Endorsements of The Moral Arc

Michael Shermer is a dragon slayer. First, he took on those who would make sensational claims about the paranormal without rigorous proof, who often disguise their claims with pseudo-scientific jargon. Now, in The Moral Arc, he takes on those cynics who disparage science, who claim it has no moral center and produces nothing but despair and ruin. On the contrary, he makes the astonishing claim that science, precisely because of its rational, dispassionate, and enlightened attitude towards revealing the truth, has helped to lay the moral groundwork for modern society, pointing the way to a more just and moral world. Instead of being a passive observer to the dance of history and the evolution of ethics, Shermer makes the outrageous claim that science has in fact been one of the principle actors. Bravo, I say.
MICHIO KAKU, theoretical physicist, author of the best seller
The Future of the Mind, and Physics of the Future
This is one of the best recent books that I have read, and it’s the one that I expect to re-read most often. It’s an honest, clear account of morality and justice that makes those theoretical concepts come alive as ubiquitous real-life choices. In the process of reading it, you’ll learn about wrenching moral dilemmas such as paying ransoms to Somali pirates, maintaining nuclear weapons as deterrents, good people becoming Nazis, and the immorality of the Bible and of the Ten Commandments.
JARED DIAMOND, Pulitzer-prize-winning author of the best-selling books Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse, and The World Until Yesterday
A thrilling and fascinating book, which could change your view of human history and human destiny. If you wanted a sequel to The Better Angels of Our Nature, one which explored all of our spheres of moral progress, not just the decline of violence, this is it.
STEVEN PINKER, Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and author of The Blank Slate and The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century
The Moral Arc displays the impressive depth of Michael Shermer’s scholarship, wisdom and empathetic humanity, and it climaxes in a visionary flight of futuristic optimism. A memorable book, a book to recommend and discuss late into the night.

RICHARD DAWKINS, author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion
I suspect that people will be arguing with Michael Shermer’s premise before they read a page: ‘The moral arc is bending toward truth, justice, and freedom? Is he hallucinating? Just look at…’ In these cynical times, where right and left foresee disaster and despair (albeit for different reasons), Shermer’s monumental opus, spanning centuries, nations, and cultures, is bound to provoke debate and open minds. Exactly what an important work of skepticism, science, and reason should do.
CAROL TAVRIS, Ph.D., social psychologist and author of The Mismeasure of Woman and coauthor of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)
It is difficult to imagine how the arc of morality can bend toward justice without rational examination of the consequences of one’s actions. As Michael Shermer passionately describes in this ambitious, thoroughly researched, yet remarkably accessible work of scholarship, the fabric of modern morality derives not from religion, but in large part from secular notions of rational empiricism. This message needs to be shared more broadly for the good of our society, and hopefully this book will do just that.
LAWARENCE M. KRAUSS, Foundation Professor and Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, and bestselling author of A Universe from Nothing, and The Physics of Star Trek
Shermer’s thought-provoking, multidisciplinary book will engage anyone who wishes to understand rationalism as a force for morality.
—Library Journal
Michael Shermer argues that science, reason, and critical thinking come first; these are the ideas that produce stable, peaceful democracies. He documents and assesses society’s successes and failures through the troubled history of humankind—and he’s relentless. He connects the arc of the rise of reason and science with a country’s economic success, and the overall worldwide decline in violence and suppression of our fellow humans, especially women. If you are religious, have a look. Shermer takes your faith to task and celebrates science as a path to the better moral future that citizens everywhere long for.
BILL NYE, The Science Guy, CEO, The Planetary Society

Reviews of The Moral Arc


Science may prove to be humanity’s savior.

If you’d been born a few thousand years ago, before the invention of the state, every decade you’d have stood a 1-in-20 chance of a violent death. Today, your skull might be on display in a museum somewhere with an arrow hole through the cranium. Fortunately those odds have decreased a hundredfold for modern Americans. Martin Luther King Jr. might have been on to something when in 1965 he told a crown in Montgomery, Ala., “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Michael Shermer — the founding editor of Skeptic magazine and a columnist for Scientific American — argues in his ambitious new book of history, psychology and political science, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, that long-term moral progress is evident and that it’s been led by scientific ways of thinking. Advances in morality (which Shermer defines as allowing others to flourish) are easy to document: For a long while, rates of violence have declined and basic rights have been granted to more and more people: blacks, women, gays and now animals.

Shermer writes that the road to progress was paved by a rationality that increased through the Enlightenment and then the Industrial Revolution. Our advancing ability to think abstractly has led us to take others’ perspectives and to recognize the mutual benefits of cooperation. Science destroyed false beliefs, such as the notion that Jews cause plagues or that some women are witches. Logic led us to see the effectiveness of restorative over retributive punishment — rehab over cruelty (although the penal system still has a ways to go on this one). And increased facility with numbers has allowed for more advanced market economics binding nations’ interests together.

As a prominent critic of superstition, Shermer is predictably harsh on religion, blaming it for the Crusades and Inquisitions (fair) but also the Civil War and World War I (hmm). Sure, he says, we’re taught to “love thy neighbor,” but what the Bible originally meant by “neighbor” extended only to one’s kin and kind. “The Bible is one of the most immoral works in all literature,” he proposes, offering its 2 billion readers instruction on how to beat their slaves and sell their virgin daughters. Some religious leaders have come out against slavery or for gay rights, but Shermer says they’re usually late to the party; he remarks on “religion’s lag behind the cultural curve toward justice.”

Shermer offers a set of reasonable principles to replace the Ten Commandments, which he finds lacking — particularly the first four, which violate First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and religion by restricting behavior such as using the Lord’s name in vain. His replacements highlight, for example, the Golden Rule and the importance of forgiveness. Pressed to condense the list into one takeaway, he offers this: “Try to expand the moral sphere.”

