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The Moral Arc: Reviews


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

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 of our society, and hopefully this book will do just that.

LAWARENCE 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 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

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)

Michael Shermer is a dragon slayer. First, he took on those who would make sensational claims about the paranormal without rigorous proof, who often disguise their claims with pseudo-scientific jargon. Now, in The Moral Arc, he takes on those cynics who disparage science, who claim it has no moral center and produces nothing but despair and ruin. On the contrary, he 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

Shermer’s thought-provoking, multidisciplinary book will engage anyone who wishes to understand rationalism as a force for morality.

—Library Journal


Sally Satel —The Wall Street Journal

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.

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

Kirkus Review

Skeptic magazine founding publisher Shermer (The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, 2011, etc.) reviews the last 400 years of human history to substantiate his claim that it is science and reason, not religion, that reveal a path to “the betterment of humanity in a civilized state.” “The economic problems of today are real but tractable…even in the most impoverished places on earth such as Africa,” writes the author. Brushing aside concerns about the environment, the accelerated extinction of species, looming resource shortage and political instability, Shermer predicts that by the end of the century, the levels of wealth and prosperity enjoyed in the developed world will be universal. The author believes that developments in our scientific understanding have created the conditions for an upward trend in morality, which he sees as synonymous with the advance of liberal democracies and a global economy. The author rejects the notion that religion has been the “driver of moral progress,” citing superstitious practices such as the burning of witches that were sanctioned until the 18th century. Shermer agrees with the defense of science by avowed atheist Richard Dawkins but also recognizes the positive role of religious leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and the Dalai Lama in their fight for human betterment. Taking slavery as an example, he attributes its “legal abolition and universal denunciation” to “rational arguments and scientific refutations of slavery,” which laid the groundwork for the recognition of the need to protect the rights of blacks, minorities, women, homosexuals and other persecuted groups. Shermer believes that reliance on the scientific method, multiculturalism, the free market and liberal democracy create the conditions necessary for continued progress. A well-documented but perhaps overly optimistic view of a future likely to be challenged by both environmentalists and religious fundamentalists.

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, really 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 retributive justice.

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 come about in general. 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 an implication 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 derived 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.

STEVEN PINKER is Johnstone 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.

Bryce Christensen

Despite the Twin Towers terrorist attacks and the Rwandan genocide, Shermer discerns moral progress in the last quarter century. Evidence of that progress inheres in statistics limning a global decline of lethal violence and a global proliferation of the rights of women, ethnic minorities, homosexuals, and—increasingly—even animals. Shermer attributes this progress to the triumph of scientific reasoning—and the retreat of religious dogma. To be sure, Shermer is more willing than some New Atheists to recognize that faith can foster volunteerism and generosity. But he still regards piety as a retrograde social influence, incapable of leading the way into an enlightened future. That future, he assures readers, is already unfolding as secular thinkers promulgate a rational morality premised on the principle of interchangeable perspectives, granting special privileges to none but affording equal protection to all. What Shermer calls his “protopian” theorizing will persuade few who draw their moral precepts from scripture, tradition, or group loyalty. But at a time of widespread cultural ferment, such theorizing will spark keen interest.

DarthDeverll —LibraryThing

In The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom Michael Shermer argues “that most of the moral development of the past several centuries has been the result of secular, not religious forces, and that the most important of these that emerged from the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment are science and reason, terms that [he uses] in the broadest sense to mean reasoning through a series of arguments and then confirming that the conclusions are true through empirical verification” (pg. 3). Shermer arranges his book into three parts: “The Moral Arc Explained,” in which he outlines his terms and lays the groundwork for his basic argument and explains how science and rationality have furthered morality while religion acts as a conservative force, only expanding morality when it has no choice in the face of social pressure; “The Moral Arc Applied,” in which he demonstrates how the moral arc has worked to expand morality and civil rights in the abolition of slavery, the expansion of women’s and LGBTQ rights, and even in the expansion of animal rights; and finally, “The Moral Arc Amended,” in which Shermer examines how people rationalize their actions into their own morality, what role freewill plays in morality, how various systems of justice are expanding from retributive to restorative, and how working toward a utopia, a process he terms “protopia,” is more progressive than expecting the advent of a utopia. In this way, each section and chapter and part builds upon the one that preceded it, forming a sound argument.

To his credit, Shermer extensively references work from thought [sic] the social and “hard” sciences. All are represented, from history and economics to psychology and biology. The Moral Arc reads like a viable treatise explaining the work of morality that came before and how we, as a civilization, can expand that work. The book continues to reassure its readers, demonstrating and explaining how violent crime continues to decline and even how the income gap is not as bad as people think, while incomes continue to increase from year to year. Shermer’s work serves as an excellent academic primer on theories of morality and how societies and individuals understand their morality. In sum, The Moral Arc is a triumph and demonstrates how science literacy improves the world for everyone. (★★★★★)


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