It’s easy to identify history’s evil geniuses — the Hitlers and Stalins — but who are the moral geniuses among us? And what does it take to be one? How can science and religion help us do great work in the world—and stop us from using our singular human intelligence for ill?
As part of the 92nd St. Y’s “7 Days of Genius” Festival, Professor Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine and author of The Moral Arc, and Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman, founding director of Sinai and Synapses, get to the very heart of right and wrong.Read Transcript
Thank you and thank you Kate, and thank you to the 92 Street Y, and to the Templeton Foundation, and to all of you, and most of all to Dr Michael Shermer. It’s a great pleasure to be able to be sitting here with you. I’ve had great respect for you and your work for many many years. And my organization, Sinai and Synapses, tries to bridge the world between religion and science, and we try to look at texts and ideas and thoughts that are scientifically grounded and spiritually uplifting. And so when I came across Dr. Shermer’s work, and when I picked up “The Moral Arc,” which is his new book that you’ll be able to pick up later, this is a perfect opportunity to be able to explore with him some questions surrounding science and religion and good and evil. It’s an outstanding book, I highly recommend you read it and explore it, and it’s a great honor to be able to explore a few questions here with you about this evening.
Michael Shermer: Bravo, let’s start.
Geoff Mitelman: All right. So the first question is actually, on some level, a very simple question, but it is going to go to the heart of what your book is, which is about the question of science and morality, because the subtitle of your book, “The Moral Arc,” is “how science and reason lead humanity toward truth, justice and freedom.” And when people think about science, people often tend to think about people in lab coats, or astrophysicists, or molecular biologists. They don’t necessarily think of questions about morality.
And when people think about morality, they tend to think about religious leaders. I think of, for example, of Dr Martin Luther King. Today, of course, is the 50th anniversary of the March from Selma, and his phrase, “the moral arc, the arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” that is the centerpiece of your book here. So when we think about morality, we tend not to think about science, necessarily. And I know that you’re a great advocate of skepticism, so some people may be very skeptical of this idea that science leads to a greater sense of morality, a greater sense of goodness and justice in this world. So can you explain a little bit about your argument and what leads you to say that science and reason are what are leading this world to a greater sense of justice and peace?
Michael Shermer: Well first of all, I don’t have anything against the astrophysicists. They have it easy compared to the hard sciences, which are the social sciences and the moral science. Because these are hard problems. It is pretty much an area where most scientists would agree with most religionists that science has nothing to say or very little to say about morality. So that’s probably the area of the book that’s the most criticized so far by even my friends, because they’ve just sort of swallowed this meme of, from David Hume on, that the way something is cannot tell us the way it ought to be. Almost everybody means like, “well, if there’s slavery in ants, there should be slavery in humans, well, we can’t endorse that,” so that goes out the window. But if you actually look at what Hume said – and then just to be sure that I wasn’t reading into him what what I wanted to, I checked with a Hume scholar in England, who agreed with me.
Which, I read the book that he just said people tend to slip from “is” to “ought” without much reason or rationality or thinking about it carefully. Not that you can’t do it, but if you’re gonna do it, you should be super careful about how you do it. So, but I’m not talking about the way something is just in nature. So this is what almost everybody thinks here. The way ants are, the way chimpanzees are, or bonobos, or whatever. Then that’s the the way we – I’m not thinking like that. I’m just thinking, the way something is in terms of our understanding of it. So for example, if you know that democracies are better than autocracies, then it’s reasonable to say, “then we ought to do to help promote people living in autocracies become democracies, because it leads to greater freedom and justice and so forth.” If you know that’s the way it is, then you ought to do something about it. That’s my argument.
And so I just worked through political, economic, social, moral issues, along those lines. What do we know? Social scientists actually know a lot about these things. Which social systems work better than others? And so I use the public health analogy. So if you agree that having sanitary systems, and flush toilets, and clean streets, and vaccinations, and these sorts of things, if you agree that’s a good thing (of course everybody does, except for a few people who don’t vaccinate their kids for goofy reasons), but at any rate, if you agree with that, then why? Why would that be good? Well, because it leads people to survive and flourish. OK, why is that good? So that’s really my moral starting point. Because evolution vouchsafed us with this desire to live. To survive and flourish. So I build from there.
So then you just take something like – well, a couple of years ago we did an issue of Skeptic on gun control. I ended up doing a bunch of public debates with John Lott, which was the guy who wrote this book “More Guns, Less Crime.” John’s ideas – “just arm everybody to the teeth, all the way down to grammar schools, and we’ll all be safe” – well, it’s not quite that simple, but that’s sort of the idea. And when I looked into it, I realized that almost all the research on the effects of guns and gun control measures are conducted by public health scientists, epidemiologists, people that study diseases and things like that. So I realize, okay, so that’s a good example of “if you know that guns do something that you don’t want, then should you do something about it? oughtn’t we do something about it?”
I’m not endorsing gun control or no gun control, I’m just saying, if you agree that we should study it, because it’s good to know why things happened, what caused homicide rates to decline by a hundredfold in the past couple of centuries? Then shouldn’t we do more of that? The answer is yes, of course, we’re already doing it. So all I’m saying is, I’m not actually inventing anything, I’m just saying we’re already doing all this stuff. Just quit saying we shouldn’t do it, because you already agree we should do it, because we are doing it.
Geoff Mitelman: So you’re drawing a distinction between science as a process versus science as a problem.
Michael Shermer: Right. So, like nuclear weapons or people can– What about nuclear weapons? What about it? We haven’t dropped one since 1945. Why not? We should study that scientifically. How is it we’ve avoided a nuclear war? Well, we now have a pretty good understanding of it. Basically politicians became behavioral game theorists. And they figured out how to strategize and avoid these things. Well then, we ought to do more of that. Now, the development of the bomb itself is a product of science, which is morally neutral, it is whatever it is, the physical laws say you can do this so people do it. But whether you use it or not it affects us – now that’s a social scientific question.
Geoff Mitelman: So I want to actually drill down a little bit on your definition of morality, because if I remember it, you define morality as the survival and flourishing of sentient beings.
Michael Shermer: You’ve gotta start somewhere.
Geoff Mitelman: That’s right, so that’s the starting element, which makes a lot of sense, but it’s also reminding me of some work from Jonathan Haidt, who is a moral psychologist out of NYU who wrote a book called “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” And one of the things that Haidt talks about is that morality actually has several different elements to it, and liberals tend to be most committed to the elements of care, and harm, and fairness, and don’t tend to be as involved in the elements that conservatives also care about, which are authority and community and sanctity. And I don’t necessarily see those last three elements in your definition of morality.
So, where does your definition there, of the survival and flourishing of sentient beings, how does that play into Haidt’s definition there?
Michael Shermer: Right, I tend to agree with his research, pretty much. But I think that what conservatives are focusing on there about rule of law, hierarchy, respect for authority, still boils down to, well, why would you care about those things? Well, because it’s better for me as an individual if my group is more cohesive and we take care of one another. I think it still all boils down to “how does this affect me personally,” “how does this affect you,” “how does this affect members of my family,” and so forth. It still comes down to that. So I don’t think, I think I’m just going like one level below his, his five different, six or whatever it is now.
Geoff Mitelman: Right, there’s a sixth one in there.
Michael Shermer: He added a libertarian one, people that are just super obsessed with freedom, and I’m kind of one of those guys. And so it’s not really a libertarian argument because I still think the survival and flourishing of the individual sentient being is what counts. And the reason for that is because – just think about natural rights arguments and the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights are designed to protect individuals from being treated as a member of a group, being discriminated against as a member of a group. Genders don’t vote, races don’t vote, people vote. And so you shouldn’t be prevented voting from your membership in a group. So really, rights arguments are anti-group arguments, they’re individual arguments, arguments for the power of the individual.
