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Moral Philosophy and its Discontents

A response to Massimo Pigliucci’s critique of my Scientific American column on utilitarianism, deontology, and rights. (Illustration above by Izhar Cohen.)

My May 2018 column in Scientific American was titled “You Kant be Serious: Utilitarianism and its Discontents”, a cheeky nod to the German philosopher that I gleaned from the creators of the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale, whose official description for those of us who score low on the scale read: “You’re not very utilitarian at all. You Kant be convinced that maximizing happiness is all that matters.” The online version of my column carries the title (which I have no control over): “Does the Philosophy of ‘the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number’ Have Any Merit?” The answer by any reasonable person would be “of course it does!” And I’m a reasonable person, so what’s all the fuss about? Why was I jumped on by professional philosophers on social media, such as Justin Weinberg of the University of South Carolina on Twitter @DailyNousEditor, who fired a fusillade of tweets, starting with this broadside:

I sent a private email to Justin inviting him to write a letter to the editor of Scientific American that I could then respond to—given that Twitter may not be the best medium for a discussion of important philosophical issues—but I never received a reply.

Social media responses were following by a critical review by the noted scientist and philosopher (and fellow skeptic) Massimo Pigliucci (“Michael Shermer on utilitarianism, deontology, and ‘natural rights’” in his blog Footnotes to Plato that was 2.5 times the length of the original column. Because I respect Massimo (he and I have been friends since the mid 1990s) and I always appreciate it when people take my writings seriously enough to respond, allow me to explain what I was trying to do in this column (and all my columns) in general, address Massimo’s specific comments in particular, and then consider the larger issues in these competing ethical systems on the moral landscape.

1. Limits

For each of my Scientific American columns I try to find an interesting and important topic, considered within a larger theoretical framework, sparked by some new survey, study, article, or book, that includes my opinion (these columns are in the “Opinion” department of Scientific American), and is written in a manner engaging enough to hold the attention of busy readers. I have one page, or about 710 words, to do this. The July column was triggered by a new paper titled “Beyond Sacrificial Harm: A Two-Dimensional Model of Utilitarian Psychology”, by University of Oxford philosophers Guy Kahane, Jim A. C. Everett, Brian D. Earp, Lucius Caviola, Nadira S. Faber, Molly J. Crockett, and Julian Savulescu, published December, 2017 in the prestigious journal Psychological Review. It is a 35-page, 32,000-word in-depth, complex, scholarly article that was difficult to summarize in a few paragraphs and still meet my other column criteria. So the accusation that I am oversimplifying is necessarily true.

2. Greatest Good for Who?

Massimo objects to my use of this example of utilitarianism: “Would you politically oppress a people for a limited time if it increased the overall well-being of the citizenry?” He says this example, representing the principle of “the greatest good for the greatest number,” embodies just “one of many versions of utilitarianism, and it was immediately abandoned, by none other than John Stuart Mill,” adding that today philosophers distinguish between act utilitarianism, “where we must evaluate the morality of each act, a la Bentham,” and rule utilitarianism, “where we conform to rules that have shown overall to bring about the greatest amount of good, a la Mill.” Massimo then adds: “More generally, utilitarianism has a long history, and nowadays it is actually best thought of as a particular type of consequentialist philosophy. I could be wrong, but Shermer seems unaware of these distinctions.” In point of fact, this example comes straight from the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale (on a 7-point scale from Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree):

If the only way to ensure the overall well-being and happiness of the people is through the use of political oppression for a short, limited period, then political oppression should be used.

So Massimo can take up the matter with Kahane, et al. of whether or not this (and the other questions on the scale) properly represent modern utilitarianism and its corresponding “greatest good” principle. And yes, I am familiar with act and rule utilitarianism, and since credentials came up a lot in these online responses, let me add that while I am not a professional philosopher, I am not philosophically naïve: I took two undergraduate philosophy courses (Intro and Ethics), studied the philosophy of science for my Ph.D. in the history of science, have taken several of the Teaching Company’s Great Courses in philosophy, read everything the highly regarded philosopher Daniel Dennett has written (and consider him both a friend and philosophical mentor), teach an honors course at Chapman University on “Evolution, Ethics, and Morality,” and wrote two related books: The Science of Good and Evil (2004) and The Moral Arc (2015).

