Michael Shermer’s writing on Moral Laws

What is the origin of a people’s morality?

A high percentage of a people, of Americans, would place the source of their moral truths in religion. And perhaps most numerous among these are the Evangelicals, those 100 thousands who make up the largest portion of President Trump’s electoral base, still active now as the President begins to campaign for a second term.

The evangelicals’ reading of the Bible places them by and large  against abortion, same sex marriage,  LGBTQ people, government and private programs protecting a woman’s right to choose,  the backing of religious conservative candidates for judgeships, and much else of the same or similar nature. (How did his happen, the rise of the Evangelicals, in a country founded not so much by the born agains as by deists, agnostics, and probably even non- believers?)

The-School-of-Athens-1509-Raphael
Raphael, The School of Athens, 1509

But there are others of us who would place the source of our morality in ourselves as we attempt to know ourselves, whether through religion, or science, of just through our own life experiences. This morality is based on who we are and hence it behooves us to follow the example of the Greeks and to learn and know all we can about ourselves. If something is good or bad it should not be  because someone or some organization, or even some sacred book, says it is. Rather it should be because we have found it to be good or bad ourselves. It is our nature to be constantly making moral judgements based on our own experiences.

In the article that follows Michael Shermer argues that to some extent morality, our moral judgements, ought to follow from what we have found to be the truth about people, just as the laws of science follow from what we have determined to be true about nature. I would differ from Shermer only to the extent that Hume’s difference between “ought” and “is” (that the two should never meet, see note below) does hold and that the moral truths of what ought to be, of what we ought to do, while a kind of truth, are not the same as the truths of science.

If they are in some respects the same it’s only to the extent that the truths proceed from what we learn, in the one case about nature, and in the other about ourselves, about who and what we are.

In the text that follows, and without permission from the author, I’ve borrowed from and considerably edited, without changing the meaning I trust,  the piece by Michael Shermer on Moral Laws, –Mr. Hume: Tear. Down. This. Wall.

How might a social scientist “discover” moral laws in human nature as a physical scientist might discover natural laws in laboratory experiments. It’s a good question. Is it possible to say in some absolute sense that specific acts, such as the large scale massacres of the Holocaust, are evil in an absolute sense?

Pace Abraham Lincoln, who famously said, “If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.” I hereby declare in an unequivocal defense of moral realism:  If the Holocaust is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.

Let me approach this defense of moral realism from the perspective of a physical scientist. 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. Just as it was inevitable that the astronomer Johannes Kepler would discover that planets have elliptical orbits—given that he was making accurate astronomical measurements, and given that planets really do travel in elliptical orbits, he could hardly have discovered anything else.

Similarly “scientists” studying political, economic, social, and moral subjects will discover certain things that are true in these fields of inquiry. For example, that democracies are better than autocracies, that market economies are superior to command economies, that torture and the death penalty do not curb crime, that burning women as witches is a fallacious idea, that women are not too weak and emotional to run companies or countries, that blacks do not like being enslaved and that the Jews do not want to be exterminated.

Why? My answer is that it is in human nature to struggle to survive and flourish in the teeth of nature’s entropy while having the freedom, autonomy, and prosperity available in free societies, built as they were on the foundation of Enlightenment philosophers and scientists seeking to discover the best way for humans to live, best meaning enabling individual sentient beings, that is you and I, to live out your and our evolved destinies.

From here we can derive the purpose of life: it is to push back against the entropy of nature, entropy being a fundamental physical rule or law that closed systems (those not taking in energy, those in a box six feet under) move from order to disorder, from organization to disorganization, from structured to unstructured, and from warm to cold. Although entropy can be temporarily reversed in an open system with an outside source of energy, such as heating cold food in a microwave, isolated systems decay as entropy increases.

The law that entropy always increases holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. This law, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, is the First Law of life. If your idea or theory is found to go against this law there is no salvation. And evolution or natural selection is the only known natural process that seems to resist this law, by pushing populations of organisms thermodynamically as it were uphill to higher degrees of functional order, offsetting the inevitable increase in disorder that would otherwise take place.

This what we might call “extropy” only happens in an open system with an energy source, such as our planet receiving the rays of the sun and thereby providing the energy that temporarily reverses entropy, or own molecules of RNA and DNA replicating themselves and thereby sending near-duplicates of themselves out into the world that providing for the continuation of further natural selection, for further life forms. However, if we do nothing, entropy will take its course and we will move toward a higher state of disorder (ultimately causing our demise). So the most basic purpose in life is to combat entropy by supporting systems open to other energy sources enabling us not only to survive but to reproduce, and flourish.

From the Paleolithic to the present, human groups have evolved from bands of hundreds, to tribes of thousands, to chiefdoms of tens of thousands, to states of hundreds of thousands, to nations of millions. This could not have happened through zero-sum exchanges alone. The hallmarks of humanity ——language, tools, hunting, gathering, farming, writing, art, music, science, and technology—– could not have come about through the actions of isolated zero-sum gamers. Thus, reasoning moral agents would eventually 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.

The moral progress we have witnessed over the centuries—the abolition of slavery, torture, and the death penalty; the expansion of rights to blacks, women, children, workers, and now even animals—has as its origin the scientific and reason-based concept that the world is governed by laws and principles that we can understand and apply, whether it is solar systems, eco systems, political systems, economic systems, or social and moral systems.

Whether or not you consider “ought” to be a scientific category for centuries we have been treating the is of the world—the way things really are that we can discover—as a basis for determining what we ought to do morally. Thus science per se does not in any recognizable sense imply that survival and flourishing is either good or bad, because there is no scientific test for good or bad and no scientific proof that they are positive or negative in moral terms, i.e. that this is the way things ought to be.

Excuse me? We have, in fact, been running such experiments for centuries—the natural experiments of societies and their social, political, and economic systems. Every state or national constitution is an experiment in social and moral living, and we can compare them through the comparative method social scientists and policy makers routinely use. Different laws and systems produce different outcomes. We can study and learn from them, with our evaluative criteria grounded in human nature and our desire to survive and flourish.

Sure, future scientists may one day discover that humans do not have an instinct to survive and flourish, that most people do not want freedom, autonomy, and prosperity, that women want to be lorded over by men, that animals enjoy being tortured, killed, and eaten, that some people like being enslaved, and that large populations of people don’t object to being liquidated in gas chambers. But I doubt it. Through science and reason we have followed a path of discovery that has led more people in more places to lead better lives and enjoy more moral rights, respect and consideration. The is-ought fallacy is a red herring. Mr. Hume: Tear. Down. This. Wall.**

Dr. Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. He is the author of The Moral Arc, The Believing Brain, Why People Believe Weird Things, Why Darwin Matters, and The Science of Good and Evil.

Note on “Ought/Is” difference. Hume discusses the problem in book III, part I, section I of his book, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739):

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.”

Hume asks, given knowledge of the way the universe is, in what sense can we say it ought to be different? Hume calls for caution against such inferences in the absence of any explanation of how the ought-statements follow from the is-statements. But how exactly can an “ought” be derived from an “is”? The question, prompted by Hume’s small paragraph, has become one of the central questions of ethical theory, and Hume is usually assigned the position that such a derivation is impossible. This complete severing of “is” from “ought” has been given the graphic designation of Hume’s Guillotine. (Michael Shermer)

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