Michael Shermer vs Jacques Rousseau On Morality
I had a wonderful time at TAM, especially meeting up with some fellow SINners. It was pure joy. Ed Clint did a superior job of setting up shop. I look forward to some great things from him in the future.
While there I had a bit of a dispute with one of my colleagues, Jacques Rousseau, over Michael Shermer’s half hour talk on morality. I said how much I liked it, and Jacques retorted that it was vacuous, which denotes “empty” of substance, but also connotes “mindlesss” and “unintelligent.” Someone who makes an empty claim doesn’t know what he’s talking about, you see. At the time we were all sitting together, and I didn’t want to get into an argument (that is, a reasoned discussion, or debate) with Jacques, so I merely informed him that I had talked with Shermer and he was genuinely interested in criticisms, since he was writing a book on the subject and wanted to get it right. I told Jacques he should go talk to Shermer. I don’t know if he did. Nonetheless, given the definition of the word vacuous (see below), and the fact that since I liked what Shermer said, by extension I must accept vacuous arguments too. So I want to respond. Never let it be said SIN is a hive-mind. Never let it be said that people who disagree must not like each other either, for I think Jacques is a super nice guy. No one agrees about everything. But the word vacuous bothers me greatly, especially since he decided to argue for this on his site.
Jacques wrote this:
Other presentations this morning have included Michael Shermer on science and morality. I found this very unpersuasive, but I’d like to watch it again (or better yet, read the book when it comes out). While I agree with him that the arc of social progress has tended to conduce towards certain norms and away from others – and also that it’s right to regard our moral norms as “provisional” (contingent on evidence, just like other forms of knowledge) – the bit I didn’t like at all was the claim that we can get a strong indicator, most of the time, of what’s right and wrong just by asking the people affected.
The first problem here is that (especially interpersonally) their reasons for saying “X is right/wrong” might be entirely idiosyncratic, inconsistent and unprincipled. Even if moral norms end up being arbitrary, they become significant through being fairly consistent and reliable – their force is via consensus, which requires some form of reliability.
Which leads to the second problem: on a social level, if everyone believes the same weird thing (like, that men are superior to women), asking the question of what’s right and wrong is going to reliably result in getting the wrong answer. Democracy doesn’t determine truth. Shermer did stress that his rule-of-thumb was useful most of the time, for most cases, etc., but I’m suspicious that the truth is entirely opposite to that, and that the principle will only be useful in exceptional circumstances (where “the answer” will most likely be obvious for other reasons in any case).
I agree that we should wait for a final judgment on Shermer’s argument until his book comes out. But I do think he gave us enough information to know what he will argue. First off, out of the gate, the principle of charity leads me to reject the idea that Shermer argued we should only or “just” ask the people affected. Second, I find these two objections to be representative of an elitist mentality, that the philosophers know better than the people themselves. Do they?
Shermer mentioned one principle for morality which many believers use, and that is 1) Ask God. Shermer didn’t go into this but I think he can easily argue against it. Asking any given god how we should live our lives can, and has been, a recipe for disaster. Jacques would surely agree on this.
What we need to think about are the implications of this. No more religious ethics. Religious ethics are pseudo-ethics just as much as creationism is pseudo-science. Religious ethics are sectarian ethics, and as such, are not ethics at all, just as much as sectarian science is not science. With the removal of religious pseudo-ethics as a basis for real ethics, and with the embracing of secular ethics, then Shermer can proceed.
Shermer then introduces a second principle for morality: 2) Ask the people affected. People. Human beings, because “man is the measure of all things,” as Protagoras reportedly said using sexist language. What are the alternatives if there is no God? I see none. We alone discover or create our own morality. Secular ethics obtains if there is no god of any kind.
Shermer mentioned female genital mutilation. Ask them if they like it, Shermer was saying, devoid of the religious pseudo-ethics of Islam. Sure, Muslim women would want to be mutilated, given their pseudo-ethics, but that is NOT what they would want without them if they had a voice. Shermer was not necessarily saying we should ask each individual person what they want either, but as a collective group. We simply cannot give every person what they want. In a democracy we must accept the fact that not everyone can get what they want. Democratic minded people think giving up some of the things we want in order to have a free voice in our society is worth it when we consider the alternatives. All of the women who are mutilated like this should have a voice in what brings them happiness. What would they want once they reject their religious pseudo-ethics? We already know.