3. Trolleyology

Massimo says that my use of the famous trolley problems as an example of utilitarian thinking “is just flat out wrong.” Again, he can take this up with Kahane, et al. as they state in the first sentence of the abstract of their paper:

Recent research has relied on trolley-type sacrificial moral dilemmas to study utilitarian versus nonutilitarian modes of moral decision-making.


The main approach in this research has been to study responses to ‘sacrificial’ moral dilemmas (such as the famous ‘trolley’ scenario and its various permutations; see Foot, 1967) which present a choice between sacrificing one innocent person to save a greater number of people, or doing nothing and letting them die. In analyzing these responses and relating them to other variables, such as individual difference scores on personality measures or patterns of brain activity, researchers have tried to uncover the psychological and even neural underpinnings of the dispute between utilitarians and their opponents—such as defenders of deontological, rights-based views of the kind associated with Immanuel Kant.

What Kahane, et al. want to do is separate the sacrificial from the beneficial sides of utilitarianism, which is the focus of their paper, as they write in their discussion of trolleyology research:

Thus, although sacrificial dilemmas were an important first step in studying utilitarian decision-making, and have already yielded valuable findings about attitudes in favor of and against instrumental harm, they need to be supplemented with further tools that allow us to study utilitarian decision-making along both its dimensions….

Thus, one might argue that trolley dilemmas represent only one form of utilitarianism (sacrificial), or that utilitarians would be well advised to focus on the beneficial side of their philosophy, but it is inaccurate to simply assert that trolley problems have nothing to do with utilitarianism. But then, Massimo says he didn’t even read the Kahane, et al. paper (“so I will not comment on it”), which is too bad as that was the central focus of my column. More importantly, Kahane, et al. leave readers with an actionable conclusion that “drawing public attention to the negative side of utilitarianism—one upshot of the widespread identification of utilitarianism with sacrificial solutions to trolley dilemmas in current moral psychology—may do little for, and even get in the way of, promoting greater moral impartiality.” In the context of discussing Peter Singer’s efforts to expand the moral sphere to include other sentient animals, Kahane et al. note:

Singer’s session on effective altruism at Victoria University drew those who were excited by the idea of impartial beneficence—but also a group of outraged protestors repelled by instrumental harm. To the extent that the positive aim of utilitarianism has greater moral priority, utilitarians would be advised to downplay the negative component of their doctrine and may even find a surprisingly pliant audience in the religious population.

4. Utilitarian Psychology

Massimo is nearly apoplectic with this observation of mine in the column for which he says I veer “from simplistic to nonsensical”:

Historically, the application of a utilitarian calculus is what drove witch hunters to torch women they believed caused disease, plagues, crop failures, and accidents—better to incinerate the few in order to protect the village. More recently, the 1:5 utilitarian ratio has too readily been ratcheted up to killing one million to save five million (Jews:Germans; Tutsi:Hutu), the justification of genocidal murderers.

In response Massimo writes:

What?? No, absolutely not. Setting aside the obvious observation that utilitarianism (the philosophy) did not exist until way after the Middle Ages, no, witch hunts were the result of fear, ignorance and superstition, not of a Bentham- or Mill-style calculus. And this is the first time I heard that Hitler or the Hutu of Rwanda had articulated a utilitarian rationale for their ghastly actions. Again, they were driven by fear, ignorance, superstition, and—in the case of Nazi Germany—a cynical calculation that power could be achieved and maintained in a nation marred by economic chaos by means of the time-tested stratagem of scapegoating.