Geoff Mitelman: And, that reminds me, actually, of a lot of work thinking about what defines someone is good or evil, is that when anyone who is like us is an individual and them – there’s a sort of inchoate group out there, and then we create all the people as an outside group, as indiscriminate, that often creates a lot of evil in this world.
Michael Shermer: That’s right. So the problem with focusing on groups is that it’s too easy to demonize groups and even make more like a utilitarian argument. So I use the example of the trolley problem, which pretty much everybody’s heard of the trolley problem, right. So the trolley’s hurtling down the track, and it’s gonna kill these five workers. And you’re standing there at this switch, and you can throw the switch and the trolley goes down this other track and kills the one worker. Would you throw the switch?
So, you know everybody that’s taken this online, you know, 90% say “of course I’d throw the switch, I’d kill the one to save the five.” Why can’t you just yell, “Get up, there’s a trolley coming!”. “No, you’re not allowed to do that, because in thought experiments, this isn’t science, it’s philosophy!”. So granted even that, the problem is – what about that one person? Why should he be sacrificed for the five? But more importantly, historically, it’s too easy to ratchet up from kill the one to save the five, to kill the one million to save the five million, to kill the five million to save the fifty million, and all of the sudden you’ve got a genocide, and that’s what genocides are. They’re kind of a utilitarian calculus. Like “we really gotta get rid of the 10 million Jews in Europe because, we, Germans or whatever will be better off with this.” Whatever, just pick your genocide example. Example they’re all arguments along those lines. So the utilitarian arguments work all the way up to the point of where, but wait, to a point where if the individual is going to be sacrificed, I stop at the utilitarian level and at a natural rights, the right of the autonomy of the individual, to survive and flourish. That’s even lower than doing a utilitarian calculus.
Geoff Mitelman: And it’s reminding me also of – there’s a Jewish text that asks, and again, we don’t have to talk about whether this is a literal truth or not, but there is a text in Judaism that says that, asks the question, why was only one human being created? As opposed to, theoretically, if you’re playing by the rules of religion, God theoretically could have created six billion of us. And yet in the text, it says that God started with one human being. And why did God start that way?
And the rabbis say, a few different reasons. First, so that no one could say “my ancestor is greater than your ancestor,” and another one is to be able to say “a human king stamps a coin in exactly the same kind of way, but every human being is stamped in the image of God, and yet no one is exactly like anyone else.” And to be able to see that there is a common humanity among all of us, and yet we all have a certain individuality to who we are.
Michael Shermer: OK… (laughter) how did they figure this out?
Geoff Mitelman: How did they figure out – which piece?
Michael Shermer: Well, whatever – the whole – that there was only one person. This is like the thought experiment, right?
Geoff Mitelman: Again, if you’re playing by the rules of “the Bible is literally true,” but I don’t necessarily play by that rule, but the rabbis said the text says “God created Adam,” so at least theoretically, God could have created multiple different people.
Michael Shermer: Well, I thought there were two.
Geoff Mitelman: Well – so that’s a whole other separate conversation.
Michael Shermer: Because somehow, well anyway… that’s biology.
Geoff Mitelman: Going in a somewhat different direction, though, looking at these questions of good and evil here, one piece that I found very interesting in your book was the importance of changing from a binary discussion about good and evil to a continuous level of good and evil.
One of the challenges, as we were just talking about, I think, one of the challenges when we talk about good and evil is that it’s not just necessarily moral, it’s a lot of moralization, a lot of “I am purely good, this person’s purely evil.” And it does not move the conversation forward at all. Whereas what you argue is more of a continuous spectrum, to be able to say there are dials that can enhance or inhibit people’s ability to be ethical or unethical in this kind of way. So, can you expand on that a little bit there, to be able to share that argument?
Michael Shermer: Yeah, so this is sort of an anti-essentialism argument, that, you know, this idea that there’s an essence to something and it’s a unit, and it’s either that or it’s not that. There’s too many areas of life that are sort of shades of gray in between. So, like, discussions on the so-called “McDonald’s theory of peace” and the “democratic theory of peace.” You probably read [in] Thomas Friedman’s “The World Is Flat,” “no two countries with McDonald’s ever fight,” or no “two democracies ever go to war.”
It’s like, oh yeah, but I thought the civil war was two democracies? England and America were two democracies. England and Argentina were two democracies. What are you talking about? OK, Well, there are shades of gray of democracy. Some are better than others. And so a way of thinking about that is that I use is the Polity Project, which is a group that rates democracies on a 1 to 10 scale based on the transparency of their elections and, you know, how much money goes to buying off politicians, if you can imagine such a thing happening…
Geoff Mitelman: Who would consider such a thing happening? (laughter)
Michael Shermer: Third world countries do that, no. Anyway, we’re an 8 on the 1-10 Polity scale, so if you’re an 8 or above on the Polity Scale, you’re 83% less likely to have a conflict with another democracy who’s 8 or higher on the Polity Scale, controlled for for GDP and geography. Obviously, Taiwan and Argentina are not likely to go to war; they’re not even close to each other. So you have to adjust for all those things.
So that’s kind of a way of thinking, well, so it’s not only black or white. Or two countries that trade with one other. Yes, occasionally, if you’re economically interdependent ,you still go to war. But it’s just less likely to happen. And so it seems to me that you can apply that to all sorts of areas. Abortion, you know, for a lot of people it’s an essentialistic thing, it’s either a life form or it’s not, it’s black or white, but really scientists can’t really tell us where it begins, it’s just these shades of gray. So the law ends up deciding, we decide, essentially through our democratic process and so forth.
Geoff Mitelman: So one of the challenges, I think, potentially with this ideas is groups like ISIL, groups like Boko Haram, groups like – you talk a lot about the Nazis and National Socialism in the book. Where does that play into this question of continuous continuous morality here?
Michael Shermer: The thing about — if we think about, so instead of saying, “well Islam is the problem,” well, that’s just too broad. It’s just a big huge gigantic category. There’s shades of gray, like in religious groups, any ideologically driven group, there’s shades of gray there, so from violent to less violent. So the problem is, instead of saying it’s this category, it’s that particular person, that small group of people, or whatever, I think it helps to do that. So I sell a book I basically just endorse them today and now people are like “oh great pretty much it’s a bigger category.” But still, they’re way out on the end. Most Muslims, pretty much all Muslims in the Western World, don’t endorse this. And whatever the Quran really says is irrelevant, because the whole thing was just written by people anyway. It only matters what the people think it says, because people act on what their beliefs are, and those beliefs that are important. So we’ve got to know what they actually believe. And so the further out they are, I think that – we have to be careful.
It’s not just religious extremism. The Jains are extremists. I mean, they’re way out there. They won’t even kill a bug. They’ll crawl along on a path and be careful not to step on it. They’re religious extremists, but I’m not worried about them coming to the offices of Skeptic magazine and bombing us if we wrote an article about them. Because they’re not violent. So it’s not just religion, it’s not just religious extremists, It’s violent religious extremists who have beliefs that lead them to commit actual acts of violence.
Geoff Mitelman: So does that lead, then, to moral relativism of this continuous scale? It seems like there are different levels, there’s a relative amount of “this group is” or this particular action is more moral than this other particular group there. That sounds like it’s sliding into some moral relativism.
Michael Shermer: But even that – if you’re a moral realist or a moral relativist – even that’s a black and white category I don’t like. Just scale it up. I mean, I’m a moral realist, but I can recognize that different cultures have different emphases on different behaviors.
