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 more places more of the time.”

The thought is lovely but mainly aimed at low-hanging fruit. In the West, most citizens enjoy basic freedoms and a decent quality of life, although there is obviously room for improvement. The interesting debates today are about how to manage the clash of competing values within a liberal, multiethnic society, a topic about which Mr. Shermer has little to say.

“The arc of the moral universe is long,” Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1965, “but it bends toward justice.” Long indeed. In retrospect, it seems remarkable that arguments against now-obvious injustices, such as slavery and women’s subjection, had to be made repeatedly over centuries before they finally “took.” The Moral Arc presents an impressive account of how far we have come. But it also reminds us that reason, for all its muscle, will need a lot of help to make our moral progress continue.

Sally Satel, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is co-author, with Scott Lilienfeld, of Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience.


Skeptic magazine founding publisher Shermer (The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, 2011, etc.) reviews the last 400 years of human history to substantiate his claim that it is science and reason, not religion, that reveal a path to “the betterment of humanity in a civilized state.” “The economic problems of today are real but tractable…even in the most impoverished places on earth such as Africa,” writes the author. Brushing aside concerns about the environment, the accelerated extinction of species, looming resource shortage and political instability, Shermer predicts that by the end of the century, the levels of wealth and prosperity enjoyed in the developed world will be universal. The author believes that developments in our scientific understanding have created the conditions for an upward trend in morality, which he sees as synonymous with the advance of liberal democracies and a global economy. The author rejects the notion that religion has been the “driver of moral progress,” citing superstitious practices such as the burning of witches that were sanctioned until the 18th century. Shermer agrees with the defense of science by avowed atheist Richard Dawkins but also recognizes the positive role of religious leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and the Dalai Lama in their fight for human betterment. Taking slavery as an example, he attributes its “legal abolition and universal denunciation” to “rational arguments and scientific refutations of slavery,” which laid the groundwork for the recognition of the need to protect the rights of blacks, minorities, women, homosexuals and other persecuted groups. Shermer believes that reliance on the scientific method, multiculturalism, the free market and liberal democracy create the conditions necessary for continued progress. A well-documented but perhaps overly optimistic view of a future likely to be challenged by both environmentalists and religious fundamentalists.

STEVEN PINKER – Amazon guest review

I decided to write The Better Angels of Our Nature when I discovered that violence had declined across many scales of time and magnitude: everything from war and genocide to homicide, infanticide, domestic abuse, and cruelty to animals. The more I looked into the past the more hopeful I became for the future. We have been doing something right, and I tried to figure out what it is and how we can do more of it.

If you wanted a sequel to The Better Angels of Our Nature—one which explores all our spheres of moral progress, not just the decline of violence—Michael Shermer’s The Moral Arc is it. Shermer has engaged the full mantle of moral progress and considered how far we have come and how much farther that arc can be bent toward truth, justice, and freedom. The Moral Arc is a thrilling book, one which could change your view of human history and human destiny. Through copious data and compelling examples Shermer shows how the arc of the moral universe, seen from a historical vantage point, really bends toward civil rights and civil liberties, the spread of liberal democracy and market economies, and the expansion of women’s rights, gay rights, and even animal rights. Never in history has such a large percentage of the world’s population enjoyed so much freedom, autonomy, and prosperity.

Shermer also engages the conundrum of free will and responsibility. Though a thoroughgoing materialist, allowing no room for a soul to push our neurons around, he argues that we are volitional beings who must be held accountable for our actions. He explores the implications of this notion of culpability for justice, arguing that the criminal justice system must be reformed to reflect a rational and scientific understanding of human nature, in particular by adding restorative justice to a system that currently is based on retributive justice.

The themes of The Moral Arc are not just historical but in the headlines. The steadily unfolding revolution of gay marriage gives Shermer the opportunity to show how rights revolutions come about in general. Shermer devotes two chapters to showing that it is not religion that has been the driver of moral progress, but Enlightenment-inspired emphasis on science and reason. Gay rights and same-sex marriage have been opposed by most religions (the exception are the avowedly liberal religions); the expansion of the moral sphere to include homosexuals is an implication of the Enlightenment ideals of equal rights and equal treatment under the law.

Finally, Shermer debunks the lazy assumption that science has nothing to say about morals and values. Values we take for granted, such as civil rights and civil liberties, were derived by Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, who consciously modeled their reasoning on the greatest scientists of their ages. They considered the project of constructing a liberal democracy and a market economy as a kind of scientific experiment.

