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RS134 - Michael Shermer on: "Science drives moral progress"

Release date: May 17, 2015

Photo by Jeremy DangerCommon wisdom holds that the world is getting more violent, but is that really true? Leading skeptic Michael Shermer, professor and author of many books on science, morality and skepticism, argues to the contrary. Shermer's thesis in his recent book, "The Moral Arc: How Science Leads Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom," is that as science has advanced our understanding of the world, we have become more willing to expand our circle of empathy beyond our own provincial "tribes," and more able to design our societies to encourage human flourishing.

Dr. Michael Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, a regular contributor to, and Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His new book is The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom.

Michael's pick: "Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible" 



NEW: Full Transcripts 

Reader Comments (14)

Hi Julia,

This was a really enjoyable interview.

I particularly liked it when you went through your understanding of Michael's thesis and sought confirmation that you had understood it correctly. It provided a great jumping off point for the rest of the interview.

Thank you.
May 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBrendan
Hey guys! If you want to discuss this episode or others, check out the new Rationally Speaking subreddit:

We're starting out, so join us as WE explore the borderlands between reason and nonsense.
May 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRafael Oliveira
Another good resource on this topic is Steven Pinker's book, The Better Angels of our Nature.
May 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJulia
Great podcast. I found Michael Shermer's dismissive attitude to utilitarianism surprising. Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer's collaboration from last year makes a powerful case for hedonistic utilitarianism. In discussing the trolley problems Julia did well to quickly note that "people with more analytical, meta-cognitive ability are more likely to say, yes, let's push the guy off the bridge to save the five children from being hit by the train."
May 27, 2015 | Unregistered Commenter@johngthomas
Pushing the fat guy off the bridge to save five people = murdering a guy to harvest his organs to save five others.
Diverting the train away from five people toward one person = steering a crashing airplane away from a crowd before ejecting.
Don't let Shermer pilot an airplane. He'll let it crash into the large crowd because the plane happened to be heading in that direction when the engine failed, and the hundreds of people in the crowd have as much "right" to live as the one guy in an open field, according to "natural law" whatever that is.
June 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMax
This comment is for the Michael Shermer interview RS134.

For the record, that line Michael mentions from the Beatles' Getting Better — “I used to be cruel to my woman I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved” — was a John Lennon line, much more than his “Can't get no worse” interjection. And it was no throwaway. Paul would never have written a line like that. Since John's first wife Cynthia passed away a few weeks ago, that line has been on my mind. Don't forget that John also echoed Elvis in his song Run for Your Life ("I'd rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man"), but it was only in past twenty years that anyone BANNED Run for Your Life from airplay in the US.

Much more to this interview that this point, but I thought it worth mentioning.
June 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBennett Theissen
Did Shermer mispeak in the first 2 minutes or so? It sounded like he said "the death penalty has been abolished everywhere but America".
June 23, 2015 | Unregistered Commenteranony
He probably meant it's abolished in the developed world, even though Japan still has it.
June 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMax
According to wikipedia (that fount of all knowledge, lol), 18% of the world's countries still have capital punishment.
June 24, 2015 | Unregistered Commenteranony
I see you delete rational comments that question your position or that of your guest. The speaker made a huge mistake (the death penalty has been abolished everywhere but America). Instead of pulling him up on this, you fell into the same trap of those you try to expose. You blindly accepted a falsehood and delete anything that is contrary to that position.
June 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRegular listener
Julia, I find myself frequently marveling at your clarity of thought and ability to scent a fallacy at a 100 yards. I look forward to each dose of rational discussion, peppered with amusement and smart guests.

On the trolley and organ-harvesting issue, that they are a challenge to all forms of utilitarianism ... on the contrary, they may be subsumed under at least some kind of utilitarianism which measures the degree of distrust (e.g., of a healthcare system that might pluck a healthy "donor" from the waiting room and harvest his/her organs to save multiple other lives) as having a sufficiently strong negative utility, that it is better to have some rules which on face value seem deontological, but have an underlying utilitarian advantage.

In other words, the advantage of NOT tossing individual people onto railway lines to save multiple people, may be utilitarian in a broader social sense of building trust in fellow bridge pedestrians, and a more cohesive, caring and productive society.
July 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMalcolm Gorman
Wasn't at all impressed by Michael Shermer in this episode.

In the first part, Julia and him seemed to be constantly talking past each other. Even after he was asked for clarification, I still have no idea how he thinks he can attribute the success of liberal democracies to science or reason, for instance.

Then, later on, we get to the typical problem of motivated skepticism, of applying different standards of evidence towards ideas you dislike vs. ones you like. Whereas Dawkins will readily admit his ignorance on a topic, and then defer to experts (e.g. when he's asked about quantum physics, on which he neither has expertise nor claims to), Shermer's comments on utilitarianism weren't just ignorant, but even confused. I mean, you don't have to approve of utilitarianism, but to think that the Trolley Problem is a death blow to that moral system? It's called "Problem" because it's a thought exercise, not because it's a problem for utilitarianism ffs.

Same with Shermer's dismissal of the risks of technology going forward. The proper thing to do when asked about the risks of e.g. biological warfare is not to give an unfounded offhand answer, but to defer to experts (the book Global Catastrophic Risk comes to mind). Public figures are authority figures. Skeptics aren't exempt from the duty to use that power responsibly. Here, Shermer gave confident but ignorant answers on an important topic, which some of his listeners will take as expert opinion, even though he doesn't know what he's talking about.
November 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMondSemmel
Michael makes a good point that science explains disease and crop failures and ends socially harmful superstitious explanations. However, Julia has a legitimate point that technology can also magnify potential harm.
December 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
I'm highly skeptical of the claim that the World is less violent? Just because we are more advanced in Science & Reason, does not mean that it's being utilized to foster more compassion/empathy in our society's? I mean just look at our institutions of Religion, Politics, Economics, Government etc. These areas push ideological suppositions that don't provide enough information of the World to be able to do a decent job at advancing our moral landscape that can then really reduce violence and increase Truth, Justice & Freedom.
December 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto

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