From our point of view, witch hunters and genocidal dictators were ignorant and superstitious and acted out of fear, but they certainly didn’t think of themselves that way. To understand evil we must consider the point of view of the evil doers. What were these people thinking? Of course, it is easier to target the weak and defenseless, but why were they targeting anyone in the first place? The answer may be found in what I called in The Moral Arc “the witch theory of causality”:

It is evident that most of what we think of as our medieval ancestors’ barbaric practices were based on mistaken beliefs about how the laws of nature actually operate. If you—and everyone around you including ecclesiastical and political authorities—truly believe that witches cause disease, crop failures, sickness, catastrophes, and accidents, then it is not only a rational act to burn witches, it is a moral duty.

Referencing the trolley problem, I then note how easy it is to get modern people to throw a switch to kill one in order to save five, and therefore…

We should not be surprised, then, that our medieval ancestors performed the same kind of moral calculation in the case of witches. Medieval witch-burners torched women primarily out of a utilitarian calculus—better to kill the few to save the many. Other motives were present as well, of course, including scapegoating, the settling of personal scores, revenge against enemies, property confiscation, the elimination of marginalized and powerless people, and misogyny and gender politics. But these were secondary incentives grafted on to a system already in place that was based on a faulty understanding of causality.

My focus in that chapter was on the importance of science and reason to bending the moral arc by debunking incorrect theories of causality (e.g., witches), but here let me clarify to anyone who thinks I can’t even get my centuries straight that I’m not arguing Torquemada sat down with Pope Sixtus IV to compute the greater good sacrifice of 10,000 Jews in order to save 50,000 Catholics; instead I am aiming to understand the underlying psychological forces behind witch hunts and genocides, noting that in addition to the many other motives I listed (human behavior is almost never mono-causal), the utilitarian psychology of sacrificing the few to benefit the many is a major driver. Hitler and many of his German followers appear to really have believed the “stab in the back” conspiracy theory for why Germany lost the First World War: Jews, Marxists, Bolsheviks, and other “November Criminals” defeated the country from within. Yes, anti-Semitism was already rampant throughout Europe for centuries (note Martin Luther’s 1543 book The Jews and Their Lies), but from 1933 to 1945 that prejudice was put into service in the utilitarian calculus that sacrificing the Jews to save the Germans would serve the greatest good for the greatest number. In my chapter on evil in The Moral Arc, here is how I considered competing ethical systems in the context of moral conflicts:

Moral conflicts may also arise between prescriptions (what we ought to do) that bring rewards for action (pride from within, praise from without) and proscriptions (what we ought not to do) that bring punishments for violations (shame from within, shunning from without). (Eight of the Ten Commandments in the Decalogue, for example, are proscriptions.) As in the limbic system with it’s neural networks for emotions, approach-avoidance moral conflicts have neural circuitry called the behavioral activation system (BAS) and the behavioral inhibition system (BIS) that drive an organism forward or back, as in the case of the rat vacillating between approaching and avoiding the goal region…. These activation and inhibition systems can be measured in experimental settings in which subjects are presented with different scenarios in which they then offer their moral judgment (giving money to a homeless person as prescriptive vs. wearing a sexually suggestive dress to a funeral as proscriptive).

So, for example, under such conditions researchers have found that the BAS is affiliated with prescriptions but not proscriptions, whereas the BIS is affiliated with proscriptions but not prescriptions. I then demonstrate how certain emotions, such as disgust, can drive an organism away from a noxious stimulus because in the environment of our evolutionary ancestry noxiousness was an informational cue that a stimulus could kill you through poisoning (tainted food), or disease (through fecal matter, vomit, and other bodily effluvia). By contrast, anger drives an organism toward an offensive stimulus, such as another organism that attacks it. In an approach-avoidance system in a human social context, if you believe that Jews (or blacks, natives, homosexuals, Tutsis, etc.) are bacilli poisoning your tribe or nation, you naturally avoid them with disgust as you would any noxious stimulus; by contrast, if you believe that Jews (or blacks, natives, homosexuals, Tutsis, etc.) are dangerous enemies attacking your tribe or nation, you naturally approach them with anger as you would any assaulter.

