The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule

Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic Magazine and a frequent contributor to Scientific American has produced a work that explains the basis of morality and ethics on a scientific basis. The system of ethics and definition of what is good and what is evil has usually been assigned to the realm of religion. In ancient times, the likes of Aristotle and Socraties wrestled with this subject with only provisional results.

Religious folk tell us that God establishes right and wrong, and assigns punishment to those who break God’s Law. The premise is that without God establishing the rules, humanity would fall into disarray with everyone making up their own rules. Under this view, the rules are rigid and established under the authority and pronouncements of God as interpreted by the leaders of the religion.
Shermer soundly refutes this viewpoint, and makes an excellent case for his Provisional Ethics and Provisional Morality. These ideas are founded on several insights: Moral Naturalism, an Evolved Moral Society, the Nature of Moral Nature, Provisional Morality, Provisional Right and Wrong, Provisional Justice, and Ennobling Evolutionary Ethics.

As a nontheist, Shermer is not looking for God as the source of good and evil, but science. He widely reviews research and evaluates the data to clearly show that morality is intrinsic to who we are and the society we are in. He brings a historical perspective to the development of morality through ancient and modern societies. He clearly shows that morality does not require some God to tell mankind what to do and not to do. Humankind would not devolve into anarchy, general warfare and hedonism if left to our own devices, but the parameters of human morality are established by verifiable, scientific principles. These parameters vary in details between groups, but the principles follow clear cut ways that the similarity and differences between the moral strictures of different groups and individuals will vary and how they will be the same.

The Science of Good and Evil also investigates the fact that we all vary from the moral path. The reasons for both good and evil behaviours can be understood using the tools of science. A scientific analysis of morality might be expected by some to generate the hard and fast rules of religious morality. Schermer finds that another perspective, Provisional Ethics, is much more appropriate.

Provisional Ethics is not a set of hard and fast rules. It requires adjustment in the face of new data. Schermer proposes that is composed of principles: The Ask First principle – do unto others what they would want (the Golden Rule ver 2.0); the Happiness Principle – seek happiness only with other’s happiness in mind; the Liberty Principle – always seek liberty with other’s liberty in mind; and the Moderation Principle – when innocents die, extremism in the defense of anything is no virtue.

The Science of Good and Evil suffers from few faults. Starting from a nontheistic perspective, many readers who hold strong religious views will unfortunately dismiss the book from its outset. It is couched in terms that might be comfotable for an athiest or agnostic, but will put off a person trying to bridge the realm of religious morality and scientific investigations of our moral sense. Another difficulty is that the book uses fuzzy logic without an adequate explanation for the system. I recommend that anyone who reads this book study and understand this concept before reading this book. Those unfamiliar with the methodology of fuzzy logic are likely to either think that it is a construct made up for the book, or misunderstand key concepts that Shermer makes.