- Hardcover: 560 pages
- Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; F First Edition edition (January 20, 2015)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0805096914
- ISBN-13: 978-0805096910
- Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.7 x 9.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 133 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #517,745 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Moral Arc: How Science Makes Us Better People F First Edition Edition
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Steven Pinker; Photo Credit: Rebecca Goldstein
Steven Pinker is Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and the author of The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Stuff of Thought, and The Better Angels of Our Nature. His latest book is The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. He was named by TIME magazine as one of the top 100 thinkers in the world.
Guest Review of The Moral Arc
Guest review by Steven Pinker
I decided to write The Better Angels of Our Nature when I discovered that violence had declined across many scales of time and magnitude: everything from war and genocide to homicide, infanticide, domestic abuse, and cruelty to animals. The more I looked into the past the more hopeful I became for the future. We have been doing something right, and I tried to figure out what it is and how we can do more of it.
If you wanted a sequel to The Better Angels of Our Nature—one which explores all our spheres of moral progress, not just the decline of violence—Michael Shermer’s The Moral Arc is it. Shermer has engaged the full mantle of moral progress and considered how far we have come and how much farther that arc can be bent toward truth, justice, and freedom. The Moral Arc is a thrilling book, one which could change your view of human history and human destiny. Through copious data and compelling examples Shermer shows how the arc of the moral universe, seen from a historical vantage point, bends toward civil rights and civil liberties, the spread of liberal democracy and market economies, and the expansion of women’s rights, gay rights, and even animal rights. Never in history has such a large percentage of the world’s population enjoyed so much freedom, autonomy, and prosperity.
Shermer also engages the conundrum of free will and responsibility. Though a thoroughgoing materialist, allowing no room for a soul to push our neurons around, he argues that we are volitional beings who must be held accountable for our actions. He explores the implications of this notion of culpability for justice, arguing that the criminal justice system must be reformed to reflect a rational and scientific understanding of human nature, in particular by adding restorative justice to a system that currently is based on retribution.
The themes of The Moral Arc are not just historical but in the headlines. The steadily unfolding revolution of gay marriage gives Shermer the opportunity to show how rights revolutions of many different kinds come about. Shermer devotes two chapters to showing that it is not religion that has been the driver of moral progress, but Enlightenment-inspired emphasis on science and reason. Gay rights and same-sex marriage have been opposed by most religions (the exception are the avowedly liberal religions); the expansion of the moral sphere to include homosexuals is a modern manifestation of the Enlightenment ideals of equal rights and equal treatment under the law.
Finally, Shermer debunks the lazy assumption that science has nothing to say about morals and values. Values we take for granted, such as civil rights and civil liberties, were explored and popularized by Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, who consciously modeled their reasoning on the greatest scientists of their ages. They considered the project of constructing a liberal democracy and a market economy as a kind of scientific experiment.
The Moral Arc will give any reason-loving, evidence-respecting, scientifically minded reader hope for humanity. It shows that our deepest problems of the past, present, and future may been solved by our ability to reason our way to solutions and persuade our peers that they can be successfully implemented.