The Moral Arc includes psychological studies and sociological statistics (with lots of line graphs) but also relatable anecdotes and asides. Shermer finds lessons in an episode of Star Trek (the power of mercy) as well as on a trip he took to the Galápagos Islands (the complexity of ecological tradeoffs) and finds inspiration in sculptures of strong women carved by his aunt that sit near him as he writes.

After chapters documenting the history and methods of moral progress, Shermer ends the book by outlining his Libertarian vision of a world defined by proprietary city-states and “conscious capitalism,” where benevolent mayor-CEOs steward the pursuit of happiness.

Although it’s well researched and entertaining, the tome does have a tendency to tangent. And there are a few non sequiturs — for instance, in his muddled take on free will. More damningly, many of his larger points were argued — better — in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, a work Shermer praises as an “inspiration” for his own.

Shermer also overstates his case, failing to acknowledge the limitations of science in the moral realm. How does one empirically settle disputes about what constitutes human “flourishing”? Perhaps he sees no limits to science. He suggests that pro-lifers can be brought around with biology lessons — a possible insult to the many educated pro-lifers.

Tellingly, Shermer advocates moral realism: “morality is real, discoverable, ‘out there’ in nature.” Can a microscope or experiment locate human rights or reveal whether loyalty is a higher virtue than honesty, or prioritize my interests over yours? No; ethical judgments are inherently subjective. And attributing subjective preferences to the cosmos — locating morality “out there” — is a form of magical thinking. It seems there’s slack in Shermer’s skepticism.

Despite some forgivable imperfections in execution, Shermer fights an important fight. We may never find a formula for virtue, but using reason and evidence we can approach a world more people can live with. In some small way, this book bends the moral arc just a bit toward justice.

Matthew Hutson is a science writer and the author of The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane.

SALLY SATEL — Wall Street Journal

For hundreds of years, people flocked to public hangings as a form of entertainment. Onlookers crowded into town squares and brought their families, reveling in the carnival atmosphere. Today most people are sickened at the idea of merriment at an execution. (Many are disturbed that executions take place at all.) We recoil from other once-common practices, too: slavery, the mistreatment of children, animal cruelty. Such shifts in attitude or belief surely constitute a form of moral progress and suggest, for once, that civilization is advancing and not receding.

How such progress came about is the fascinating question at the heart of The Moral Arc, an ambitious book by Michael Shermer, a prolific science writer and the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine. Mr. Shermer proudly stands on the shoulders of Steven Pinker, the author of the monumental quantitative history “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” (2011). In The Moral Arc, Mr. Shermer reminds us of some of Mr. Pinker’s findings but moves beyond the reduction in violence to examine changes in other moral spheres.

Mr. Shermer defines moral progress as an “increase in the survival and flourishing of sentient beings,” which he illustrates with graphs and charts that reveal, among other things, a decline in war-related deaths, the expansion of the food supply, the reduction in major epidemics, the growth of world GDP and the spread of democracy.

Humanitarian achievements in the West, Mr. Shermer notes, began in earnest the 18th century. Yet the ability to reason ethically is not a product of the Enlightenment. A moral instinct seems to be present at birth: Even infants possess innate intuitions about fairness and reciprocity, as Mr. Shermer explains. All societies punish free riders. The Golden Rule and Babylon’s Code of Hammurabi (advocating proportionate punishment) predate the ancient Greeks. So why did we need an Enlightenment to jump-start our moral progress?

Mr. Shermer explores several theories. He observes that “scientific rationalism”—favoring systematic observation and hypothesis testing—helped to make people better at abstract thinking and at seeing inconsistencies between abusive practices and the values they purported to hold. Criminal-justice systems came to fix blame more accurately and punish transgressors more fairly.

With rational inquiry, too, more facts became known. As Mr. Shermer observes, some reprehensible actions “are not immoral so much as they are mistaken.” Take witchcraft. “Now that we have a scientific understanding of agriculture, climate, disease, and other vectors,” he writes, “the witch theory of causality has fallen into disuse.” Similarly, campaigns in the modern era against dolphin slaughter and elephant poaching have received a boost from research showing that dolphins and elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror, an ability that has made them seem humanlike.

The moral arc was greatly extended, Mr. Shermer says, when more and more people began traveling to new lands and trading with strangers. As populations became literate, they read mass-produced accounts of other peoples’ lives. The circle of empathy widened beyond the tribe to strangers and foreigners. Improvements in hygiene and medical technology, as Mr. Pinker has argued, may have also had a moralizing effect. After all, dirty and diseased people elicit disgust, a pathway to dehumanization.

Mr. Shermer is a buoyant culture warrior—and an eloquent one—who believes that our better angels will continue to soar. Although an atheist, he is respectful of religion’s role in individual well-being. Nonetheless, he concludes that science and reason, abetted by free markets and democracy, are the drivers of justice and freedom. Insisting that scientists should have a voice in determining values and morals, Mr. Shermer argues that “the goal of a science-based morality should be to construct a set of provisional moral precepts that are true for most people in most circumstances most of the time.”

But how? Science can’t determine values. The desire to enhance human flourishing, Mr. Shermer’s mission, itself reflects a value—a Bentham-like utilitarianism—that he assumed prior to his examination of how science might advance it. Science can give us only more efficient ways of bringing about desired outcomes, not tell us which outcomes to desire. Even the definition of “flourishing” depends on philosophical questions beyond the reach of the laboratory or algorithm.

What can we do to push humanity along the moral arc? Mr. Shermer lists 10 precepts that are largely variants of the Golden Rule. “If by fiat I had to reduce these ten principles to just one it would be this: Try to expand the moral sphere and to push the arc of the moral universe just a bit farther toward truth, justice, and freedom for more sentient beings in mo