This is where Shermer argued for democracy and towards a free society (which is the title of Jacques’s site here at SIN), one that grants liberty to all people. When people all have a voice they can collectively tell us what they want. Shermer had also recommended the book by Timothy Ferris, The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature. What Shermer, and I presume Ferris argues, is that science tells us people are happier and that their societies are more productive when they have the liberty to voice what they want.
As two examples that I remember, Shermer compared a dictatorial state like North Korea with a democratic state like South Korea. In North Korea the people are shorter while in South Korea they are taller, since their diets are better. Then too, a night-time satellite photo of both countries shows that in North Korea there was only one city with lights to be seen, whereas in South Korea there were numerous cities with lights to be seen, revealing a great amount of night time bustling activity.
Since there is science that shows people are happier and more productive when they have liberty and the freedom to voice what they want, then Jacques must offer objections to democracy if he disagrees. And guess what, he basically does this, implicitly!
There are at least two major criticisms of democracy, and Jacques seems to use them both against Shermer. In the first place, following Plato, only philosophers who know what is the good should rule. We cannot let the ignorant masses help decide, because, after all, they are ignorant (i.e. ignorant in the Socratic sense that they don’t know they are ignorant). In modern terms it’s the problem of the lack of education. The masses of people are stupid, so we need an educated public for democracy to work. But free people are solving that problem by requiring everyone to be educated (whether American education has lived up to this is another question, but it is still much better than before).
The second problem has to do with allowing for minority voices in the political process. In a democracy the majority rule, and if a majority thought women were inferior, then so be it. By extension all minorities would not have an equal voice if the majority rules. But free people are learning how to solve that problem too. First (at least in America, the country I know best), we have checks and balances built into our country. In our Constitution it grants equal rights for us all. The third check or balance then, besides the legislative and executive branches, is the Constitution and the authoritative interpreters of that document who are on the Supreme Court, which puts a check of what the majority will allow. It’s not perfect, and the wheels of democracy grind very slow, but it does work. What we’ve figured out is that when minority voices are not allowed to the table our whole society suffers because of it.
Take for instance the mass poverty among people in oil-rich Muslim countries, and especially among Muslim countries without oil. Bernard Lewis, an expert scholar of Muslim countries, argues in his book, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, that one of the reasons for the crisis among Muslim countries is that women are not allowed to work outside the home. In countries where they are allowed to do so, there is more human flourishing. Everyone benefits. Countries become more productive when the other half of the population can participate. The gross national product is raised and with it more wealth and happiness for all.
The heart of Jacques’s criticism of Shermer is because he thinks “Democracy doesn’t determine truth,” that even if we achieve a consensus it doesn’t show that the consensus is correct. I don’t know which theory of truth he holds to, but I am a pragmatist. That which works to produce human flourishing is true. So if it can be shown that democracy produces human flourishing then democracy does determine the truth, at least in part. What else determines the truth? Can philosophers or kings determine it any better? [Or, to put it personally, does Jacques think he can tell the rest of us, that we should listen to him? ] Can they come to a consensus themselves? One thing I think they all agree about is that an educated person has more holistic happiness than one who is uneducated, and I agree. You would expect them to say this though because they are, well, all educated.
If Jacques thinks we need more than just democracy to determine truth, then what is better than an educated public who understands that when everyone has a voice we are all enriched? With democracy I see a Hegelian synthesis taking place as history moves forward when people have been granted this liberty. Just look at what it has produced so far. If “man is the measure of all things,” then why not ask human beings what they want in each generation? That democracy hasn’t yet determined moral truth is no reason to say it can’t, eventually.