This approach-avoidance conflict model in moral dilemmas shine a different light on such classic philosophical dilemmas as pitting a deontological (duty- or rule-bound) principle such as the prohibition against murder, against a utilitarian (greatest good) principle such as the trolley experiment where most people agree that it is acceptable to sacrifice one person in order to save five. Which is right? Thou shalt not kill, or thou shalt kill one to save five? Such conflicts cause much cognitive dissonance and vacillation—as in the approach-avoidance scenario—and moral philosophers have many work-arounds, as in the distinction between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism, the latter of which is further refined into Weak Rule Utilitarianism (WRU), which degrades into act utilitarianism when enough exceptions to the rule are made (it’s wrong to lie, except…) and the rules have sub-rules and sub-sub-rules, and Strong Rule Utilitarianism (SRU), which asserts that moral rules should be obeyed at all places and times, unless of course it’s a Nazi at the door demanding to know the whereabouts of Anne Frank.

To this end Massimo cites a 2010 paper by Helga Varden in the Journal of Social Philosophy, aptly titled “Kant and Lying to the Murderer at the Door…One More Time: Kant’s Legal Philosophy and Lies to Murderers and Nazis”, in which she argues that the Nazis “did not represent a public authority on Kant’s view and consequently there is no duty to abstain from lying to Nazis.” There is much more to her analysis of Kant, but it seems to me that in this example lying to Nazis is both a utilitarian/consequentialist decision because it would result in the death of an innocent, and a rule/rights decision that qualifies why we should care about the innocent in the first place: because, say, Kant’s rule about never treating people as an ends to a mean but as an ends in and of themselves, or that all people have a right to their own life.

5. Rights

This brings me to the final point on rights, which Massimo calls “true nonsense”, quoting Bentham’s famous assessment that rights are nonsense and natural rights “nonsense on stilts.” Massimo is here talking about finding rights in nature, but he misses the foundation of natural rights in his own throw-away line, “Yeah, we all prefer to be alive rather than dead, other things being equal.” And we all prefer to be free rather than enslaved, rich rather than poor, healthy rather than sick, safe rather than endangered, happy rather than sad, and the rest that comes with being alive. Here is how I open Chapter 1 of The Moral Arc:

Morality involves how we think and act toward other moral agents in terms of whether our thoughts and actions are right or wrong with regard to their survival and flourishing. By survival I mean the instinct to live, and by flourishing I mean having adequate sustenance, safety, shelter, bonding and social relations for physical and mental health. Any organism subject to natural selection—which includes all organisms on this planet and most likely on any other planet as well—will by necessity have this drive to survive and flourish, for if they didn’t they would not live long enough to reproduce and would therefore no longer be subject to natural selection.

Thus, I argue, the survival and flourishing of sentient beings is my moral starting point, and it is grounded in principles that are themselves based on nature’s laws and on human nature—principles that can be tested in both the laboratory and in the real world. I emphasize the individual because it is individual sentient beings who perceive, emote, respond, love, feel, and suffer—not populations, races, genders, groups, or nations. In fact, the Rights Revolutions were grounded on the freedom and autonomy of persons, not groups. Individuals vote, not races or genders. Individuals want to be treated equally, not races. Rights protect individuals, not groups; in fact, most rights (such as those enumerated in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution), protect individuals from being discriminated against as members of a group. The singular and separate organism is to biology and society what the atom is to physics—a fundamental unit of nature.

Although moral truths are not measurable in the same sense as physical phenomena—such as the mass of a particle or the gravitational force of a star—there are abstract Platonic truths that most scientists agree exist, such as those in mathematics, a point made by the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker in a 2008 article in the New York Times magazine (“The Moral Instinct”):

[W]e are born with a rudimentary concept of number, but as soon as we build on it with formal mathematical reasoning, the nature of mathematical reality forces us to discover some truths and not others. (No one who understands the concept of two, the concept of four and the concept of addition can come to any conclusion but that 2 + 2 = 4.) Perhaps we are born with a rudimentary moral sense, and as soon as we build on it with moral reasoning, the nature of moral reality forces us to some conclusions but not others.