So if you just take something like infanticide – you know, like a favorite debate tactic that theologians that I debate [have] is, something like, “is it OK for somebody to kill an infant for fun, just for the hell of it?” or something like that. Well, where is this happening? Well, there’s these groups that let infants die, inuits let their infants die or whatever, but they’re not doing it for fun. You know, there’s a cost-benefit analysis, there’s people that study infanticide, and you know, hardness of heart has mostly to do with hardness of life. And you can sort of do the calculation of why mothers or parents would kill their infant. And it turns out there’s a logic behind it. It’s no longer a moral issue so much as it is understanding the context in which it happens. That’s not to say, “oh, then it’s relative and people should be able to kill their infants.” No, it doesn’t say that at all. It’s still a moral issue, it’s a moral realistic issue, but there’s a scale there.
Geoff Mitelman: Although what you’re saying is reminding me – and I’m trying to remember the details of the study exactly – when people were presented with a moral dilemma, it was presented in one of two different ways, that people experienced in one of two different ways. One was a cost-benefit analysis. How much would you need to receive in order to violate whatever ethic you have, versus being asked to spend or receive money to violate one of your deeply, most deeply held values?
And for some people it was something they didn’t care that much about, then OK, I’ll take $100 to be able to to lie to my wife (sorry). Or to be able to say that if it was something they cared very deeply about, then not only did they not receive the money, they got very angry. And it actually violated some very strongly held norms and beliefs. So it’s not as simple as as some people making a cost-benefit analysis, because there are values that we hold very very dearly, and we do tend to create an essentialist view on that. And I think as human beings, it’s very hard for us not to fall into that category.
Michael Shermer: I would agree, but that’s still the problem. Like, say, if we just offered more foreign aid to the Middle East, if they would just settle down on a two state solution, how much do we have to give them? And they say “how dare you offer us “– it’s like offering. money for a sacred value. This is our sacred land. God gave us this land. There’s no price to put on it. Well that’s a problem because in the real world, you have to get along with people, or else it’s going to end up with this endless conflict. So I would still say that kind of this essentialism causes more conflict.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, playing off of that, there’s one part of your book that I actually will say I strongly disagree with.
Michael Shermer: Just one part? (laughs)
Geoff Mitelman: Well, maybe more, but there was is one that I read that I went “Well wait a second this one I have to be able to ask him about.” There were quite a few, but this was one that actually really struck me, that I wanted it to talk about for a few minutes here. And it’s in your section talking about anti-Semitism, which is obviously something that is very close to my heart and a lot of people in the Jewish community, but it think this actually can play out not just for anti-Semitism but for a lot of different beliefs that we hold that are harmful and can be very destructive, whether we talk about anti-LGBT rights, we can talk about this with racism, we can even talk about this with climate change or vaccinations. But the particular context was about anti semitism. So I want to read this little quote from from your book, and then I’m going to challenge you on it. So this is the little part. It says:
“…The ultimate cause of anti-Semitism was (and remains) an utterly mistaken set of beliefs about Jews; thus, the long term solution to anti semitism is a better understanding of reality… This is where science and reason come into the picture and why I argue that many of our moral mistakes are errors of fact based on defective thinking and on the erroneous assumptions that we make about other people. This one solution is to be found in the scientifically rational understanding of causality.” (310)
Michael Shermer: I wrote that? It’s pretty good. (Laughter) Very well written!
Geoff Mitelman: That the challenge that I have, though, is the belief that facts can actually change people’s minds when there is that much hatred or strongly held belief. I’m thinking of the study done by Brendan Nyhan at the University of Michigan a few years ago. This was about environmentalism, if you don’t know the study, but I believe it was a lot of climate deniers. They talked about a lot of climate deniers. And they were presented with several facts about that climate change is real. And the climate deniers are no go, “Ah! you know what, you’re right, I’m so sorry that that this is what I thought,” in fact they actually got more hardened and more convinced of their perspective. And you’ve even written several times that our brain doesn’t look for truth, our brain is a lawyer more than it’s a philosopher.
Michael Shermer: I think I wrote a book about that.
Geoff Mitelman: I think you wrote a couple books about that.
Michael Shermer: Yeah, you know, that’s a good point. Yeah I really kind of had to rethink think that through a couple analogies. so let’s just go back to earlier to what I call the witch theory of causality. So if you believe that women cavorting with demons at night because crop failures and plagues and bad weather, then you’re either insane or you live 500 years ago, when pretty much everybody believed that. And so what happened? Well, no one believes that anymore. Now it’s true that the witch crazes had multiple motives. Sometimes people would pre-emptively accuse somebody else just so that they wouldn’t be accused. Or if there’s somebody you don’t like, so it’s a way of getting revenge at them, you want their stuff.
So genocides, pogroms, they have secondary motives that certainly operate. And yes, there’s group hatreds and tribal tensions and things like that. But the arguments are grounded in this idea “well, the reason we don’t like them is because of this thing over here, they cause these problems.” So if you show, well, you’re wrong, okay, it’s true, they’re not going to say, tomorrow, “you know what, how silly of me to believe that, I changed my mind, I like this person now”. I know that doesn’t happen. But in the long run, it does happen. It happens so many times. In terms of how we think about women as witches, or graces, or whatever.
And so by changing people’s thinking about that – so, “Jews poison wells,” or “they cause the plague,” or “they were the backstabbers in the First World War, they caused the Germans to lose the war,” or whatever. So these are all bad ideas. They’re wrong. You can debunk those ideas, just like we did with witches or “blacks are inferior.” Or “women can’t reason rationally enough to participate in the political process because they’re too emotional.” These are all arguments that people make that no one makes anymore. So you stop thinking about it, once it’s debunked, then maybe a generation or so, it takes, two, maybe three sometimes, to get to the point where people just quit thinking those thoughts, and then it just never enters your mind.
Now, somewhere in there, to change it, you have to change the law. Unfortunately, as a libertarian, I wish we could do it just through ideas. Just the power of books and media. But unfortunately, you can’t. So to end slavery in America, it took a war and 660,000 dead. But then, what happens is, the law gets changed, the war, and law gets changed, then a couple generations later, people quit thinking those things – mostly. It’s slow, but it happens.
So just think about, like – we’re in the middle of the gay rights revolution right now. What people used to think about homosexuals in the 40’s and 50’s – just think about the The Imitation Game and how Alan Turing was treated. And it’s abysmal. And that wasn’t that long ago, that was just in the 50’s, that, you know, he was chemically castrated. I mean it’s just – you say that, “What!? The British government did what? They chemically castrated the guy who saved the war? What?” Y eah, and that wasn’t that long ago. So we just quit thinking about those things.
So the laws had to change. For example, I no longer think about burning witches. I don’t think about it because the law says I can’t think about it, it never even enters my mind. And that’s true for pretty much all of us in the West now, so that’s, I guess – to try to nuance it that way.
Geoff Mitelman: So you’re saying more that the facts and the changes of the ideas is more of a long-term solution. The short term piece, that’s not going to necessarily be as effective.
Michael Shermer: Right. So to use an example of the setee, in India, the burning of widows, I’m saying it wrong – what is it, satee? Yeah, suttee. So, a man dies, then the wife has to be burned to death. So this was a common practice, apparently it still goes on occasionally here and there, but the British outlawed it. And this is this cultural relativism argument. So one of the locals said to the local general there, “Well, this is our custom. You have your customs and we have our customs and we should be able to to do what we want.” And he said, “yeah, we have a custom. When people burn women, we build gallows and we hang them. So you go ahead and practice your custom and we will practice our custom and both of us will respect each other’s.”
So eventually, this just got – they put a stop to this, and that was that. But you don’t have to have the law anymore, hopefully, except for the few exceptions, people stop thinking about that. So there’s multiple – it’s the 50th anniversary of Selma. You know, Johnson had to to send the troops in with guns. Sometimes that’s what it takes. To desegregate the schools, Kennedy had to send the troops in. You’re going to do this for us. Now, in the long run, you don’t want to have to do that. You want to change people’s thinking, not force them.
Geoff Mitelman: And you need both some top-down and some bottom-up activities there.