Leaving aside religious pseudo-ethics based in the failed divine command theory, there are two traditions in ethics. There are deontological (or duty centered ethics) and consequentialist ethics (which represents the happiness tradition stemming from Aristotle though utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill). Some philosophers/ethicists take an eclectic approach, that when it comes to human rights issues they lean heavily on deontological ethics, but when it comes to other political, societal and personal issues they lean heavily on the happiness tradition. So unless there are good reasons to choose from one tradition to solve one particular set of issues, and from a different tradition to solve other issues, such eclecticism is relativistic. How does that help us? Some philosophers are just downright relativists. How can they help us at all? If relativism obtains then all that these philosophers have left is to listen to people tell them what makes them happy (educated or not), holistic happiness be damned. [BTW: How do they really know that an uneducated hillbilly from Kentucky isn't happy because he isn't educated? Ignorance is bliss, right?]
Richard Carrier in his book, Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism shows that Kantian deontological ethics (for example) must depend, in part, on what makes people happy. Kant’s Categorical Imperative was that we are to “act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” But what we decide should be a universal law depends on what we value, and that value, even as Kant admits in a couple of places, depends on what we think makes people happy.
The happiness tradition therefore lies behind all ethics, at least in some sense. As Aristotle says, it’s the one thing that isn’t a means to an end. It is an end in and of itself.
Don’t get me wrong here. Philosophers/ethicists have a role to play, since they also are a part of any given society. Their role is to tell us what should make us happy (i.e., holistically happy) rather than a mere pig who is satisfied. I think education itself leads people to understand this. How can philosophers alone fulfill this role if they disagree among themselves, even within one of these two traditions? Sometimes it merely depends on whose ox is being gored, it’s hard to tell. Star Trek’s Spock character (Mr. “that isn’t logical”) doesn’t exist. The way most ethics classes are taught in the universities leads students to embrace relativism anyway. Most professors are intellectually obligated to criticize all ethical theories, and along with this, share some scenarios that ethical theories don’t seem to be able to solve very well at all. How is that fulfilling their role? Why not include into their deliberations what people actually say? In fact, I’ll go farther and say that if philosophers don’t ask people what they want then their ethics will be divorced from reality.
Now for the long sentence:
Since divine command ethics is obviously wrong-headed, and since there is a science behind liberty, and since holistic happiness is highly likely to be the end of ethics, and since we’re slowly reaching the goal of having an educated public who understands that when everyone has a rightful voice at the table we all benefit from it, then if Jacques cannot provide a better more reliable alternative (even given the limitations and ineffectiveness of democracy), at the very minimum Shermer’s argument is not vacuous.
I endorse it, even though I’m not exactly sure how Shermer will defend it. Knowing his other works I think he will. Shermer’s argument is a good way to proceed, probably the best way, and possibly the only way to proceed.
Shermer, like some other recent atheists, are coming to the same kinds of conclusions about ethics. Sam Harris argues in The Moral Landscape that science can help determine human values, as does Richard Carrier in my anthology The End of Christianity, and philosopher Erik Wielenberg, who says that “scientific progress has hardly brought moral progress—but it is also true that science has not so far been used explicitly for that purpose.” Michael Shermer, in his book The Science of Good and Evil, laid out this kind of argument. Now in this new book he intends to flesh it out with examples. Given the time Shermer spent talking about liberty his key example is probably democracy. It’s one which, although it has its problems, is a much better alternative to elitist philosopher kings who determine moral rules for us without listening to every human voice, especially since the happiness tradition has much more going for it.
I can go further than this and say that if the happiness tradition obtains then the best way to eventually be able to determine moral truth is in a democracy with an educated public who recognizes that when everyone has an equal voice at the table everyone benefits. Philosophers cannot know this by themselves since any given one of them cannot speak for the whole. Philosophers probably cannot even determine this as a group, since they are not representative of people as a whole and because they cannot agree with themselves. All we have to do to see this is to ask them about John Rawls’s veil of ignorance. There are many criticisms of it coming from the left and the right. But more to the point, let’s place each one of them behind that veil in the original position and see what we get.
I look forward to my colleague’s response should he have the time and desire to do so.