“This is one of the best recent books that I have read, and it's the one that I expect to re-read most often. It's an honest, clear account of morality and justice that makes those theoretical concepts come alive as ubiquitous real-life choices. In the process of reading it, you'll learn about wrenching moral dilemmas such as paying ransoms to Somali pirates, maintaining nuclear weapons as deterrents, good people becoming Nazis, and the immorality of the Bible and of the Ten Commandments.” ―Jared Diamond, Pulitzer-prize-winning author of the best-selling books Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse, and The World until Yesterday
“I suspect that people will be arguing with Michael Shermer's premise before they read a page: ‘The moral arc is bending toward truth, justice, and freedom? Is he hallucinating? Just look at...' In these cynical times, where right and left foresee disaster and despair (albeit for different reasons), Shermer's monumental opus, spanning centuries, nations, and cultures, is bound to provoke debate and open minds. Exactly what an important work of skepticism, science, and reason should do.” ―Carol Tavris, Ph.D., social psychologist and author of The Mismeasure of Woman and coauthor of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)
“A thrilling and fascinating book, which could change your view of human history and human destiny. If you wanted a sequel to The Better Angels of Our Nature, one which explored all of our spheres of moral progress, not just the decline of violence, this is it.” ―Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and author of The Blank Slate and The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century
“It is difficult to imagine how the arc of morality can bend toward justice without rational examination of the consequences of one's actions. As Michael Shermer passionately describes in this ambitious, thoroughly researched, yet remarkably accessible work of scholarship, the fabric of modern morality derives not from religion, but in large part from secular notions of rational empiricism. This message needs to be shared more broadly for the good our society, and hopefully this book will do just that.” ―Lawrence M. Krauss, Foundation Professor and Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, and bestselling author of A Universe from Nothing and The Physics of Star Trek
“Michael Shermer makes the astonishing claim that science, precisely because of its rational, dispassionate, and enlightened attitude towards revealing the truth, has helped to lay the moral groundwork for modern society, pointing the way to a more just and moral world. Instead of being a passive observer to the dance of history and the evolution of ethics, Shermer makes the outrageous claim that science has in fact been one of the principle actors. Bravo, I say.” ―Michio Kaku, theoretical physicist, author of the best seller The Future of the Mind, and Physics of the Future
“Michael Shermer argues that science, reason, and critical thinking come first; these are the ideas that produce stable, peaceful democracies. He documents and assesses society's successes and failures through the troubled history of humankind--and he's relentless. He connects the arc of the rise of reason and science with a country's economic success, and the overall worldwide decline in violence and suppression of our fellow humans, especially women. If you are religious, have a look. Shermer takes your faith to task and celebrates science as a path to the better moral future that citizens everywhere long for.” ―Bill Nye, The Science Guy, CEO, The Planetary Society
“The Moral Arc displays the impressive depth of Michael Shermer's scholarship, wisdom and empathetic humanity, and it climaxes in a visionary flight of futuristic optimism. A memorable book, a book to recommend and discuss late into the night.” ―Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion
“Michael Shermer is a beacon of reason in an ocean of irrationality.” ―Neil deGrasse Tyson
About the Author
Michael Shermer is the author of Why People Believe Weird Things, The Believing Brain, and eight other books on the evolution of human beliefs and behavior. He is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, the editor of Skeptic.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University. He lives in Southern California.
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It brings me no joy therefore, to have come to the conclusion that "The Moral Arc" is, if considered as a work promoting a specific thesis, profoundly disjointed and unconvincing. The basic idea, as it were, is that as man becomes more scientific and rational he also necessarily becomes more moral. This is a "grand thesis" that encompasses virtually every aspect of human endeavor, so Shermer's building it up with what are in effect disconnected cherry-picked "data set" (the abolition of slavery over time, enfranchisement, acceptance of gay marriage) building blocks to me is completely unconvincing even if I am inherently sympathetic to the underlying ideas. In many ways, Shermer's anecdotally evidenced thesis embarrassingly mirrors the same sort of flim-flammery that he has elsewhere exposed as the hallmarks of charlatans from astrologers to homeopaths and beyond. Were Shermer's philosophical theorizing more taught and insightful, the whole thing might pass my smell test as an "inductive and reasoned argument towards a semi-important proposition", but, alas, it just doesn't.
At some point in this book, perhaps about where Shermer spends the better part of a page discussing how elephants have been shown to be able to understand human pointing gestures (to a much higher degree of generality than chimpanzees and dogs can), I had to re-look at the cover and ask myself "what, exactly, am I reading here?" The conclusion I came to is this: "The Moral Arc" is a hodgepodge of the well-travelled Shermer's notes from and summaries of a selection of the doubtlessly fascinating lectures, conversations, papers, and books that his hard work and fame have made him privy to over the years. And, even though most adult readers will already be familiar with some of the examples and stories (for example, who of us is not at this point familiar with the Milgram experiment?), others will doubtlessly be new to us. In this newness lies the real value of the book. The "moral arc" theory by contrast seems almost like an afterthought meant to string the examples together. Let me be clear - there very much is good value and good reading in many of the examples. In fact, you can almost pick up the book and start reading at any point to find one.