Michael Shermer: Better long-term, bottom-up.
Geoff Mitelman: And I’m thinking about the research that’s been done about [how] one of the great ways to lessen discrimination and hatred is actually relationships. I think one of the main reasons that the gay rights revolution has moved forward – racism is very much still a factor, but it is obviously less than it was many years ago – is when people are able to have relationships and connections and they don’t see people as, again, as members of an indiscriminate group, but are able to actually [say] “ah, this is a human being who has his or her own hopes and dreams,” going back to your sentient individual.
Michael Shermer: That helps, but it’s not enough, Because, you know, before the women’s rights movement, men knew women. Intimately! And it’s not like they were just introduced – “Wow, it’s a woman! Wow! another sentient being.” No. So you have to change people’s thinking in a very directional way.
So the coming-out campaigns are important. Particularly for minority groups. Most people who are in the discriminatory group don’t even know a black or a Jew or whatever, [or] maybe they do but they don’t even know, if it’s a homosexual or something. But coming out then changes [it]. So the atheist movement now is undergoing this sort of coming-out campaign. We should all come out and say we’re atheists, and we’re proud, whatever the rhyme would be. We don’t have a good rhyme. But something like that, that’s what the Dawkins Foundation is trying to do. With the coming out, just so people quit thinking those thoughts. But you have to do slightly a little bit more than that, you have to change the laws, so the ACLU actually sues people for discrimination on a religious basis, for example.
Geoff Mitelman: I want to ask a somewhat different question, looking at the flip side – I mean, we were looking at what creates a sense of evil here. I actually want to see if there’s some good that we can find within the evil here. And I want to start with, actually, a Jewish text that reminded me of something that came up in your book as well. There’s a concept in Judaism called – it’s called the yetzer hara. It’s often translated as “the impulse to evil” – that’s the bad translation – it’s more sort of an impulse for power, an impulse for selfishness. It’s usually viewed very negatively, but there is a text that says that without the yetzer hara, no one would start a business, and no one would start a family, and no one would do – and there would be no drive to move forward. And so the rabbis say the yetzer hara, when it runs amok, that’s a big problem, but in limited doses it’s actually very necessary.
And what it reminded me of was a little section in your book where you talk about psychopathy, which we tend to think of as this horrible scary element of this, but you also make an argument that in limited doses, there are elements of it that may be valuable, of tough-mindedness, and focus, risk taking. So where are ways that we can take the evil and transform that into good? In the Jewish tradition, it’s saying “turning the yeast into the dough.” And transforming the negative, scary, evil parts of ourselves into something that is actually going to make the world a little bit better.
Michael Shermer: Well, there are people who do research on psychopathy. You know, apparently, a lot of Wall Street firms are run by psychopaths, it turns out. But they channel those sort of aspects of psychopathy that are good for making dough, or whatever the analogy is – families, and so on. That is, you’re willing to take risks, and start new things, and that takes a certain amount of tough-mindedness. And you don’t care about failure, and criticism, and whatever.
So Kevin Dutton has a book, he does psychopathy research, and he has a book about like “Channeling Your Inner Psychopathy” or something like that, but to back up a little bit, so, the nature of evil, which I reject in a theological sense – the idea of the evil-doers, or that there’s people that are evil in the world – OK, there might be people with like, brain tumors, or these psychopaths whose neurochemistry we don’t really understand, but they’re really way out there, and they’re serial killers and so on.
You know, There are these neuroscientists that now scan the brains of serial killers on death row. Adrian Raine is one of these guys. His book, “The Anatomy of Violence,” chronicles his experiences studying these guys that are on death row. They have nothing to do, so they’re happy to participate in these experiments. And so what he finds is that their prefrontal cortex is basically shut down – it’s quiescent. They have very little self-control. These urges are constantly bubbling up.
So the idea is that most of us have urges bubbling up, but most of us keep it in control. But now some people have stronger urges bubbling up and they have no self-control. And again, not the essentialism thing, but the scale, so it’s the people that are way out there. Good or evil, it’s just too black and white. So how do we, first of all deal, with those people? And I use Adrian’s example of this – well, first of all, I use the example of, remember the UT Austin bell tower shooter? I forget the guy’s name now.
Geoff Mitelman: Whitman…
Michael Shermer: Charles Whitman. He shot 17 people at the university there and left a note saying “autopsy my brain, because I really just sense that something is really wrong.” Sure enough he’s got a walnut sized tumor in there. And then Adrian chronicles this guy Donta Page, who raped and killed this woman, and then he’s on death row. So he scans his brain, and tracks – he spends pages of his book tracking this poor kid’s background. I mean, his grandmother was a drug addict, and his mother was a drug addict, and he was raised with these gangs, he was dropped and beaten multiple times, you know, by the time he was seven, he’d been in jail already – you know, it just goes on and on and on, like the crappiest background you could ever imagine anybody raising.
And so, what’s the difference between the guy with the brain tumor and the guy with the crappiest background ever – that also rewired his brain? In a way we just really don’t understand, but it clearly it’s – so the idea is, if we could understand it, then we should able to – we’re talking centuries, again, don’t let these people out of jail. I’m just saying that if we could understand the wiring, the chemistry, then we could do something about it, in the same way that we could change social positions to lower crime, say.
Geoff Mitelman: So one of the things that’s a challenge, though, and seeing a lot of the work that’s being done of neuroscience and morality – and the analogy that I’m thinking of is one of the reasons that intelligent design is so awful is that intelligent design doesn’t explain – it explains in a way. Science helps explain, intelligent design does “God did it and that’s the end of it.” That’s among several reasons why intelligent design is problematic.
But on the flip side, one of the challenges with all this work that’s being done on brain scans and neuroscience and morality is – is responsibility, and the sense of morality, is that going to be explained away through brain scans, to be able to say “my brain made me do it”? And particularly I’m thinking of, in front of the jury of your peers, I’ve heard some research being done on this, of a scientist coming in and saying “look at what this person’s brain has done,” and a person in the jury who doesn’t have any scientific training is able to exculpate a serial killer. And so what’s the danger of using neuroscience to explain away a lot of our moral responsibility?
Michael Shermer: Yeah, it’s an interesting problem, but the difference between moralizing and condemning a bad behavior vs. understanding it. What the scientist wants to know is, well, why does that happen? Why do people commit crimes? And just by asking the question, you’re automatically put into the category of “well, you’re excusing the crime.” And so you have to apologize, “no, I’m not excusing the crime, I just want to know why crime happens.” And so all the scientists that do that are always all these atheist liberal professors who want to let these criminals out – no, no, no, don’t let them out, we just want to understand why they’re doing this so that we can get people to quit doing it in the future. But that is part of that problem. But is it good? And it doesn’t let people off, it’s still your brain. And as a civil society, we still have to hold people morally culpable, we have to assume there’s such a thing as free will.
And so I have a chapter on free will in there and I have solved the problem, after 4000 years of debate. (laughter) I have free will and you don’t. (laughter) I mean, come on, I just basically – I’m not a philosopher, so I like Dan Dennett’s argument in “Freedom Evolves,” again, which is a non-essentialist thing. Forget that you either have free will or you’re determined. How can that be? What do those words really mean? Okay, forget that. It’s just scaling up of degrees of freedom. Insects have very few degrees of freedom, they’re really driven by instincts. Rats have more degrees of freedom. Dogs, more still. Chimps more than dogs, and we more than chimps. Just more choices and options you have. So by the time we get to humans with a legal system, I think it’s reasonable to argue we can hold people accountable, regardless of what their brains are doing.
