Better Off?

Has Science Made Us Better People?

Michael Shermer argues that science has not only improved our lives materially but morally and ethically as well. It’s an argument both stimulting and flawed.

02.15.15 11:45 AM ET

The Charlie Hebdo massacre occurred on the same day I received my copy of The Moral Arc, Michael Shermer’s new book about how science and reason have made mankind more moral. If you're somehow not familiar with the incident, on the morning of January 7, two Islamic extremists stormed the offices of a French satirical magazine and, while yelling “God is Great,” slaughtered 12 people—targeting editors and cartoonists, but also killing a couple of police officers. A Facebook friend captured the disgust felt by so many when he raged, “Unfuckingreal, the deterioration of society is unraveling at light speed these days!”

It was hard not to sympathize. Other recent headlines included beheadings in the Middle East, cops assassinated in New York, and protests over alleged police abuse in multiple American cities. So it was with more than a little irony that I contemplated Shermer’s central thesis: virtually every aspect of modern society is better than it used to be, and things will continue to improve as long as we remain true to the tenets of science and reason. Huh? What of the interminable horrors on the news? The ubiquitous cynicism? The intractable political division?

A few years ago the comedian Louis C.K. did a bit in which he hailed the astounding scientific innovations of modern life, like cellphones and airplanes, while bemoaning that nobody was happier because of them. The bit became famous partly because it spoofed the view that life was somehow better in simpler, pre-technological times. As its first virtue, The Moral Arc reminds us that life for most people throughout human history was, in fact, brutal. War and murder were much more pervasive in years past, slavery was common, women were treated shabbily, disease was more devastating, and the divine right of kings prevailed for centuries as the typical form of government.

Shermer is not arguing that modern life is bereft of brutality, of course, or that we don’t have a long way to go morally, but he establishes as a solid starting point that most humans are better off now than at any point in history. So if this is true, then the question is, Why? Drawing from a mountain of data, historical trends, and the ideas of great minds from Jefferson to Ray Kurzweil, Shermer concludes that humans have flourished—morally as well as materially—because we’ve embraced the ideas of the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Reason. These include concepts like natural rights, analytical reasoning, and fact-based decision making. Simultaneously, we’ve moved away from religion and other forms of “magical thinking” that have impeded progress.

The Moral Arc is an optimistic, ambitious, and humane book: Shermer defines moral progress as “the improvement in the survival and flourishing of sentient beings.” Because of its hostility to religion, however, the book will be anathema to some. Hardcore conservatives, too, will likely reject it, mainly because of Shermer’s insistence that we stop viewing moral issues in black and white—“categorical thinking”—and instead view them as points along a continuum—“continuous thinking.” This concept is among his most salient, and it leads to fascinating analyses of moral quandaries like Hiroshima/Nagasaki (he agrees with Truman’s decisions), abortion (he is pro-choice), and the death penalty (he is opposed).

Shermer’s critique of religion is scathing. Unlike Christopher Hitchens, his late friend whom he cites, Shermer acknowledges that religion has benefited humanity in some ways, such as in providing a sense of community. But all things considered, he argues, religion has not contributed significantly to mankind’s well-being. While prominent atheists like Sam Harris and Bill Maher target Islam as modern society’s biggest ill, Shermer, a one-time Christian who founded Skeptic magazine, attacks his former faith. He methodically dismantles any claim the Bible might have toward driving mankind’s increasing morality.

“Many Christians say they get their morality from the Bible,” he blasts, “but this cannot be true because as holy books go the Bible is possibly the most unhelpful guide ever written for determining right from wrong.”

After citing a long list of wars fought in Christianity’s name, Shermer points to Biblical passages that support slavery, the mistreatment of women, cruelty to animals, homophobia, xenophobia; and Old Testament passages such as “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” which contributed to countless women being burned alive. But Shermer’s most poignant criticism here is that Earth’s major religions are exclusionary, “serving to regulate moral rules within the community but not seeking to embrace humanity outside their circle.” He powerfully contrasts this with inclusionary Enlightenment-based ideas and the philosophical beliefs that grew from them, such as John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance,” in which Rawls suggests we construct laws as if we were to return to Earth unaware which person (or sentient being) we would return as.

But in a work that tackles so much, it’s hard to imagine anyone walking away from The Moral Arc without qualms. One key question is whether Shermer properly accounts for policies like colonialism and slavery, which greatly benefited “the survival and flourishing” of some groups at the expense of others. My biggest issue with The Moral Arc, however, is that Shermer ignores one of the most morally vexing issues of our time: climate change. One wonders if he does so because it clashes with his thesis. To wit: if science, which drives our morality, led to modern technology, then what to make of the Industrial Revolution, which sparked global warming, and, by threatening the lives of sentient beings, is thus immoral? This would seem a paradox worth exploring. The closest Shermer comes to addressing it is in his final pages, when he muses about future human civilizations living on distant planets. Perhaps, then, this is how he expects we will finally resolve the issue.

As insightful and thought-provoking as The Moral Arc is, the ending left me cold. Shermer’s dreams of “spacefaring hominins” colonizing Mars and “the moons of Jupiter and Saturn” may portend scientific wonders, but I, for one, don’t find these visions particularly inspiring. It’s difficult to imagine a more majestic home than the one we have. Moreover, Shermer’s advocacy of unflagging scientific advancement raises an existential concern: Do humans properly consider long-term ramifications while pursuing technological innovation? Nuclear weapons, Artificial Intelligence, and climate-warming technologies all have the potential for catastrophe, and could indeed force us to look elsewhere to survive.

On January 22, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, citing just these technological dangers, announced it was moving its Doomsday Clock ahead by two minutes, to just three minutes to Midnight. Singling out climate change as particularly hazardous, the Bulletin stated that “current efforts are entirely insufficient to prevent a catastrophic warming of earth.” Whether naturally formed or bestowed by a Creator, if we can’t set aside our greed and myopia to preserve Mother Earth, then all the moral progress we’ve made to this point will have been for nothing.