The Moral Arc will give any reason-loving, evidence-respecting, scientifically minded reader hope for humanity. It shows that our deepest problems of the past, present, and future may been solved by our ability to reason our way to solutions and persuade our peers that they can be successfully implemented.

Steven Pinker is Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and the author of The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Stuff of Thought, and The Better Angels of Our Nature. His latest book is The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. He was named by Time magazine as one of the top 100 thinkers in the world.

SETH SHULMAN — Washington Post

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told a crowd of protesters in Montgomery, Ala., in March 1965. King’s use of that quote stands as one of history’s more inspiring pieces of oratory, acknowledging that victories in the fight for social justice don’t come as frequently as we might like, while offering hope that progress will come eventually.

But is the contention empirically true?

Michael Shermer, a professor, columnist for Scientific American, and longtime public champion of reason and rationality, takes on this question and more. In The Moral Arc, Shermer aims to show that King is right so far about human civilization and that, furthermore, science and reason are the key forces driving us to a more moral world. It is at once an admirably ambitious argument and an exceedingly difficult one to prove.

First, Shermer — defining moral progress as “improvement in the survival and flourishing of sentient beings” — needs to make a case that we humans are, in fact, moving toward such an improvement despite terrorist attacks on cartoonists, Islamic State beheadings, Taliban massacres of schoolchildren and police shootings of innocent civilians, among other seemingly daily atrocities. As he notes in the preface, when they heard he was working on a book about moral progress, “most people thought I was hallucinatory. A quick rundown of the week’s bad news would seem to confirm the diagnosis.”

If that weren’t tough enough, Shermer also needs to show that science and scientific reasoning are responsible for bettering our lot. Given science’s role in everything from the development of the atomic bomb to pervasive government surveillance, it’s hard to know which of his self-appointed tasks is more daunting.

To his credit, Shermer tackles this broad agenda with an abundance of energy, good cheer and anecdotes on everything from Star Trek episodes and the reasoning of Somali pirates to the demise of the Sambo’s restaurant chain. The anecdotes provide leavening but don’t alter the fact that this is a work of serious and wide-ranging scholarship with a bibliography that runs to nearly 30 pages. The effect can be kaleidoscopic and even a bit scattershot at times, but that doesn’t detract from the truly impressive array of data Shermer assembles.

Consider, for instance, that Shermer walks through the nuances of studies charting the decline of deaths in warfare as a percentage of the human population from prehistoric times to the present; progress in the abolition of state-sponsored torture meted out by the judicial systems in 10 Western nations between 1650 and 1850 as these punishments came to be seen as “cruel and unusual”; cross-cultural comparison of progress in women’s voting rights throughout the 1900s in countries from Switzerland to Samoa; the decline in the number of U.S. death sentences between 1977 and 2013; and even the reduction in the world’s nuclear arsenals over the past several decades.

At its best, this kind of survey can be exhilarating in the service of such a grand thesis. I’ve spent most of my career chronicling issues in science and technology, and I now work with an organization (the Union of Concerned Scientists) that champions the use of science and evidence in policymaking as an antidote to the polarized political misinformation that seems more virulent than ever in U.S. politics. For readers like me — and I’m sure many others as well — it is of far more than passing interest if data can show that the scientific method and what Shermer calls the “public health model of moral science” have helped to guide humanity in a positive direction.

In something of a recent literary trend, others have tackled segments of Shermer’s grand argument. Perhaps most notably, Steven Pinker, in The Better Angels of Our Nature, did an impressive job of showing that, overall, violence has declined over the long sweep of human history. Meanwhile, Sam Harris, in his tautly reasoned book The Moral Landscape, made a strong case that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions and that science has something important to say about which are which.

Overall, Shermer does a good job of mining the scholarship in these and other areas, but his approach and the sheer breadth of scope ultimately make his argument seem more of a survey and less focused than some of these other works. He is at his strongest in presenting material such as the fascinating research by social scientist Gregory S. Paul that painstakingly analyzes 17 developed countries on a range of factors to find a striking correlation between a country’s level of religiosity and its dysfunction (as measured on such indices as homicides, suicides, divorce, income inequality, etc.). Somewhat less convincing are Shermer’s sections on the role of science as a moral force for good, which mostly boil down to anecdotes in which science has helped supplant superstition since the Enlightenment. It is true, of course, that (as far as I know) we’re no longer burning “witches” at the stake for phenomena we don’t understand. But I hoped Shermer would grapple more with the vexing ways in which science has contributed — and arguab