Comments on Michael Shermer's The Secular Sphinx (Skeptic vol.4, no.2, 1996)

To the Editor, Skeptic

I enthusiastically support Michael Shermer's idea of a 'scientific and rational' approach to discovering a practical moral system. Having myself been involved in developing and promoting a personal rational ethic for some years, I was disappointed to find that his essay seems to perpetuate many of the errors and misconceptions that have dogged ethics over the centuries. These include:

  • Not adequately addressing important meta-ethical issues - how to discover the purpose, beneficiaries, methods and goals of ethics.
  • Confusingly mixing descriptive evolutionary 'explanations' of behavior with the prescriptive moral questions of 'how we ought to behave' (to achieve desired goals) and how to define those goals.
  • Ignoring the personal importance and benefits of ethics - assuming that ethics is primarily a social issue.
  • Misunderstanding the nature of freewill choices - giving the impression of freewill being only an illusion.

I define ethics as a system of principles that helps us tell right from wrong, good from bad. Some of the crucial meta-ethical questions that need to be addressed are: Why do we need ethics in the first place? Why live by principles? Right or wrong for whom - good or bad to what end - and how do we decide this? Addressing these questions can help us free ourselves from the relativist ethics that we reject. By rationally resolving these questions we can avoid judging morality by automatic, past, or socially entrenched standards (the bio-cultural model of ethics) and become objective, scientific. Failing to do so leaves us at the mercy of some unspecified, unknown standard of judgment. Shermer's 'provisional ethics' unfortunately suffers from just that limitation: "..'[im]moral' means confirmed and justified to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer provisional assent". 'Justified' to achieve what end? Justified by whom? Reasonable by what standard?

Let me give a brief overview of these fundamentals:

Why ethics? The most basic need for ethics lies in the fact that we do not automatically know what will benefit our lives, and what will be detrimental - how to optimize the quantity and quality of our lives. Ethics is about the conscious choices that we make (or fail to make). We are aware of our thoughts - of our ability to make informed intelligent choices - we know that we posses volition. We are aware that the choices that we make have consequences, both for ourselves and for others. We are aware of the responsibility that we have for our actions (see The Nature of Freewill). But, we do not have reliable inborn knowledge or instincts that will promote our survival and flourishing. A rational, reality-based ethic can help us make better choices regarding our well-being. Issues not subject to our choice - unknown to us or outside of our control - are NOT moral issues. 'Evolutionary ethics' is, in a very important sense, an oxymoron.

Why principles? The value of living by principles is twofold: Firstly, the scope of our knowledge and cognitive abilities is limited. We are never fully aware of all the factors influencing the outcome of any given choice, and thus have to make decisions based on limited information. In addition, our reasoning ability is limited both in time and complexity in any given situation. Principles - generalized rules - help us make better decisions in complex situations; the best decision 'all other things being equal'. Secondly, generalized principles can be automatized - they can become (virtuous) character traits. Our subconscious thoughts and emotions can then assist our decision making. Automatic and instantaneous guidance can be immensely beneficial if - and this is a big if - we have learned and automatized the correct principles. If we, for example, automatize self-hatred, superstition, or a victim-mentality then this will surely be detrimental.

How do we calibrate this moral compass, these subconscious emotional evaluations? We do this by firstly understanding the meaning of 'right' and 'wrong' and then discovering and developing moral principles and virtues from that basis. Shermer equates 'true' with 'right' and with 'moral'. Ultimately this is true; a logical link from 'is' to 'ought' can indeed be established. However, he takes the semantic shortcut of just equating two different meanings of 'right': 1) 'correct/ true' 2) 'good/ moral'. This equivocation does not provide the link between 'true' and 'moral'. What is needed are answers to 'good for whom?' and 'good to what end?'. 'Good' does not exist as some platonic absolute - outside of context. Having answered these questions, we can then rationally discover the true/ moral actions and principles that will help to achieve those goals.

This is not the forum to explore the methodology and reasoning that will answer these fundamental questions (see Rational Principles for Optimal Living), so let me just offer my conclusions here: The only rational basic answer is 'good for my own survival and well-being'. Long before we get to deciding social morality we need to know what is good for me, the individual. Yes, there are also the complexities of defining 'well-being' and working out the actual principles that will guide us towards that goal. I fully grant that these questions are neither obvious nor uncontroversial - let reason applied to reality give us the 'right' (in both senses) answers. I believe that many discussion of ethics are confused and futile because this basic purpose of ethics is not clarified first.

Shermer's description and examples of provisional ethics and his 'riddle of Ethical Nature' would benefit tremendously from an explicit meta-ethics. For example, to illustrate his provisional ethics, he tells us of scientists being 'ostracized' or 'shunned' for their misconduct. What is so rational or scientific about that? It seems to be just another example of relativistic ethics. Scientists get shunned for having unpopular views too. It tells us nothing about the actual morality of their deeds.

