Saturday, July 8, 2017

Michael Shermer's Moral Arc

The 475 pages are 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 this into 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. Moreover, 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 Moral Arc: How Science and Reason
Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom

by Michael Shermer (Henry Holt and Company, 2015).

“As I documented in The Mind of the Market, trade breaks down the natural animosity between strangers while simultaneously elevating trust between them, and as the economist Paul Zak has demonstrated, trust is among the most powerful factors affecting economic growth.” (page 126)

“The effects of trade have been documented in the real world as well as in the lab. In a 2010 study published in Science titled “Markets, Religion, Community Size, and the Evolution of Fairness and Punishment,” the psychologist Joseph Henrich and his colleagues engaged more than two thousand people in fifteen small communities around the world in two-player exchange games in which one player is given a sum of money equivalent to a day’s pay and is allowed to keep or share some of it, or all of it, with another person.  You might think that most people would just keep all the money, but in fact, the scientists discovered that people in hunter-gather communities shared about 25 percent, while people in societies who regularly engage in trade gave away about 45 percent.  Although religion was a modest factor in making people more generous, the strongest predictor was “market integration” defined as “the percentage of a household’s total calories that were purchased from the market, as opposed to homegrown, hunted, or fished.”  (page 127) (See "Success of the WEIRD People" on this blog for a review of the wider study.)

That is especially telling as both preppers and greens advocate for economic and ecological self-sufficiency, living from the land and close to the Earth. 

Left: one person, one day;
slow changes over 100,000 years.
Right: Very many people,
very many per day. Rapid changes
over 20 years and still evolving.
Shermer goes into some statistical detail demonstrating that trade leads to democracy, and democratic government lessens the likelihood and damages of war.  He does the same for domestic war, that is, for crime, showing a decrease in violent crime and a concomitant decline in capital punishment.
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.

“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)
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.

The essential arguments in this book that are so easily accepted by the right wing libertarians of the 21st century condemn the traditionalist conservatives of the 20th century.  Ending racial prejudice – even the very idea of “race” – recognizing social equality independent of sex (or gender), and abandoning the irrationality of superstition (especially from self-identified “fundamentalists”) should have been the agenda of the Republican Party. But the GOP never understood individualism; and the Democrats never perceived individuals apart from their special interest groups.


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