Now, we might talk about it differently. Like Adrian Raine talks about this Mr. Oft, this middle aged man in his 40’s who becomes inappropriate with his stepdaughter and the wife finds kiddie porn, bla bla bla. He’s turned in to the authorities. He’s labeled as a pedophile, he’s on his way to being sent to jail. And at the last minute, he’s talking to the psychiatrist or something and he wets his pants, standing there. And he doesn’t even say anything, [he’s] just like, “uh, this is normal.” So the psychiatrist goes, “this is not normal! People would go ugh, how embarrassing.” So this guy’s got a weird brain, let’s scan it – boom, he’s got a tumor in his brain, orbital frontal cortex, and so they take it out, he has no more desires for kiddie porn or being inappropriate with his daughter, or anything like that. It just goes away, he’s reunited with his family, he’s back to teaching school. And all of the sudden the wife finds kiddie porn on the computer again. Oh! What’s going on? Scan the brain – tumor grew back.
So – but we don’t think of this guy as a pedophile. We think of him – well, he had a tumor. He has a medical condition. Well, what’s the difference between the tumor medical condition and some other wiring in somebody’s brain that makes them want to have sex with children, and we don’t even know what it is. It’s like the gap argument. I don’t know what it is, so we’ll call it evil. Calling something “the pedophilic tendency,” that doesn’t explain it, it’s just a word to say what it is this person’s doing. So ultimately we’ve gotta have, we’ve gotta bore down, I mean, that’s what the neuroscientists do. We’ve gotta do that.
Geoff Mitelman: That leads to another question, which is the role of emotion in moral sentiments and moral actions there, of thinking about this gentleman who wet his pants and did not feel any emotion there. And actually, what a lot of people say is, psychopaths, for example, are able to think, but they’re not able to feel. And that’s a big part of that. And so, where does the rational piece of it, because you obviously advocate very strongly for reason and rationality, where does emotion and emotionality play in, in terms of moral development?
Michael Shermer: Right, well, hmm. The book was getting too long already. (laughs) Well, I mean, I guess what we’ve been doing as a society is trying to figure out how we can structure things to incentivize people to behave in a certain way, such that it benefits all of us more. And that includes learning to control your emotions. So I do have a section on self-control/willpower. There’s a great book called “Willpower” – John Tierney is here – with Roy Baumeister, this is the best book on this subject – willpower, self-control is sort of the technical term. You know, give the kids the marshmallow, and “if you wait 15 minutes, you can have two marshmallows.” If you’ve never seen these videos, they’re quite hilarious. They leave the kid alone, and he’s like “aaaah,” he’s trying not to look at it, singing, whatever they can do to wait the 15 minutes. Although some of the critics point out, if you’re raised in a family with 10 kids, you shouldn’t wait 15 minutes, that marshmallow’s gonna be gone. Eat it now! Anyway, so that’s another story.
But the research you guys summarize is just terrific, I used a lot of it in my book, of teaching people to learn how to control your emotions. So earlier in the day is better than later in the day, having your blood sugar level up, not being too fatigued. These guys did research on fatiguing subjects by giving them these cognitive tasks like Sudoku puzzles, and then the temptation of the marshmallow, or whatever. The more intellectually fatigued you are, the more emotionally subject you are to falling for your whims and so forth. But knowing that, then, it’s like, okay, well, then I shouldn’t drink and drive late at night, I shouldn’t go shopping on an empty stomach, because I’m gonna fill the fridge with stuff that I know I shouldn’t. So you guys have a bunch of little, you know, “here’s the things you can do about that.” Well, that’s applying science to controlling your emotions.
Geoff Mitelman: So there I think you’re talking more about science, necessarily ,than reason in that kind of way. I’m thinking about people who are able to rationalize. There’s a difference between rational and rationalization there. I’m thinking also particularly of John Haidt’s analogy of the rider and the elephant. John Haidt, who is this psychologist, talks about the fact that a lot of our actions are driven by a very powerful elephant and a little rider, and the rider is the thinker, and the rider can guide the elephant, but it takes a lot of time and a lot of energy and a lot of effort. And very often, the elephant can override the rider. And so, we can often say “oh, I’ve made this rationalization to be able to do X or Y or Z,” I’m thinking of people often say what they call moral balancing. To be able to say, “I drove my hybrid car to get here, so now I don’t have to give the two dollars to the homeless guy on the street,” and you make that connection, and you’re able to rationalize that, because you’re able to say “I did my good deed for the day.” So–
Michael Shermer: If I got a Tesla then I’d be home free.
Geoff Mitelman: (laughs) Right, that’s right. So where’s the difference between being rational and rationalizing, and where does it come in, when the elephant overpowers the rider? Which happens very, very frequently in our day to day life.
Michael Shermer: I don’t know. I mean that’s – it depends on the particular problem or subject or issue at hand. I mean, we all do it. But again, the whole goal of a civil society based on reason – like, just think of the whole “nudging” idea, you know, the architecture of choice. We know people are going to make bad choices about financial investment tools and insurance policies and organ donations. Like in California, where I’m from, I actually had to punch the little thing on my driver’s license that I will give my organs. In Oregon, you are going to give your organs, unless you punched the thing [on the card]. So their rate of organ donations is, you know, three times the rate in California. So that’s just a simple thing that governments can do to nudge people, knowing that emotionally, or however you want to spread that, they’ll make a worse decision. You still make your own choice, you still have a choice, but we can nudge the group society into what we consider to be morally better.
Geoff Mitelman: And that leads to another piece that you talk a lot about –
Michael Shermer: But wait, how would you how would I answer that? You’re a rabbi!
Geoff Mitelman: I’m a rabbi, yes, that means I have all the answers, that’s right! I think that I’m a big believer in Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s work. I think “Nudge” is a really excellent way to be able to do that. I’m a big believer in what Haidt talks about, which is to be able to tap into the emotion. I think that you’ve got to first start with what are people passionate about, trying to tap into their hopes, their fears, what are they actually looking to do? Until you can sort of calm people down and get them to think rationally, you’re not going to be able to connect with them. And the more often you try to argue with someone rationally when they are not thinking rationally, it doesn’t move anywhere in that kind of way.
There’s a – I’m thinking of Daniel Goldman’s work of emotional flooding, which is that when you’re overpowered by rage or overpowered by fear, you actually can’t think straight. And so you first need to be able to calm people down in this kind of way. And I’m also a believer – Judaism teaches that we have to do before we actually always understand, in order to be able to figure out what we’re going to be feeling and doing. So in Judaism, you light the shabbat candles, whether you had a wonderful week or a terrible week, or whether you have to do it in three minutes or eight. But the fact is that you do this these mitzvot, you do these actions, because sometimes it’s not what you think leads to what you do, but sometimes what you do leads to what you think.
And there’s a lot of value in habit. And I’m thinking also of the book “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg’s book, that habit can often lead us to greater actions in this kind of way. So if we’re talking about how do we create a more just world, it’s not so much intellectual, although that’s a huge part of that; I think it’s a much more emotional, spiritual, psychological piece.
Michael Shermer: Like, how would you solve the Middle East crisis?
Geoff Mitelman: How I solve the Middle East crisis? how much time do I have? (laughs)
Michael Shermer: So these are very emotionally driven – you know, “God gave us this piece of land,” “no, God gave us this sacred piece of land,” sacred values, you can’t buy it up –
Geoff Mitelman: So one of one of my teachers is Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, who is the president of Clal, which is the organization that’s incubating Sinai and Synapses, and he wrote an excellent book called “You Don’t Have to be Wrong for me to be Right,” called “Finding Faith Without Fanaticism.” And I think it’s for both sides to be able to recognize that their story makes sense to their own narrative, and to not say “how dare you be saying X or Y or Z, don’t you realize what’s going on?” But to be able to understand that there are very emotional connections there, and that the Israeli truth is different than what the Palestinian truth is, and to be able to at least – not necessarily agree, but understand and feel validated.
