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The Science of Good and Evil

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In The Science of Good & Evil, the third volume in his trilogy on the power of belief (the first two volumes were Why People Believe Weird Things and How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God), psychologist and historian of science Dr. Michael Shermer tackles two of the deepest and most challenging problems of our age: (1) The origins of morality and (2) the foundations of ethics. Embedded within these two problems are questions that have occupied the greatest minds in history: Is it in our nature to be moral, immoral, or amoral? If we evolved by natural forces then what was the natural purpose of morality? If we live in a determined universe, then how can we make free moral choices? Does evil exist, and if so, what is the nature of evil? Why do bad things happen to good people? Is there justice in the world beyond the social order? If there is no outside source to validate moral principles, does anything go? Can we be good without God?

In this stunning conclusion to an intellectual journey into the mind and soul of humanity, Dr. Shermer peels back the inner layers covering our core being to reveal a complexity of human motives — selfish and selfless, cooperative and competitive, virtue and vice, good and evil, moral and immoral. Shermer shows how these motives came into being as a product of both our evolutionary heritage and cultural history, and how we can construct an ethical system that generates a morality that is neither dogmatically absolute nor irrationally relative — a provisional morality for an age of science that provides empirical evidence and a rational basis for belief.

Broad in scope, deep in its analysis, and controversial to its core, The Science of Good & Evil applies the latest findings of science to offer an original model of the bio-cultural evolution of morality and a new theory of provisional ethics that challenges the reader to confront these timeless issues from a new perspective — one that suggests that both morality and immorality evolved in human biological and cultural evolution, that we can make free moral choices in a determined universe, that moral principles can have a sound rational basis supported by empirical evidence (without being dogmatically absolutist or dependent on an external source of validation), and that we can be good without God. Shermer calls for a national debate on the origins of morality, the basis of moral principles, and the need for a more universal and tolerant ethic; an ethic that will insure the well-being and survival of all members of the species, and of all species.

read or write comments (23)

23 Comments to “The Science of Good and Evil”

  1. Michael Lee Says:

    “we can construct an ethical system that generates a morality that is neither dogmatically absolute nor irrationally relative — a provisional morality”

    A criterion of good and evil that is “provisional” (until some conflicting evidence appears) is useless and takes for granted the very thing to be established. Besides what shall one use to evaluate the criterion?

  2. Tim Holt Says:

    I believe a provisional criteria for good and evil can be established for the individual. Good is that which is desirable, and evil is that which is not desirable. The specific choices are based on the individuals experience with consequences. Like science, the choices are applied as long as the results seem consistent, when inconsistent consequences are recognized, the system must be refined or replaced with a better model.

    For a group of people there would be considerable problem with the initial agreement. If they can agree with an initial definition and a process for changes, maybe a workable system could ensue.

  3. Dwayne Says:

    Good and Evil are simply points of view. Nothing is truly good nor evil, it depends on the perception of the individual.

  4. Stefan Says:

    I agree with Dwayne in that nothing is truly good or evil. Objectively they don’t exist any more than the heroes and villains in the stories we use to keep the idea alive.

  5. Patricia Moulard Says:

    Comically spoken, there could not be even the presence or knowledge of good nor evil had not a law been presented in the first place. But then again, that is coming from the bible in which I’m not hearing much about here.

  6. Patricia Moulard Says:

    Are you scientifically, historically and personally acquainted with the bible? When it comes to good vs. evil God really put it all down. Know what you believe.

  7. Michael Says:

    So to say that morality(good vs. evil) is up to the individual would undermine any set of laws developed. reason being that if I honestly believe that murder is right, and to not murder is wrong, I would have to attempt to murder everybody that I possibly can. Under the belief that I can choose my own goods and evils, nobody can tell me that this is wrong, and therefore I could not be punished under a law because law would only be relative. Shermer himself in this book says that “morality exists outside of the human mind in the sense of being not just a trait of individual humans; but a human trait; that is, a human universal.” Morality, according to Bernard Gert, a professor at Dartmouth, “is an informal public system applying to all rational beings, governing behavior that affects others, and has the lessening of evil or harm as its goal.” All humans are rational, therefore a single morality applies to all humans, in that this single morality dictates right and wrong by always choosing the lessr evil, which is usually the “greater good. the belief that morality is up to the individual is known as relativism. Which is extremely dangerous in that it allows anybody to believe anything, and could in the end in the global extinction of humans, because if everbody were relativists, they would act only in the interest of themselves, which would eventually lead to possible destruction of humanity in that society cannot function on purely selfish motives. Daniel Patrick Mayniha said says this of relativistic morality: it is “what we use to justify what we are already doing.” It is people not wanting to follow rules, but live however they want to live, so they develop a “religion” or way of life in which this individual belief is at the core. For a nontheist, Shermer, to agree in a universal morality is a huge thing in that most nonthiests(atheists, agnostics…) usually lean toward reletivism.

