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RS85 - Live From NECSS With Michael Shermer On the Role of Science in Morality

Release date: April 21, 2013

In a special live Rationally Speaking, taped at NECSS 2013, Julia Galef moderates a lively discussion between Massimo and Michael Shermer, head of the Skeptic Society and founding publisher of Skeptic Magazine. The topic: Can science tell us what is "moral"? This discussion comes after both men have tackled the question separately in books (Massimo's Answers for Aristotle and Michael's The Science of Good and Evil), and jointly in a recent debate on the Rationally Speaking blog. Questions under debate include: Does "natural" = "morally right"? How do we make tradeoffs between different people's happiness? And what role should science and philosophy play in making these decisions?

Reader Comments (12)

I liked how Richard Carrier managed to stay uncharacteristically polite while he (IMHO) pretty much destroyed Shermer in this post:
I've never been able to make much sense of Pigliucci's virtue ethics, but still I'm usually on his side against Shermer who (again, IMHO) occasionally comes across as a popularizer of ideas on which he displays little clarity, insight, or profundity of thought.

April 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKrokben

I am with Science and Science is with Shermer.

April 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTiago

Tiago, if you think that science is anyone's side, you clearly didn't understand any of Massimo arguments.

April 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarl

morality should follow philosophy which should follow conclusions are derived from aristotle to ayn rand adhere to the metaphysical nature of man and the proper morality should augment that standard of value ....

April 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermr positive

Julia won.

April 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMax

The problem here is that you cannot trust a man dressed in a jeans and bowtie combo.

April 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCola Zero

"Shermer who (again, IMHO) occasionally comes across as a popularizer of ideas on which he displays little clarity, insight, or profundity of thought."

True enough, but you can say the same of Richard Carrier. I don't think Carrier justifies his far-left political beliefs, any more than Shermer does his more-or-less free-market libertarianism, and Carrier often is a great deal more bellicose about it. Much of his arguments in support of the "Atheism Plus" position boil down to "you either agree with me or fuck off!"

April 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIamcuriousblue

I was hoping Jonathan Haidt would be invited to the podcast eventually. For some reason my intutionist side is now telling me that this is unlikely to happen. lol
Seriously though, even though I could see the many flaws of 'The Righteous Mind', overall I loved his vision.

April 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLeonardo C.

I think Shermer did a terrible job. Too much prescriptive thinking.

February 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

What is an argument against gay marriage that doesn't purport to rely on "facts"?

How would a homosexual who has a "choice" about their sexuality not be "following their nature" when they make such a privileged choice? Is that choice "unnatural"? Is it supernatural?

Massimo is incredible, but not in the way you want. I mean he is not credible.

Is the self-reporting of slave experience, based out of their ignorance of any other way of life, actually "objective", as Massimo suggests? What about poor Chinese peasants? Shermer nails the obvious answer here, that somehow remains beyond the grasp of Pigliucci...

Massimo makes claims to "empirical facts" that, unfortunately, are merely assertions, not facts at all. How odd! Eastern Europeans prefer living under dictatorship, according to Pigliucci?

I don't love Shermer: I find him pretty silly and flippant, not nearly as charming as he hopes to be, but he at least doesn't spout utter nonsense, which is Pigliucci's problem. His arrogance is overwhelmingly off-putting.

"Gods can't be the source of morality" is a philosophical argument? No, sorry, it depends on the objective existence of gods. If they don't empirically exist, then they obviously can't be the source of anything at all, let alone human morality. Good grief! If this was jiu-jitsu, Massimo would be choked unconscious by now...

FGM is morally wrong, according to Pigliucci, because Massimo himself "doesn't think it's ethical". Oh my, should somebody look up the word tautology for this guy? I know he isn't "fond of definitions" as he says... yelp!

Accorinding to Massimo, there is no empirical answer to the question of whether superstitious notions of "purity" are part of objective morality? How does this guy dress himself, seriously? Purity doesn't exist in he realm of human culture. It's a myth. Myths are not facts. QED. Pigliucci is in danger of losing his philosophy white-belt, here.

If people say that poking themselves in the eye was pleasurable, Pigliucci appears to think we should simply take their word for it. Delayed gratification OBJECTIVELY heightens pleasure. This is an empirical fact. As someone once said, you are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.

The number of facts that Pigliucci willingly admits to not be aware of could fill an encyclopedia of philosophical ignorance.

His subjective intuitions, clearly wrongheaded, take the place of objective fact so often, it becomes clear that he honestly doesn't recognize the difference between the two categories of thought. Yikes...

Pigliucci himself says that "science necessarily must be backed by peer review and a granting process", which is about as clear a misunderstanding of what the word "science" means as one might imagine.

The progress of science, compared to the progress of "ethical philosophy" is like comparing a 747 to a paper airplane. Pigliucci would rather ride the latter over the ocean... and I wish him a happy voyage, and a happy landing. SPLASH!!!

Does Pigliucci really think that somebody in the world thinks watching TV is "Science"? Does he only battle straw-men? No wonder he thinks he is successful! Of course, some people can do science when they watch TV, if they are social scientists that study popular culture... did I lose you there, Massimo? Maybe you can bulldoze me with your speedy speech, and the audience will forget that you can't answer a question straight! Again, good luck!

Massimo should have lived in pre-colonial Hawaii, where the culture of taboo reigned... I just hope he doesn't collect water on the wrong day, or let his shadow fall on the sacred land... and no, you can't argue that such a system is "immoral", since that system by definition IS THEIR MORALITY! ...Oops... your head's been caved in with a sharp rock, you immoral fiend!

If Massimo wanted to get a working definition of "science" that is plausible, he could do worse than... wait for it.... looking in the dictionary. Merriam Webster's is pretty accurate: knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation. You may note that it doesn't mention "peer review" or "granting agencies" or "white coats" or "nerdy glasses"... WHOA! Surprise surprise, science CAN be trivial sometimes. Dropping two differently sized balls from a tall tower may not seem interesting in the 21st century, but I think we can all agree that making some rational observations of such an experiment is indeed "science". Especially the Italians among us, I should hope.

Massimo is good for a laugh, but it is invariably at his experience. I think he's just happy to get any attention at all.... too bad it's usually the bad kind. What a lightweight! Goodness help the undergrad wasting their time and tuition under his tenured ass.


February 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRyan
I think we can all agree that Science has a significant part to play in our decisions about Morality. As long as we add Reason to the mix, we will have an arrangement where Science & Philosophy can both play crucial roles in deciding what this moral landscape will look like.
May 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto
Julia definitely won this debate.

As Julia points out Ethics requires a system that answers moral dilemmas in general without requiring an advanced scientific study for each particular dilemma. We do need rational philosophy and not just empirical science, in order to give us the moral guidelines we need.

Massimo correctly states that even though it does have an adaptive nature, representative democracy does not constitute a scientific system.
January 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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