I’m thinking of the idea of what’s called psychological air. That if all the air was to get sucked out of this room right now, you wouldn’t care about this conversation – although I think it’s a fascinating conversation – you would be running out of the room to be able to find air. If you are not feeling validated, if you’re not feeling that you are being heard, there’s no productive conversation that can move forward. That’s not going to solve – that’s the abstract conversation there. Playing that out, it’s a much harder discussion, but that’s I think at least where it it needs to start.
Michael Shermer: But just in case, have a bomb.
Geoff Mitelman: (laughs) Well, I mean, that’s a different conversation. Oh, great, so there are a few questions here that I’m going to take a couple moments to be able to look at. So I’m going to ask you a question, but I may not actually listen to it because I’m going to be reading some of these questions. So you can talk here, but one of the things that you talk about is how abstract thinking has allowed us to place ourselves in the shoes of other people. And yet – we don’t live our lives in the abstract, we live our lives in the concrete, you know, you asked “how do we solve the Mid-East conflict?”. That, on some level, was actually very easy to solve in the abstract. It’s in the concrete where it becomes very difficult. So where do you see the challenges of moving from the abstract to the concrete? And I’ll let you share this with all these wonderful people here.
Michael Shermer: He’s referring to a section of the book where I talk about the Flynn Effect, which is pretty well-known now. Discovered by James Flynn, a psychologist, when he looked at the companies that make these I.Q. tests and they had to re-norm them about every decade or so because people just kept getting better at answering these questions, mainly the abstract reasoning portions of the I.Q. test. About three points every decade for almost a century.
So if you take this literally, it would mean people in the 20’s were mentally retarded. Everybody. (laughs) Well we can’t assume that there’s something else going on with these tests, but the idea is that for some reason, we’ve gotten better at reasoning abstractly. Like, those matrices, where you have to rotate a figure in space and pick the one out here on the bottom that it would look like if you rotated it one more time. Or similarities – “this is to that as this is to” – then you pick the one down here that matches. For some reason that’s what we’re getting better at. So Flynn thinks it’s because we’ve gone from an agrarian society to an industrial society to a digital information society, and that rewires the brain to think more abstractly. And then Steve Pinker talks about, in “The Better Angels,” maybe there’s a moral Flynn effect.
So I kind of took that and ran with that a little bit more, because there’s research that’s just come out in the past couple years about – the more you read, particularly novels that are sort of like Jane Austen, so-called high literature, how these people define high literature, low literature is not my thing – but the idea that where there’s complicated novels, where there’s a lot of characters that have to inhabit other people’s space, like, “he was in love with her but she thought that he thought that she was actually in love with him,” this requires you to kind of move yourself around in different people’s brains. And the moment you begin reading a novel, you’re looking at the world through the characters’ eyes.
So the idea is that people that do a lot of this are better at reading faces – these little tasks, they show people a face with different emotional expressions, and people that read a lot are better at accurately saying what those expressions are. Or doing these theory of mind tests, like anticipating what you think somebody’s thinking based on looking at them or whatever. And that people that read a lot are able to do that. So I just sort of was playing with that idea, because the thing about the golden rule, “do unto others,” well I have to be able to imagine what it would be like not to be me, but to be you. And then, what would that look like through your eyes? That’s really hard to do, and the better you are at abstract reasoning, maybe the better you are at doing that.
Some of that research is pretty new, and it hasn’t really been replicated yet – the literature stuff. So that remains to be seen. It seems to me like comic novels, what are they called, the graphic novels, those seem fairly sophisticated. But I know that English lit people wouldn’t call that high literature. I have a feeling that hasn’t been sorted out yet. But that idea, I like that idea. How do you translate that to concrete, well I don’t know. That remains to be seen.
Geoff Mitelman: Well that’s why I think religion actually can be very helpful in a lot of different ways, of giving a sense of community, and a sense of practices, and ideas to be able to live that golden rule out there. I think there’s a line from from the Talmud, there’s a wonderful story of a person who was going to convert to Judaism, and he said to this one rabbi named Rabbi Shammai, “I’ll convert to Judaism if you can tell me the whole Torah while you stand on one foot.” And Shammai beats him away with a stick. And then he goes to another rabbi named Rabbi Hillel and says “I’ll convert to Judaism if you can tell me the whole Torah while you stand on one foot.” And Hillel lifts one foot and says, “what’s hateful to you, do not do to another person. That is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary. Now go and learn it.”
And the way a lot of people talk about that is that at the centerpiece of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, I think human life, is this “what’s hateful to you, do not do to another person,” that’s the first part of your provisional rational decalogue that you talk about. That the Golden Rule is the basis of this, but the part that’s often not talked about, and I think is arguably more important, is the second part, that says “all the rest is commentary, now go and learn it”. It’s not enough just to say, “oh yeah, don’t be a jerk to other people when there are real ethical dilemmas.” You need some guidance, you need some help to be able to think through “how should I act in this kind of way?” It may not necessarily be a prescriptive dictum, but it is a way to be able to think through “here are some ways to be able to think about this challenging question.”
So there are some fantastic questions here, so thank you to those who asked those questions, and I wish we had time to go through all of them. There are a few that I want to explore here. One is actually a question for both of us. It is not a question “Is there a god?,” which I’m glad about, but the question is related to that, it’s “does a belief in a supernatural being or supernatural beings increase or decrease moral behavior?”. So I’ll let you go first, and then I’ll…
Michael Shermer: No, and yes, and thank you, and next question. Who asked that question? Just curious. Okay. Well, collectively, no, I mean there’s no data that shows that atheists are less moral than theists or anything like that. Actually, there’s a few studies that show the opposite, but they’re barely statistically significant and they’re not replicated. I think across the board we can just say no, there’s no difference between religious and non-religious people, but maybe that’s slightly different than belonging to a religion, maybe slightly different than believing in a God. You personally, maybe that does make you more moral. I don’t know. But collectively, in terms of demographics and stuff that social psychologists and sociologists of religion study, no, there’s no difference.
I cite Gregory Paul’s research in my book, showing that – he did interesting research, take the 20 top Western industrialized democracies, and you rank them first by their religiosity, the rates at which people believe in God, how often they go to church – one a week, once a month, twice a year, whatever – Do they have a holy book in the house? Do they consult it? Do they pray? There’s half a dozen measures of how religious a country is. Then he took all these other societal health measures, like rates of abortion, rates of teen pregnancy, rates of STD, rates of suicide, rates of homicide, and a dozen of those kinds of things.
And amazingly, the United States is by far and away the most religious nation of the top 20, way out there, and we’re the highest on all those measures of societal ill health. Highest rates of STDs, highest rates of teen pregnancies, highest rates of abortion, and so on, of those, I guess it was 19 Western democracies. Now to be fair, each of those has their own set of causes. Gun homicides have a different set of causes than abortion rates, obviously. But the idea is that if religion is a prophylactic against bad behavior or sinful behavior, whatever you want to call these things, how come it’s not working here very well? Now, my conservative friends kind of say “Well, it’s because the liberals are doing all that. And if they were only conservative, then…” – well that’s not quite right either. Anyway, so that’s my answer.
Geoff Mitelman: That’s a great point. I think it’s pretty clear that religion and morality are not necessarily linked. Just, there’s – we all know this evidence of, do you know somebody who’s religious and not particularly moral? Do you know someone who’s moral and not particularly religious? Yep, done. OK, now we know that that’s that you don’t necessarily have to be religious to be moral.
I actually don’t really like the question about a belief in God. I never find that to be, again, a productive conversation. Partially because the question of “do you believe in God” ends up just being a yes or no question, and then it’s “well, where do you go from there?”. So then it becomes what is – tell me about the God you believe in, or tell me about the God you don’t believe in. And that’s – by the way, if you were to go to any Rabbi and say “I don’t believe in God,” I almost guarantee you the Rabbi is going to say “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” And the Rabbi is not going to believe in that God that you don’t believe in as well.
