapiro has a very reasonable answer, to which Shermer read from Thomas Jefferson’s own explanation for the origin of that phrase. In a letter to Henry Lee in 1825, Jefferson wrote:

Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.

Shapiro responded to Shermer’s counter-examples to his thesis, namely successful civilizations that arose before Judaism and Christianity, such as Sumeria, Babylonia, Akkadia, Assyria, Egypt, and Greece, and Christian civilizations that did not flourish, such as the Catholic countries of South America, or historically all the Christian nations in the Middle Ages that never produced anything like a democracy or capitalism.

As two members of the Intellectual Dark Web, Shapiro and Shermer show how people can disagree even on fundamental principles and still have a civil conversation, and along the way find agreement and common cause. Other topics that came up:

  • free will and determinism
  • human nature and sexuality
  • why rates of abortion are higher in the U.S. than other Western countries
  • the increase in rates of suicide and depression in the U.S.
  • unionizing the Intellectual Dark Web and striking for higher wages and redistribution of resources…

Listen to the podcast via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn.

This Science Salon was recorded on February 27, 2019.

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This episode was released on March 19, 2019.

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