I am an atheist not because I think that atheism leads to the best of all possible worlds but because I see no credible evidence for god or gods. I am a proponent of rational skepticism and the scientific method because of its descriptive usefulness, not because of its normative possibilities. And while I'd like Shermer's thesis to be true, I also suspect that it's only by dint of historical accident that it might be true. As an atheist, I'd ask the reader to contemplate the full extent of General Omar Bradley's often abbreviated quotation:
"We have men of science, too few men of God. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. The world has achieved brilliance without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living. If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner."
Even as an atheist, I can say that Bradley was on to something--not because of his pushing of any particular religious claims, of course, but because he has correctly allowed for the possibility that science and morality might proceed along orthogonal paths. Shermer is not totally blind to this idea, but still the core thesis of "the Moral Arc" basically falls flat because it posits a stronger causal connection than I think the evidence really supports. We're one nuclear bomb in the hands of a madman away from Shermer's argument failing spectacularly and utterly as it won't be a more moral universe if we are all dead.
Conclusion: read it for the examples, not the thesis. For a more challenging and tautly argued thesis advocating for a new "science of morality", see Sam Harris' "the Moral Landscape."
"The Moral Arc" by Michael Shermer: Recommended, but with reservations.
If you liked Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape, then you will probably find a lot to enjoy about this book. Although Harris' work is very different, Shermer, in his work, reiterates the controversial claim that scientific thinking can determine morals (an idea that Harris advocates strongly), or that what is can determine what you ought to do. He claims that intentions and actions which are productive or destructive in contributing to the mental or physical flourishing and survival of other sentient beings make up our moral "right" and "wrong." Going a step further than Harris, Shermer explains that the justification for this kind of morality is that, through natural selection, sentient beings have developed an innate desire to survive and flourish, and to pursue that desire is their natural right.
In reading The Moral Arc, I was very impressed with the wide range of information and research it must have taken to put together such a book. The scope of the work is very broad, and Shermer doesn't hesitate to give his views in considerable depth. He backs up many of his points with history, polls, and case studies. He also uses many personal anecdotes, which I don't think contribute much in proving his case, but they were a good tool in illustrating his points. I also found that I enjoyed reading the anecdotes to learn about how many of the issues directly relate to the author.
I also enjoyed that, throughout most of the book, Shermer takes a very optimistic point of view. He shows how far we have come in terms of violence and civil rights. In the last chapter, he makes predictions by projecting the trends into a very bright future and even speculates about the very distant future. However, it isn't all positive. Shermer also talks about the psychology behind the minds of Nazi's, sociopaths, and the demons we all have inside. I was disheartened to see, through the Milgram experiment, other case studies, and historical examples, how the majority of us can come to do evil.
What disappointed me most in the book is Shermer's explanation of Mormonism and the discrimination of African Americans on page 154. He had mistakenly claimed that Mormons believe that African Americans were the descendants of the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon and that the Nephites and Lamanites were considered to be two of the tribes of Israel. Actually, the belief is that African Americans were cursed because they are the seed of Cain, who killed Abel. Also, both the Nephites and Lamanites came from the same seed of Judah. I would expect the Editor in Chief of "Skeptic" magazine to get that right. However, in Shermer's defense, his point that there was (and is) discrimination in the belief that people with dark skin were thought to be cursed is still accurate.
In all, I thought that The Moral Arc was a very thought provoking book with useful information on the history of moral progress. I would recommend it based on that, as well as the fact that, for me, it was a very entertaining read. I also, think that Shermer makes his point that the "moral arc" does indeed bend towards justice, and that scientific thinking played a large roll in that bend. Overall, I give this book a 4 out of 5.
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