The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom
by michael shermer
henry holt, 560 pages, $32
The world was a dark and gloomy place until the Enlightenment came along, after which people began to think for themselves and break free from the shackles of religious authority. So we are told, once again, in The Moral Arc, a book by journalist Michael Shermer. For him, the Enlightenment did not merely accelerate humanity’s moral progress, but rather it reversed the moral regress characteristic of pre-Enlightenment human history. Since then, science and reason have been guiding humanity on a path toward justice, truth, and freedom.
But what are “science” and “reason,” these forces to which we owe humanity’s moral progress? Unfortunately, Shermer’s definitions are unclear. Taken together, they seem to say that science and reason are simply the methods by which people test and think about truth claims in order to ascertain their veracity. As shown by his scattered remarks about pre-Enlightenment times, such as that it used to be acceptable merely to assert one’s beliefs rather than to argue for them, it seems that Shermer seriously believes that rational thought was nonexistent, or at least extremely rare, before the Enlightenment. One would think that an author so insistent on rational evaluation would offer some defense of such a bold assertion, but there is none.
So if science and reason advance moral progress, what place does religion have? None, according to Shermer, who dedicates a whole chapter to defending the thesis that religion not only does not drive moral progress forward, but cannot. While Jesus may have said a few nice things, Christianity (which is the only religion that Shermer treats in this chapter) is fundamentally xenophobic and misogynistic. To defend these claims, Shermer mostly draws on cherry-picked passages from the Old Testament that, as he presents them, do not seem to view non-Israelites or women very charitably. It would be easy to counter these claims by pointing to the parable of the Good Samaritan (in which a foreigner gives aid to a Jew) or to point out that women were the first to witness the resurrection of Jesus (thus showing that the early Christians, unlike other Jews of their time, respected the testimony of women). Unfortunately, Shermer does not consider any such counterarguments; evidently, mere assertion is permissible in post-Enlightenment times, so long as the assertions concern religion.
After this, Shermer aims to show that the world is becoming more moral, thanks to the application of Enlightenment philosophy. But of course, for Shermer, “more moral” simply means “in better accord with Enlightenment philosophy.” This entire section, therefore, despite all of its graphs, anecdotes, and data, is nothing but an exercise in begging the question. The final section is no better, as it contains no argument but simply a collection of unfocused speculations about what the future may hold.
Shermer’s book is less than impressive. For a treatment of a similar thesis that offers more-cogent arguments and better engagement with its dissenters, see Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.
Matthew Dugandzic is a PhD student in Christian ethics at the Catholic University of America.