The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

A Moral Starting Point

published February 2015
How science can inform ethics
magazine cover

Why is it wrong to enslave or torture other humans, or take their property, or discriminate against them? That these actions are wrong, almost no one disputes. But why are they wrong?

For an answer, most people turn to religion (because God says so), or to philosophy (because rights theory says so), or to political theory (because the social contract says so). In The Moral Arc, published in January, I show how science may also contribute an answer. My moral starting point is the survival and flourishing of sentient beings. By survival, I mean the instinct to live, and by flourishing, I mean having adequate sustenance, safety, shelter, and social relations for physical and mental health. By sentient, I mean emotive, perceptive, sensitive, responsive, conscious, and, especially, having the capacity to feel and to suffer. Instead of using criteria such as tool use, language, reasoning or intelligence, I go deeper into our evolved brains, toward these more basic emotive capacities. There is sound science behind this proposition.

According to the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness—a statement issued in 2012 by an international group of prominent cognitive and computational neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists and neuroanatomists—there is a continuity between humans and nonhuman animals, and sentience is the most important common characteristic. The neural pathways of emotions, for example, are not confined to higher-level cortical structures in the brain but are found in evolutionarily older subcortical regions. Artificially stimulating the same regions in human and nonhuman animal brains produces the same emotional reactions in both. Attentiveness, decision making, and the emotional capacity to feel and suffer are found across the branches of the evolutionary tree. This is what brings all humans and many nonhuman animals into our moral sphere.

The arc of the moral universe really is bending toward progress, by which I mean the improvement of the survival and flourishing of individual sentient beings. I emphasize the individual because that is who survives and flourishes, or who suffers and dies, not the group, tribe, race, gender, state or any other collective. Individual beings perceive, emote, respond, love, feel and suffer—not populations, races, genders or groups. Historically, abuses have been most rampant—and body counts have run the highest—when the individual is sacrificed for the good of the group. It happens when people are judged by the color of their skin, or by their gender, or by whom they prefer to sleep with, or by which political or religious group they belong to, or by any other distinguishing trait our species has identified to differentiate among members instead of by the content of their individual character.

The rights revolutions of the past three centuries have focused almost entirely on the freedom and autonomy of individuals, not collectives—on the rights of persons, not groups. Individuals vote, not genders. Individuals want to be treated equally, not races. In fact, most rights protect individuals from being discriminated against as individual members of a group, such as by race, creed, color, gender, and now sexual orientation and gender preference.

The singular and separate organism is to biology and society what the atom is to physics—a fundamental unit of nature. The first principle of the survival and flourishing of sentient beings is grounded in the biological fact that it is the discrete organism that is the main target of natural selection and social evolution, not the group. We are a social species, but we are first and foremost individuals within social groups and therefore ought not to be subservient to the collective.

This drive to survive is part of our essence, and therefore the freedom to pursue the fulfillment of that essence is a natural right, by which I mean it is universal and inalienable and thus not contingent only on the laws and customs of a particular culture or government. As a natural right, the personal autonomy of the individual gives us criteria by which we can judge actions as right or wrong: Do they increase or decrease the survival and flourishing of individual sentient beings? Slavery, torture, robbery and discrimination lead to a decrease in survival and flourishing, and thus they are wrong. QED.

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9 Comments to “A Moral Starting Point”

  1. Kirk Vines Says:

    excellent article. I am not anti vaxx but could not an anti-vaxxer use this as an argument for individuals vs groups? Ii is the hot topic these days.

  2. King Dave Says:

    Murder is wrong.
    But what if the victim was an imprisoned Adolf Hitler?
    There maybe not be a clear right or wrong Decision because the outcome cannot be known in advance

  3. StuPatt Says:

    Sometimes the survival of the entire group depends on individuals putting group welfare ahead of their own, either by choice or coercion. Individuals often cannot foresee what is most likely to lead to their survival and flourishing. If every individual acts first to save themselves at the expense of others and the whole group perishes, the individual is lost also.

  4. Eric Sincere Says:

    “Sometimes the survival of the entire group depends on individuals putting group welfare ahead of their own…”
    Please provide an exmaple of this?

    Then you go to quite a goofy red herring “…at the expense of others…”. At the expense of others is purely against what the article was all about.

    His point is: I am secure in my person and posessions, so are you. Maybe we can all survive and flourish.

  5. Brian Says:

    The moral starting point that Mr. Schermer highlights as the “survival and flourishing of sentient beings” isn’t something that can be shown to be valuable through scientific means. Only philosophical.

    Science could, after all, be used to determine the best way to exterminate sentient beings unless one has made a prior value judgment as to the moral worth of sentience.

    What Mr. Schermer’s actually supposing is that science can add relevant data back into existing accounts of moral philosophy so as to better inform human moral judgment. No one denies this and it is not a controversial thesis. Calling the whole thing “science” however when he’s really doing the same moral philosophy that’s been going on for the last 300 years or so is not only disingenuous but likely has David Hume rolling in his grave.

  6. Christine Liss Says:

    To: Michael Shermer
    Re: Coast to Coast AM show, Feb. 11, 2015
    Sir: This is regarding your guest appearance on the Coast to Coast show with George Noory. You are not a skeptic, nor an unbiased ‘researcher’. You are a propagandist. As I was listening to your comments on the show last night, regarding vaccinations, Putin, GMO’s and many other topics, it became very clear to me you biased, and you use “studies” and “research papers” to push your own agenda. I missed the part where you commented on the NSA and eavesdropping.

    I’m sorry to say this, but I’m going to recommend that Coast to Coast skips you as a guest. Try working on open-mindedness.

  7. Joe Says:

    In response to Eric Sincere’s question for StuPatt: “‘Sometimes the survival of the entire group depends on individuals putting group welfare ahead of their own…’ Please provide an example of this?”

    Ever hear the term “unit cohesion”? If no, please look it up. It provides a very clear example of StuPatt’s point and strongly contradicts Shermer’s entire thesis.

  8. Fernando Casas Says:

    Before the age of the machine, it was usual for many civilizations to enslave others; this allowed for the appearance of greek ‘democracy’ or the Imperial Rome.

    I think that this is a very poor article that proves nothing (for discussing morality, I would recommend “The selfish gene” even though is more than 30 years old.

  9. Homura Akemi Says:

    Shermer just presupposes a naive form of utilitarianism without providing any philosophical grounding or addressing any objections to his position. He’s begging the question.

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