Michael Shermer. The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. New York: Henry Holt, 2015. 543 pp.
As I read it, Michael Shermer’s 2015 book The Moral Arc is a sweeping 500 page apologetic for two theses: the optimism thesis (the world is getting better); and the secular thesis (that improvement is due to secular rather than religious beliefs, values, and methods). To clarify, Shermer does not state his argument precisely in those terms. Rather, those two theses are my attempt to summarize the gist of the book’s argument.
As this review (with its multiple installments) unfolds, I will focus on criticizing Shermer’s argument. But I want to say at the outset that I enjoyed the book very much and it’s a great read (a fact I can say about every Shermer book I’ve read). So while I will present a sharp critique of much of the book, I do think it is worth your while to pick it up and judge for yourself. (Put it this way: any book that warrants a review of multiple installments is worth your time.)
Now on to business.
Shermer and Pinker
Shermer acknowledges the influence of Steven Pinker’s monumental 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined on his own project. Like Pinker, Shermer believes the world is improving.
Having said that, there are important differences between the two books.
Pinker focuses on the decrease in violence. His tightly focused argument depends only on the definition of violence and the hard data that violence is indeed decreasing over time relative to the stated definition. Having read significant portions of Pinker’s tome, I am persuaded that he establishes his case. (Judging by the online reviews, most readers seem to be persuaded as well: violence is indeed decreasing.)
By contrast, Shermer paints on a much broader canvas. He seeks to establish how the secular beliefs, values, and methods embodied in science and reason are leading humanity toward truth, justice, and freedom. That’s a far broader and more ambitious thesis — indeed, it borders on messianic — and for that reason it is also far more contentious.
The problem is that a thesis this sweeping and ideological in nature (concepts like “truth,” “justice,” and “freedom” are most definitely ideological as they inform various incompatible conceptions of the good society) is vulnerable to the subjective evaluative judgments of the author. The danger, in short, is that the author outruns the evidence in order to advance his/her own pet agenda.
To illustrate that problem, a problem that runs throughout the book, I’m going to focus in this first installment on Shermer’s treatment of abortion. With this topic in mind, it is my contention that Shermer presses his thesis into service to justify his prochoice views. And in doing so he effectively outruns the evidence by caricaturing his opponent and failing to justify his example with respect to the broader argument in the book.
(Terminological note: in this review when I say “prochoice” I refer to those who support elective abortion; by contrast, those who are “prolife” do not support elective abortion. I make no judgment about therapeutic abortion.)
And let me stress that while I believe abortion is an important ethical issue, I don’t think it is more important than other crucial ethical issues like human induced climate change or the industrial war complex. So one ought not marginalize the following critique as yet another instance of the conservative obsession with protecting the fetus at the expense of every other moral concern.
The “Science” of Being Prochoice
And so we turn to chapter six where Shermer discusses “A Moral Science of Women’s Rights.” One might take issue immediately with Shermer’s attempt to justify a progressive feminist ethic by way of “science”. But that would be to get ahead of ourselves. So let it be noted that I will reserve my comments about Shermer’s attempt to reason from natural facts to moral facts for a later installment in this review.
Instead, for now I will focus on Shermer’s defense of women’s reproductive rights (p. 224 ff.). For Shermer, a significant aspect of reproductive rights includes unrestricted access to the elective abortion of human fetuses. Thus, the increase of access to medical procedures that kill the developing fetus for non-therapeutic reasons is, for Shermer, one more example of the moral arc.
At this point it is important to note that Shermer regularly illustrates the advance of the moral arc of history by appealing to the notion of expanding circles of moral concern. Initially we were only concerned with ourselves and our kith and kin. But gradually the circle has expanded to encompass other human beings regardless of national identity, gender, or physical or mental capacity. And from there it has continued to encompass other non-human organisms including those with various degrees of sentience. All of this evinces the advance of the moral arc.
For Shermer, the right to elective abortion of human fetuses fits naturally into this triumphalistic progression. How so? Simple: it provides an example of the expansion of concern for women. As he puts it, “full female rights” just “are simply human rights” (232).
So Shermer says, anyway. But somebody else might reasonably disagree with him. And that’s the problem. This person might say that far from representing an expansion of moral concern, the increase in legal access to the elective abortion of human fetuses reflects a reversal on this advance into spheres of moral concern.
How so? It works like this: just as children throughout history have often not been granted their legitimate place in our spheres of concern, so fetuses likewise have not been granted their legitimate place in our sphere of concern. If one begins with that assumption then the rise of legal access to the elective termination of fetuses in utero constitutes not the advance of “full female rights” but rather the diminution of “full fetal rights,” fetal rights that are themselves “simply human rights.”
In other words, the only reason women’s rights trump fetal rights in Shermer’s triumphal thesis is because he says so: that’s Shermer’s view. So that’s why it gets privileged in his analysis.
And that’s not very assuring.
To make matters worse, Shermer labels prolife views as “anti-choice”, an indulgent rhetorical insult that he justifies with the smarmy self-serving declaration that “we are all ‘pro-life'” (233). By that logic one might equally call pro-choice advocates “anti-life” since of course “we are all ‘pro-choice'” by some metric. (It just depends which life, or choice, is in question and which metric is chosen. See how easy it is to be hoist with one’s own rhetorical petard?)
To add insult to injury, Shermer then claims that “pro-life proponents believe that human life begins at conception” and thus “For them, it is a binary system” (233).
Seriously? All of them? They all believe this?
Actually, no, they don’t all believe this.
Here I am left with two alternatives: either Shermer has never read sophisticated ethicists critiquing access to elective abortion (in which case he should pause for a couple months to read so he can get up to speed) or he is deliberately strawmanning a position he rejects in order to serve his ideological agenda set within his grand moral arc.
I suspect the former issue is the problem. In other words, I suspect that Shermer is simply not well read in the literature. I believe this to be the case because he conflates “human being” and “human person” (234) even though these are two fundamentally distinct categories. In bioethics, the ability to distinguish between a human being and a human person is preliminary to serious discourse.
But let’s be clear: ignorance is hardly a vindication. At best it means that Shermer has pressed his grand thesis into ideological service as an end run around actually engaging with the views of prolife advocates.
And if he’s engaged in this conduct in the case of prolife advocacy, where else has he done so?
So what is the lesson to draw from this?
I began here because this example illustrates the great contrast between Pinker and Shermer. While Pinker began with a narrow and clearly defined focus — the decline in violence — Shermer’s project is concerned with an expansive and ideologically loaded thesis. The case of abortion illustrates how quickly that expansive thesis can be manipulated to serve one’s own pet ideological agenda. In this case, Shermer tendentiously assumes the expansion of the moral sphere concerns women’s rights to elective abortion rather than the fetus’ right to life.
From there, Shermer proceeds to malign prolife advocates with the marginalizing term “anti-choice” complemented with a binary caricature of prolife ethical reasoning and a conflation of the concepts of human being and human person.
This should be enough to warn the reader that Shermer’s sweeping analysis of history could be constructed with the end of baptizing his own chosen ideological agenda.