Rose-Colored Moral Development
“Are We Getting Better?” is the title of Geoffrey Cox’s review of Michael Shermer’s The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. My answer to Cox’s question is, I doubt it, no matter who this collective “we” is. As the subtitle of Shermer’s book states, it is science and reason that are making us better. That must include big science (as in theories of everything), practical science (e.g., fiber optics), and the scientific enterprise in general. This somehow gets to all of “us” and makes us better.
Shermer uses 17th-century witch burning in Salem as an example. When other causes of unacceptable behavior were found, women were no longer burned. Perhaps science found other ways to deal with misbehaving women. Science then made great progress so that in the 19th and 20th centuries “we” lynched more people than the number of witches who were burned 200 years earlier. Now in the 20-teens our moral development has progressed to where we can use drones to blow up buildings and kill innocent people along with, probably, terrorists. The Holocaust of the last century continues into this one in other forms and other places.
Shermer’s book appears to be part of the social science genre that selectively assembles data so as not to spoil a good story. His optimism seems unjustified, especially if “us” is the world population over the past 100 years. Even if “us” is only the United States, the answer to Cox’s question seems unclear. Do our current forms of prejudice, greed, and violence show a positive moral arc from past forms? Cox concludes in the final paragraph, “faith in human progress is mere utopianism,” and “after all, entropy—the gradual decline into disorder—is also a force of nature and all too often, of social systems.”
By Geoffrey M. Cox
PsycCRITIQUES, 2015 Vol 60(30)