It’s Getting Better All the Time. Review of Shermer’s “The Moral Arc”

The Wall Street Journal, January 19, 2015

By Sally Satel

For hundreds of years, people flocked to public hangings as a form of entertainment. Onlookers crowded into town squares and brought their families, reveling in the carnival atmosphere. Today most people are sickened at the idea of merriment at an execution. (Many are disturbed that executions take place at all.) We recoil from other once-common practices, too: slavery, the mistreatment of children, animal cruelty. Such shifts in attitude or belief surely constitute a form of moral progress and suggest, for once, that civilization is advancing and not receding.

How such progress came about is the fascinating question at the heart of “The Moral Arc,” an ambitious book by Michael Shermer, a prolific science writer and the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine. Mr. Shermer proudly stands on the shoulders of Steven Pinker, the author of the monumental quantitative history “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” (2011). In “The Moral Arc,” Mr. Shermer reminds us of some of Mr. Pinker’s findings but moves beyond the reduction in violence to examine changes in other moral spheres.

Mr. Shermer defines moral progress as an “increase in the survival and flourishing of sentient beings,” which he illustrates with graphs and charts that reveal, among other things, a decline in war-related deaths, the expansion of the food supply, the reduction in major epidemics, the growth of world GDP and the spread of democracy.

Humanitarian achievements in the West, Mr. Shermer notes, began in earnest the 18th century. Yet the ability to reason ethically is not a product of the Enlightenment. A moral instinct seems to be present at birth: Even infants possess innate intuitions about fairness and reciprocity, as Mr. Shermer explains. All societies punish free riders. The Golden Rule and Babylon’s Code of Hammurabi (advocating proportionate punishment) predate the ancient Greeks. So why did we need an Enlightenment to jump-start our moral progress?

Mr. Shermer explores several theories. He observes that “scientific rationalism”—favoring systematic observation and hypothesis testing—helped to make people better at abstract thinking and at seeing inconsistencies between abusive practices and the values they purported to hold. Criminal-justice systems came to fix blame more accurately and punish transgressors more fairly.

With rational inquiry, too, more facts became known. As Mr. Shermer observes, some reprehensible actions “are not immoral so much as they are mistaken.” Take witchcraft. “Now that we have a scientific understanding of agriculture, climate, disease, and other vectors,” he writes, “the witch theory of causality has fallen into disuse.” Similarly, campaigns in the modern era against dolphin slaughter and elephant poaching have received a boost from research showing that dolphins and elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror, an ability that has made them seem humanlike.

The moral arc was greatly extended, Mr. Shermer says, when more and more people began traveling to new lands and trading with strangers. As populations became literate, they read mass-produced accounts of other peoples’ lives. The circle of empathy widened beyond the tribe to strangers and foreigners. Improvements in hygiene and medical technology, as Mr. Pinker has argued, may have also had a moralizing effect. After all, dirty and diseased people elicit disgust, a pathway to dehumanization.

Mr. Shermer is a buoyant culture warrior—and an eloquent one—who believes that our better angels will continue to soar. Although an atheist, he is respectful of religion’s role in individual well-being. Nonetheless, he concludes that science and reason, abetted by free markets and democracy, are the drivers of justice and freedom. Insisting that scientists should have a voice in determining values and morals, Mr. Shermer argues that “the goal of a science-based morality should be to construct a set of provisional moral precepts that are true for most people in most circumstances most of the time.”

But how? Science can’t determine values. The desire to enhance human flourishing, Mr. Shermer’s mission, itself reflects a value—a Bentham-like utilitarianism—that he assumed prior to his examination of how science might advance it. Science can give us only more efficient ways of bringing about desired outcomes, not tell us which outcomes to desire. Even the definition of “flourishing” depends on philosophical questions beyond the reach of the laboratory or algorithm.

What can we do to push humanity along the moral arc? Mr. Shermer lists 10 precepts that are largely variants of the Golden Rule. “If by fiat I had to reduce these ten principles to just one it would be this: Try to expand the moral sphere and to push the arc of the moral universe just a bit farther toward truth, justice, and freedom for more sentient beings in more places more of the time.”

The thought is lovely but mainly aimed at low-hanging fruit. In the West, most citizens enjoy basic freedoms and a decent quality of life, although there is obviously room for improvement. The interesting debates today are about how to manage the clash of competing values within a liberal, multiethnic society, a topic about which Mr. Shermer has little to say.

“The arc of the moral universe is long,” Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1965, “but it bends toward justice.” Long indeed. In retrospect, it seems remarkable that arguments against now-obvious injustices, such as slavery and women’s subjection, had to be made repeatedly over centuries before they finally “took.” “The Moral Arc” presents an impressive account of how far we have come. But it also reminds us that reason, for all its muscle, will need a lot of help to make our moral progress continue.

Dr. Satel, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is co-author, with Scott Lilienfeld, of “Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience.”