Or take the abortion example – mother's rights vs. fetus: "A right is a type of political contract.... they are not discovered in nature". The clear implication is that Shermer believes that human rights (and politics) are not moral issues. If not, then what are they? Arbitrary social convention? Rights are not good for us? Tell that to some poor soul living under a dictatorship. Rights are indeed 'discovered in nature'. By rational analysis we discover that in reality (nature) granting rights to individuals is morally true ie. good. It promotes human flourishing. All legal and political 'contracts' should be based on personal moral conclusions and principles.

Shermer bases the morality of abortion on the legal concept of 'murder'. Murder is taken as a moral starting point - a moral absolute. He misses the point that the concept 'murder' actually implies and is based on human rights - each individual's right to his or her life. Failure to derive the unlawfulness of murder from morality would leave us open to arbitrarily define it to, say, exclude certain races, women or children - as has frequently been done at various times, in various parts of the world. Shermer inverts the hierarchy by judging morality by its legality: "If it is not murder, then it is not immoral, from a social point of view". By this view slavery is moral so long as it is legal; taxation is moral because it is legal.

Furthermore, how do we determine that abortion can be judged on the basis of murder? This line of reasoning could lead to the unfortunate conclusion that late-term abortions, that threaten the mother's life, are immoral. Abortion and infanticide are complex, high-level moral question that can only be resolved after questions of personal morality (what is good for the individual/mother), parental responsibility and general social morality (by what rules should we interact: rights, politics and laws) are determined. Abortion ultimately comes down to the reality that the mother does not want the child. Her reasons and motivation - her context - are crucial aspects of her moral judgment. From a social, legal point of view child neglect and adoption policies are important factors. The alternatives that the mother faces are relevant.

Adultery: "..sexual fantasies are not immoral because the evidence confirms that almost everyone has them.." I don't see what the popularity of an action has to do with its morality. Most people are superstitious, yet it is detrimental to our well-being, ie. immoral. The actual discussion of adultery demonstrates the moral conflicts caused by mixing evolutionary 'goals', social acceptance, personal feelings, and rational ethics. From all points of view offered, adultery seems to be OK provided that you don't get caught. Indeed, from an evolutionary point of view it seems to offer only advantages (However, actions that may benefit my genes may be detrimental to my well-being). From a social point of view there is the risk of ostracization. By that logic, atheism is certainly immoral; the risk of being found out is much higher. Nothing is said about the fundamental reason why adultery is bad for the individual, irrespective of whether he is found out: It is not the sex - that may actually be very good - it is the distortion of the truth, lying to yourself, undermining understanding and communication in your marriage (or conversely putting off facing the real problems in the relationship) that makes adultery bad, and therefore immoral for you.

In the end, the golden rule is invoked as a test for morality. We all know the problems with this: It is moral to cheat on my wife provided that I don't mind her cheating on me? She may have no desire to cheat. Or, to give some other examples: If I want society to prevent my children from being exposed to atheist rhetoric, then am I not morally obliged to similarly 'protect' other children? Or, say, I want to be killed were I to suffer from Alzheimer's, should I then kill others suffering a similar fate?

The section on ethical freedom seems to, if anything, undermine the possibility of a chosen, rational morality. Shermer laments that "anyone interested in winning Olympic gold medals must select his or her parents very carefully", yet that "we may act AS IF we are free" [my emphasis]. His rejection of responsibility manifests in his question "Don't we all like to think that we DO make a difference?". The section on our 'ethical nature' seem to turn morality upside-down: Morality is not what we choose to do but what we have evolved to do. We don't really have a choice, it just seems like it! This denies the very nature of freewill. Freewill is a prerequisite for morality. If our decisions are not under the control of our minds them we cannot be responsible. Earlier I have argued that freewill is our ability to make choices with awareness - awareness of that very ability and awareness of likely consequences of our thoughts and actions.

Finally, I'd like to register some misgivings about the term 'provisional ethics'. I agree that there are no absolute, acontextual moral 'truths' and that we are not omniscient or infallible in our reasoning. However, in science as well as in philosophy, there is such a thing as certainty - knowledge that is beyond doubt: The Moon is smaller than the Earth, I exist and am conscious, an article 'The Secular Sphinx' appeared in the Skeptic magazine, etc. 'Provisional' conjures up an unnecessarily tentative view of moral knowledge. There are some moral principles that we are quite certain of. For example: 'Improved self-esteem leads to a better life'. I prefer to use the terms 'rational' or 'objective' ethics to describe the kind of scientific approach to morality that we seem to favor.

I sincerely hope that this stimulating issue of the Skeptic will encourage the debate on a secular, rational approach to ethics. 'The Secular Sphinx' article is, I think, a good example of the confusion that exists between descriptive and prescriptive ethics. It also highlights the problems of trying to derive a rational ethics without first clearly defining the purpose and goal of ethics. An integrated, non-contradictory, reality-based system of principles that can help us guide our lives requires the recognition of a hierarchy. What are the fundamentals and premises - and what are the conclusions. Epistemology and meta-ethics shape ethics; law and politics are derived from it. The bio-cultural model of ethics tells me how humankind HAS behaved, or maybe even how people may act, but it does not necessarily tell me - the volitional entity - what choices I should make to optimize life.

Peter Voss Dec 96 (Aug 00)