Take cooperation. Over billions of years of natural history and thousands of years of human history, there has been an increasing tendency toward the playing of cooperative “nonzero” games between organisms. This tendency has allowed more nonzero gamers to survive. Thus, natural selection favored those who cooperated by playing nonzero games, thereby passing on their genes for cooperative behavior. In time, reasoning moral agents would conclude that both should cooperate toward mutual benefit rather than compete to either a zero-sum outcome in which one gains and the other loses, or both lose in a defection cascade. Pinker draws out the implications for moral realism:

If I appeal to you to do something that affects me then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours if I want you to take me seriously. I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it.

From here we can build an ethical system based on human nature and natural rights, by which I mean rights that are universal and inalienable and thus not contingent only upon the laws and customs of a particular culture or government. It is in this sense that I am a moral realist. I believe that there are real moral values. Abraham Lincoln, for example, was a moral realist when he famously said:

If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.

Since I wrote a book about the Holocaust, Denying History, I would add:

If the Holocaust is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.

How do we know that slavery and the Holocaust are wrong—really wrong? Really as in reality, as in the nature of things. Since I’m grounding morality in science let’s start with the most basic of sciences, the physical sciences. It is my hypothesis that in the same way that Galileo and Newton discovered physical laws and principles about the natural world that really are out there, so too have social scientists discovered moral laws and principles about human nature and society that really do exist. Where? In our nature.

Is there anyone (other than slave holders and Nazis) who would argue that slavery and the Holocaust are not really wrong, absolutely wrong, objectively wrong, naturally wrong? END

About the Author

Dr. Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University where he teaches Skepticism 101. He is the author of Why People Believe Weird Things, Why Darwin Matters, The Science of Good and Evil, and The Moral Arc. His new book is Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality & Utopia.

This article was published on April 27, 2018.


12 responses to “Moral Philosophy and its Discontents”

  1. G Aponte says:

    The Trolley Problem is framed in an imaginary environment where the alternatives are limited to those given. In the real world the alternatives are essentially unlimited.

    Believers in “The Greater Good” operate in the imaginary world of limited, or binary, alternatives. When presented with a real-world problem, they take the few superficial alternatives (that anyone can easily see) for the only alternatives. From there, they suppose their duty is to use their intelect to find the alternative that better fits “The Greater Good”.

    People who operate in the real world know that there are always more alternatives than the obvious ones. They apply their intellect instead to find an alternative that can be accepted. If none can be found one must be created, but the trolley must be saved without killing anyone.

    The evil in “The Greater Good” belief is that it cancells the conscience. People are sacrificed, families destroyed, many die —”but I did it for The Greater Good.” Greater-gooders sleep soundly every night, and die old and happy thinking they were brave for making the “tough” decisions that served “The Greater Good”.

  2. says:

    1. The Trolley Problem is a false dilemma once framed correctly. Most people take a mistaken utilitarian view when facing the first part of this test, while a majority takes a correct decision when the problem is re-framed in a follow up scenario.
    2. Description: You are the driver of a runaway tram which you can only steer from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other. A utilitarian view asserts that it is obligatory to steer to the track with one man on it. Most people select this option when faced with the problem. A follow up problem is: you are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed? In this case, most people chose to not push the fat man to his death.
    3. The dilemma is false for several reasons:
    a. First, a clear moral law of all mankind is “do not kill your human fellow being”. By willingly directing the trolley one way or the other, this law is violated.
    b. Second, to make this violation palatable, people are told that they “save” five lives at the expense of only one life. This is wrong: we all die sooner or later, therefore “saving” someone is really just “delaying their death” by an unknown duration. “Delaying death” is not as appealing as “saving” but it is the reality. In addition, “utility” can be measured in many different ways and its value will be different every time. For instance, the five people may be doomed for other reasons, while the single guy may be essential for the survival of the community. The decision could be seen self-serving if one of those at risk has a special relationship to the driver. It is not our duty or competence to decide between lives.
    c. Third, it is possible that the two options presented are not what they seem, and instead the trolley is harmless when left alone. Maybe the trolley is set to derail due to speed and terrain before reaching the five people, or maybe the five people are protected by an unseen safety device.
    4. The Trolley scenario is supposed to become hot as Artificial Intelligence expands and will eventually have to handle these kind of situations. However, AI is just a tool designed by its creators that remain fully responsible for its actions. If the machine is programmed to sacrifice one person or the other, its creators will be liable, just as current equipment makers are liable for any harm caused by their device.
    5. In conclusion, we have a moral duty to help others, but we should refuse to participate in life tradeoff experiments. Those that do participate anyway, are liable for their actions.