So my view of God – I am a big proponent of what’s called Process Theology. I don’t believe in a big bearded man in the sky. That’s – I can’t get my mind around that, that doesn’t seem rational. It also is emotionally and psychologically and spiritually problematic for me. For me, I would say I experience God in different kinds of ways. I don’t think God is the one telling me to act morally, but when I do act morally, I feel like I am bringing a little bit more of God into the world.
So an analogy that I use – I don’t believe that God heals, I believe that medicine is what heals, but I do believe that there is also a difference in healing and curing, and I believe that we find God in the healing process. So when people are able to connect and to be able to find compassion towards each other, we find a little bit more of God in there. So I think, I would actually even flip the question a little bit, of it’s not “does a belief in God lead to morality?”, but it’s a question of “can morality lead to a better sense of holiness and divinity and sanctity in the world?”. So that’s at least how I would answer that question.
So, I want to go to the next one, which is a little bit of a longer question, but it’s a very interesting one. It says: “Martin Rees, the former president of the Royal Society, wrote a book in 2004 called ‘Our Final Century,’ in which he looked at the likely outcomes of current developments of science and technology in the 21st century. The first half of the book was utopian, the second half dystopian. He concluded by going on about a 50 percent chance of surviving the 21st century, and the reason he gave is that we lack the common moral grammar to address these unprecedented challenges we’re likely to face. Do you agree or disagree, and why?”
Michael Shermer: Yeah, so… Doomsday books and dystopian books sell a lot better than “things are getting better” books. It’s part of the punditry business that the Polyannas are going to be outpaced by the Doomsayers. But I don’t think that’s the case, obviously, at all. I think the chances of Doomsday happening are far less than they’ve ever been in the last, say, century.
You know that group, the Union of Concerned Scientists, with the clock, it’s three minutes, then they get bold, they make it two minutes, or four minutes from midnight, Doomsday. It’s like, come on. We’ve gone half a century with no nuclear weapons used in conflict, not one! Shouldn’t you move it back to at least like 15 minutes to midnight? They just won’t do it. Part of it is if you’re raising money, you can’t say “things are great and getting better.”
Anyway, that’s part of the sociology of that, I think. But no, I’m not particularly worried about that. I think the chances of Putin cobbling together a USSR again by, say, swallowing up Estonia and Latvia and those things, are very unlikely. They’re part of NATO, NATO will stand up to him. I think the chances of us re-instituting slavery or that global warming is going to cause the mass extinctions and the end of humanity. I think the chance of these things is so slim, I’m not lying awake at night worried about it.
Geoff Mitelman: And you talk at the end of your book, of the “Protopian Society of Slow,” of, not a magical, wonderful place where it’s a utopia, because utopia means no-place, but slow, slow, slow progress, as King talks about, of the arc being long but it bends towards justice.
Michael Shermer: Just fast enough you can measure it in a lifetime, but slow enough that you don’t see it on a week-to-week basis. So if you just follow the headlines, it looks like things are bad and getting worse. If you follow the trendlines, really, on pretty much almost anything you want to measure, they’re much better.
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah, that’s Pinker’s book.
Michael Shermer: There’s no time you’d want to live in in the past, if nothing else, for the dentistry. I mean, just look at the teeth of people in these museums! (laughter) Oh my god. There’s this museum in Philadelphia called the Mutter Museum where they have these skulls, and the age that they died, and you can see their teeth and – ugh! Ugh!
Geoff Mitelman: So the next question – going from dentistry to a different question – so I know that you tend to approach a lot of these ethical questions from a libertarian perspective. And interestingly, in Judaism, there’s much more of a communitarian perspective, that we actually have responsibilities, it’s not so much of our liberty, but it’s more of our responsibilities towards others. And so this question asks, “does a rational approach to morality limit it to solely not infringing on others’ well being, or is there an altruistic element it offers?” and I would even push and say “Is there a responsibility element as well?”, not just “don’t hurt other people,” but that we have responsibilities towards others?
Michael Shermer: Yes, absolutely, libertarians are all in favor of voluntary giving, and that we should be doing that, just not forced to do it. Not top-down. That we should do it from the bottom up. We should voluntarily do it. So really the only difference is in terms of individuals vs. communitarians, like, well, who’s encouraging you, who’s making you do this? It’s better if you do it because you want to do it rather than you’re forced to do it. I’m thinking of redistribution wealth through taxation to achieve some particular goal. Wouldn’t it be better if people wanted to do it? In other words, incentivize them to do it. So I’d be more in favor of, say, tax breaks for donating to nonprofits, rather than increasing taxes to redistribute that, because that also has a more expensive middleman that processes the money.
Geoff Mitelman: But maybe that comes back to the same challenge of rationalization, of. [I’m] going from the sublime to the ridiculous, but of the number of people who say “I want to go to the gym, because I want to be able to do this” but you know. “it’s raining and I’m tired and…” Oh, I – people should be able to give money to charity, yes, that would be ideal if that’s what they what they do, and yet it’s very easy to be able to rationalize “Oh, I’ve got to get a new sump pump and I’ve got to do X, and Y and Z.” There needs to be, I think, some structures in place and some encouragement. I think the incentivization is a critical piece of that. But I also think there’s an element of, I don’t want to say force, but that may be the right word, of responsibility, to be able to be part of a larger community.
Michael Shermer: Well of course, what conservatives argue is that’s what religion does. It sort of nudges you in a very strong way. And they then accuse the liberals of saying “well, you know, you’re just doing it through the government.” But it’s better if you do it voluntarily through religion. Although religions, with enough arm-twisting, it’s not really voluntary, right. I mean in the Mormon Church you can’t go in unless you’re a member in good standing. And then they take your, they withhold your, essentially withholding, to be in good standing, 10 percent. I tried to go in a Mormon Tabernacle, up in Salt Lake City. It wouldn’t let me in. I knew they wouldn’t let me in, I was just – “can I come in?”
Geoff Mitelman: “Can I try? Just to see?”
Michael Shermer: But they said “no, you have to be a member in good standing.” I said “I’m a citizen of the United States in good standing!” They go “No, no.”
Geoff Mitelman: “Not enough! Not enough!” (laughs)
Michael Shermer: Well, so I’ll grant religion that. They are good enough at, so – organizing the troops to man the soup kitchens, to bring aid to disaster relief, things like that, absolutely.
Geoff Mitelman: And I think also gives us, as we’re talking with the concrete, ways to be able to to live out a lot of the abstract.
Michael Shermer: But as Hitchens says – liked to say – is there anything that a religious person does or could do that a non-religious person doesn’t or couldn’t do? But you’re talking collectively.
Geoff Mitelman: Yes, yeah. I’m thinking about the way that religion particularly is valuable for community. And now the challenge, I’m also thinking about Haidt’s work of morality binding and blinding. That morality creates an in-group, but it also can create an out-group there, so there is a danger there, absolutely.
Michael Shermer: That’s the problem with empathy. It’s not – it’s not a salve that cures everything. Because the more empathetic you are with your in-group, the easier it is to demonize people that are not in your group.
Geoff Mitelman: Right, right. This is also a very interesting question, about bringing a little bit of literature into here. In “Paradise Lost,” Milton depicts Satan, the ultimate evil genius, as frozen and unable to move. Is a defining characteristic of evil genius a tenacious, single view of the world?
Michael Shermer: (laughs) Well, hmm. Again, that’s just too – I think it would help to pick an example – Hitler or Genghis Khan, whoever. It’s usually ideologically-driven that racks up the biggest body counts. There’s a bunch of different causes of genocides and things like that. But the biggest one that really racks up the big death tolls are ideologies – of any kind. It doesn’t have to be religious. I include secular Marxist ideologies. But the whole problem is, again, the whole idea is like the trolley problem. We know there’s a utopia, we know how to get there, and you are stopping us. How evil is this guy preventing us from having ultimate 100% happiness forever? You know, so – easy to sacrifice people that way. That’s the problem. I don’t know if it’s singular or not, but it’s an ideology.