  8. sandra stavlo Says:

    We can, in turn, be hurtful or kind, cruel or compassionate. Good and evil hinge on circumstance and emotion.

  9. Evil, Michael Says:

    Well being is relative to the individual & just like in economics all decisions come at an opportunity cost. Thus there is no way possible to achieve well being for even 1/2 of all Species.

  10. Lalita paine Says:

    Dwayne’s comment on #3 is absolutly right there is no good or evil. my point added is they are only tools of manipulation that keep humans from reaching a higher spiritual state.

  11. Peter Grant Says:

    I also suspect that there is an evolutionary basis for morality, we each have an innate sense of justice. Cultural differences do not necessarily imply moral relativism within the same species. We are all humans after all, and quite close genetically.

  12. Erik Rothe Says:

    Evil: A force of destruction that decieves and devours everything in its wake until there’s nothing left;a vaccuum of doom. Evil is killing the world bigtime

    HOLY CRUSADERS UNITE……EriktheRed(Delirious Nomad)

  13. Erik Rothe Says:

    Want to get the full scoop….. It is your own face that you see reflected in the water and it is your own self that you see in your heart.

  14. John Says:

    Good or evil is not a matter law or perception but need vs want.
    Need = Good
    Want = Evil
    If we do something or hurt someone because we need to do it in order to survive then that is good. For example, we kill someone in self defense or in a war. If we do something or hurt someone because we want to then that is evil. For example, we kill someone for life insurance money.

  15. Daniel Says:

    If society could be set up so that “subcultures” could be established that upheld their own rules within their own borders, and had peaceful relations with neighbors, it is not impossible to imagine a world where there is a close to perfect place in it for everyone.

  16. Tim Says:

    I see these adolescent observations (Dwayne and Stefan) on the relativity of good and evil and I think of Victor Frankl’s words,
    “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.”

  17. Friar Hilarius Says:

    If we are free to invent our own ideas of good and evil there is no guarantee that the resulting ideas will result in peaceful outcomes

    I reject such concepts as anarchistic and lacking in utility

    A belief system must provide for compatibility of living otherwise it is doomed to fail, or at the very least lead to harmful conflicts which an agreed morality would avoid

    Avoiding harm to others and promoting the good of all need to be the foundations of any moral system worth the name

    Blessings and Peace
    Friar Hilarius

  18. Science, Morality, and Meaning « The Skeptical Teacher Says:

    […] that science can (and should) inform our views on morality & ethics, I suggest checking out Dr. Michael Shermer’s The Science of Good & Evil. There is a growing body of science-based work on this topic, and it is sure to get more and more […]

  19. Gary Says:

    John you have got it all wrong. Need is has two meanings. One is desire and the other is necessity. It is a word many people use to delude themselves. Want or desire are healthy. I desire or want to be a millionaire but i do not “need”, find it absolutely necessary that i become a millionaire. Since i only want it i will not upset myself if i don’t have it. But if i believe i “need” it i will most likely upset myself and possibility do something that even i believe is wrong to get it.

    I suggest reading Dr. Albert Ellis Ph.D.

    Also Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is wrong. Maslow was mentally sick and that is all i will say about him.

    Dr. Albert Ellis has said. “I will not purposely “and” needlessly hard anyone.” In this case Albert Ellis means necessity when using needlessly. I haven’t found a case this does not work. Of course if you are deluding yourself nothing will work.

  20. 09-07-22 | Blubeanz Says:

    […] his book The Science of Good and Evil, Dr. Michael Shermer tackles the question of why we are moral? That is, what is the basis for […]

  21. SysT Says:

    I wonder if Dr. Shermer is familiar with Ponerology. It is a field devoted to studying evil from a scientific perspective, named for the Greek word “poneros” meaning evil. I find there are a lot of people studying this subject in disparate places unaware that there is a field that integrates what they’re doing.

  22. Truthisnotrelative Says:

    “Like science, the choices are applied as long as the results seem consistent, when inconsistent consequences are recognized, the system must be refined or replaced with a better model.” The statement already proves that this method is flawed. If one must keep revising and revising a system it means it was not a secure system in the first place and cannot be trusted much less foundational.

    Those who say there is no evil or good also “seem” to pretty much be detached from reality…which in itself is based on Eternity (reality). Our emotions are the last things we should ever place our trust in.

    Seeing life from this perspective can assist us in determining what is truly good and what is evil. They both have a source from which they come (2 different sources). Without an understanding or revelation of those sources, men & science will keep trying to add the hit and miss methods we see today with dire moral, physical, and eternal consequences.

  23. Shaun Says:

    I’d say many of those commenting have not bothered to read the book yet.