  3. Colin Hall says:

    I agree with Louis Cypher about the real-world implications of the trolley problem, but my concern is about the amount of information available to the person at the switch. What if one of the five people being saved at the expense of the one is a future Adolf Hitler (or substitute him with your favourite personification of evil)? The person making the choice surely does not have enough information to make an informed decision and is hoping that the choice turns out to have been the correct one. Risky business. Triage requires knowledge of the individuals involved and does not normally include the prevaricator’s favoured choice: inaction.

  4. Barbara Harwood says:

    Medical science is always trying to make decisions based on utilitarianism. If a heart is available for transplant, it will go to the person who may be expected to make the best use of it. One person may appear to have a better chance of survival, so more effort is given to saving that life. Decisions of this nature are made every day. Triage is another example.

  5. skeptonomist says:

    Such events as the holocaust are not the result of philosophy or a logical process gone wrong, they are probably the result of what is essentially tribal instinct in the service of evolutionary fitness, that is maximal reproduction of the particular genes carried by the tribe and suppression of other gene lines. But since humans do tend to think in a quasi-logical way, we develop logical or “philosophical” justifications for things like genocide and war. If such events are ever to be curtailed it will probably be as a result of understanding and countering the instinctive behavior in some way (not yet known), not a result of developing a more perfect and logical philosophy. Philosophies will always tend to be at the service of more basic behavioral drivers than logic.

  6. Louis Cypher says:

    Act utilitarianism is nonsense. Rule utilitarianism is nonsense on stilts.

    As Shermer points out, weak rule utilitarianism devolves into act utilitarianism and strong rule utilitarianism devolves into deontology. The overarching fallacy of utilitarianism is that it assumes perfect (or near perfect) knowledge and wisdom. It assumes that the greatest good is absolutely known and the rules (or acts ) necessary to obtain the assumed greatest good is absolutely known. How well utilitarianism works depends solely on the talent and accuracy of whoever is attempting to execute it. In the imperfect world with very imperfect leaders, rule utilitarianism in its true form is a fallacy. In actual execution, the rules we enact have the high goals of greater good but are qualified (limited) by the weaknesses of the human condition. That is how we got to the laws (rules) we have now.
    There are many fallacies of the trolley problem that remain ignored by the philosophers that present the problem because it distracts from their abstract point. What about the trolley brakes? How do you know they will not work? Who is qualified to make that decision? How do you know the trolley will hit anybody? Is the conductor screaming it? How does the person at the switch get the information he needs to make an accurate decision? from screams? If you ask these questions, the philosopher presenting the problem just attempts to dismiss them which is to dismiss the real word from the problem. The trolley problem, like most all utilitarian thought experiments, collapse in the light of the real world.

    Utilitarianism is philosophers counting better angels on the head of a pin…

    Don’t get me wrong, it’s my opinion that Massimo is one of the best philosophers of this time but there is a reason he is a Stoic. Utilitarianism is abstract nonsense that can only remind us to try to do good where Shermer’s argument is that we have evolved to do good anyway. Utilitarianism is nothing more than an intellectual manifestation of our already existing desire to do good. Is that really a philosophy at all?

    My argument is a bit heavy handed but there is something there.

  7. Mary Goetsch says:

    Right on, Mark Rudis (#4). Pugliucci gave Shermer the opportunity to re-report on a new way of measuring and looking at classical utilitarian morality. I think whether one is a full-time “professional” philosopher is irrelevant when it comes to philosophy! It can be argued that to earn compensation might be a conflict of interest for issues of pure academics and/or thought experiments. The “control” of mind-only is destroyed when money enters the idea.