Geoff Mitelman: And I think that placing principle over people necessarily is one of the big problems there. On the flip side of that, as we’re looking at both evil and good, this is this is a question I’m sure that you get asked, and it’s a very interesting one that I know a lot of scientists are exploring, which is “Do you believe that humans have a tendency to act morally? Is this part of what it means to be a rational being? Is morality a rational action?”
Michael Shermer: Yeah, so I started in the book, well I start with Dawkins, Selfish Gene. So he starts with this thought experiment. If you were a gene or molecule, what would you do to get yourself into the next generation? Well, first of all, you have to build a substrate to put the genes on, the chromosomes. You have to build a cellular structure or a cell of some kind that holds it. And then a system of replicating it, and so on. So wouldn’t it be ideal if you hoarded all the resources in your environment that you possibly could, including exploiting other survival machines that are trying to do the same thing? And the answer is no. Because they’re going to do the same calculation you’re doing – okay, nobody’s doing any calculations – this is just all natural selection working.
So sometimes the most selfish thing you can do is to cooperate with other survival machines, because that’ll actually help you get your genes in the next generation, even more successfully than if you’re just a selfish bastard. And so, that argument – now Dawkins doesn’t go as far as I do, with saying that that leads to genuine morality – in short, I’m saying that by the time you get up to primates doing this, bipedal primates like us, you can’t just pretend to be a moral person, like, “I’m going to be nice to you, but wink wink, I’m really just going to stab you in the back.” Because if you know people long enough, your reputation gets known and people know “I can’t really rely on this person, he’s not really a nice person.” And small hunter-gatherer groups, everybody knows everybody. So gossip and things like that are a way of exchanging information about people, morally. So you have to actually be a moral person.
Now, so what about evil, what about violence, what about aggression? Well, as Dawkins points out, the difference between kicking a rock and kicking another survival machine is the other survival machine will kick you back. So in a way, nurturing a reputation for [being] willing to kick back if somebody hits you is actually a good thing. Because we all have this impulse to maybe freeride a little bit, maybe take a slide a little bit, take advantage of other people, maybe lie, you lie 10%, you cheat 10%. Not 100%, but just a little.
And so there has to be some sort of social system in place that keeps that in check from getting too out of hand. And so that is, other people will exploit you and so on, so you have to cultivate a reputation for being defensive and strong, you’re willing to fight back, but also a reputation for being a good person as well. So I think that’s where that balance comes from. So I think there’s an evolutionary logic to both good and evil.
Geoff MItelman: Right, and that makes sense of both the compassion and also the strict justice, and to be able to have both of those. Again, because [of] the goal of being able to advance the gene, and it’s interesting [to think] of the gene vs. the individual vs the group, at all three levels here for this evening, of where does morality reside? I think it’s obviously on all three levels in different ways, but where does the emphasis come out?
Michael Shermer: So I talk about “pirate morality” in the book. That, why do pirates fly the Jolly Roger flag, the skull and crossbones? And the reason is, well, aren’t you alerting the ship that we’re coming to get you? Yeah, that’s the whole point. The flag represents a signal that “we are badasses and we are going to kick your ass take your stuff, unless you surrender to us and just give it to us peacefully, and then we’ll let you alone.” Because they don’t want to actually have physical violence because it’s too costly. It’s better if you just get people to give you your stuff for nothing. (Laughs) But every once in a while you gotta be a real badass and do some crazy shit and make sure it gets publicized, and then you wave the flag, “oh, here he comes, here’s our stuff.”
So that’s why most of the American owners of these ships, before last year, were willing to pay off the Somali pirates. It’s just a lot cheaper. These guys aren’t trained with guns, it’s too much violence, and so on. Just pay them off. Until you bring in the US Navy, and now it’s a different thing. But we spent – I mean, I have the data and I forget what it is, but private US companies that own these ships only spent a few tens of millions a year in protection. Now they spend close to a billion a year, to get the number of piracy events, incidences down to zero from a couple hundred, is it worth almost a billion?
Geoff Mitelman: It comes down to the cost-benefit analysis, and all sorts of different ways of “how much does it cost to bring it from 0.1 to zero” and how costly is it, and what’s the benefit of doing different pieces of that there?
So this will be the last question, it’s a wonderful way to end the evening, some of you may have seen it in the title of the talk that it’s easy to identify the evil geniuses of our world, of Hitler and Stalin. But this person’s question was “who do you think is the greatest moral genius that you can think of?” So we’ll end on a happier note here.
Michael Shermer: My wife. (laughs) I don’t know. I mean, I’m not a good judge of this. You know, Mother Theresa, if you’ve read Hitchens’ book, okay. Of course, I am a big fan of Martin Luther King. And here I’m not just talking about the life someone leads and how good they were, I’I mean what they did in terms of moving the moral arc, the needle further along. Certainly Nelson Mandela, obviously, but, you know, in their own time, they weren’t considered moral geniuses at all, there were lots of different avenues that way, so I don’t know who would also would be on that.
Libertarians like to point out that people like Bill Gates, just by being successful, actually help a lot of people, just by jobs. Of course, he’s doing even more now by just giving it all away, in a very systematic, rational, I would point out, rational way, to solve some very specific problems. So that’s good too.
Geoff Mitelman: I’m going to answer the question also here if I can.
Michael Shermer: You’d better say it’s your wife. (Laughs)
Geoff Mitelman: That’s right, that’s the greatest moral genius ever. Although she actually knows the person that I admire the most is a man named Abraham Joshua Heschel, who actually marched with Dr. King today 50 years ago. And the story that’s told about Rabbi Heschel, Heschel was one of the great scholars in Judaism for decades and was fluent in multiple different languages, wrote all these beautiful books on philosophy and on Judaism, and when he was in Selma – this is the classic story about him, the story that was told about him at Selma – they asked Rabbi Heschel, “Why are you here in Selma? Shouldn’t be in your study studying Talmud?” And Rabbi Heschel said “no, I need to be here, because when I was here, my feet were praying.”
And I love that image, because it’s not so much about – I mean it is definitely what goes on in our head, but it’s much more importantly how does the head and the heart and the hands, how do they connect? I think real morality is when we’re able to have all three of them consonant and to be able to have our emotions, our thoughts, and our actions acting together, in making a more just world.
So, I want to give you an opportunity to say any last thoughts or comments here before I make just one last statement.
Michael Shermer: I appreciate you having me, I appreciate the conversation, the great questions. These are the unresolvable, a lot of these are unresolvable, I don’t have the answers to most of these things, I’m just exploring these ideas. Making things just a little bit better, that’s it, it’s all we can do.
Geoff Mitelman: Slowly, slowly.
Michael Shermer: I mean the real remarkable people are probably just average people just trying to do the right thing from day to day, take care of their families, keep their jobs, do the right thing. I mean that’s probably the real moral heroes, is just the people you don’t even hear about.
Geoff Mitelman: And that’s – history is often told as the great thinkers and doers in the world, but in fact, it’s all of us who are doing this great work. So, before we thank Professor Schermer, he will be signing his book over here, you can buy copies of this, I will also say if you’re interested in learning more about Sinai and Synapses, there’s a sign up sheet there to get updates as well. I’m sure that you can sign up – there’s a Skeptic update as well. So, we thank all of you for coming and being part of this wonderful conversation. Thank you to the Y, thank you to the Templeton Foundation, thank you to all of you.
(This post is part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum — a collection of perspectives on specific topics. It is part of our Winter 2015 series, “Why Do People Do Bad (and Good) Things?“)