  8. Brent Meeker says:

    I think a lot of clarity could be brought to these questions if a distinction were maintained between moral and ethical: Where “moral” means what I consider good, what satisfies my values and “ethical” means what is good for society, what rules allow most satisfaction for the members of society. I’m not saying this is some natural distinction. Before the Enlightenment the two were considered the same. God commanded both morals and ethics. The advantage of this distinction is that personal values of individuals can be considered incorrigible givens. Ethics then becomes a kind of statistical mechanics of society that aims to maximize those values. Sure there are psychopaths whose values are contrary to most, so they must be removed from society. But there are those whose values are simply eccentric and have no consequences for society; so no rules are needed to curb them.

  9. Mark A Rudis says:

    Shermer dances deftly in the grand ballroom of philosophical and scientific disciplines while blithely partnering with the detractors and allies on his dance card.
    Moral Philosophy And Its Discontents is a pithy essay – one of Shermer’s adroitest.

  10. David says:

    Is gravity wrong? Is the sun wrong? Are social tendencies wrong? Are survival tendencies wrong?
    I would say the answer to all these questions is the same. Unfortunately, as a determinist, I think the universe is a unity and every part is controlled by the whole. Hence, everything humans do is not of our choice, and hence morality is an illusion.
    However, I do agree that some things are not nice, and for this I curse the universe.

  11. ACW says:

    Dan Lynch: No, that isn’t really how we know. I know – and most other people know – that I wouldn’t like to be treated like a lab chimp or a Perdue broiler chicken or a raccoon that happened to be walking along the path that an SUV driver sees as the shortest distance between two points. But in those and similar contexts, the average human figures his own needs, comfort, appetites, habits, and/or convenience trump the interests of another living creature that happens to be of a different species. It is only in very recent history that human culture that the notion of universal human (an important limiting adjective) rights has emerged – just about any human culture, the antebellum South didn’t invent slavery nor the Afrikaners invent separatism nor Al Qaeda invent religious persecution. Simply to say ‘I would not like to be treated’ in that manner is an expression of personal preference, not a reliable moral or ethical principle. (And as Shaw said, ‘never do unto others as you would have them do unto you; their tastes may differ’. E.g.: ‘Beat me!’ cries the masochist. ‘No’, sneers the sadist.)
    With regard, though, to utilitarianism, it may not have emerged as a codified system with a label until the Enlightenment – at which point it marks a turn toward objective logic to justify ethics, rather than the reliance on a supernatural diktat which the ‘logicians’ such as Augustine or Aquinas, or the sages of the Talmud, then engaged in backflips, somersaults, polkas, and general dithering to ‘justify God’s ways to man’. (I’d cut Milton some slack, because he was primarily a poet, not a theologian or philosopher.) From the earliest days, though, utilitarian practice was the rule of thumb. primitive tribal cultures on every continent (except Antarctica and perhaps Australia) have offered up the lives of their youths and maidens to appease angry gods, or invading armies, or animist forces and evil spirits, or because the lesser evil was the only way to avert the greater. Agammemnon sacrificed his daughter in order to raise a favourable wind for the Greek army; Caiaphas told the Sanhedrin to hand Jesus over to the Romans for the sake of preventing action against the entire Jewish community; the escaped slave or hidden Jew smothers her suckling baby rather than have its cries give away the hiding place of her and her fellow refugees. That in at least some cases their reasoning relied on the supernatural rather than practical doesn’t change the motive, as Spock said, ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or of the one’. Tough if you happen to be the ‘one’, but you’re outvoted.

  12. Dan Lynch says:

    Excellent essay frittered away in the penultimate paragraph. “How do we (I) know that slavery and the Holocaust are wrong—really wrong?” Easy, I would not like to be treated like a slave or a mid-twentieth century Central European Jew! I would not like to be treated as is a non-white person in modern America. Q.E.D.

    (Disclaimer: I’m a geologist, so what do I know?)

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