The title of the book, The Moral Arc, by Michael Shermer, was inspired by the words of the Martin Luther King, who said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it always bends towards justice.” Shermer’s aim is to demonstrate that this is indeed true, due to the kind of thinking that led to developed science, justice, and freedom that began to gain popularity during the Age of Enlightenment. The book gives examples across a variety of moral issues, from slavery to animal rights, on how reason-based morality has been applied in creating a better outcome. It also covers issues of moral regressions, moral responsibility, and the implications of reason-based morals on the future.
If you liked Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape, then you will probably find a lot to enjoy about this book. Although Harris’ work is very different, Shermer, in his work, reiterates the controversial claim that scientific thinking can determine morals (an idea that Harris advocates strongly), or that what is can determine what you ought to do. He claims that intentions and actions which are productive or destructive in contributing to the mental or physical flourishing and survival of other sentient beings make up our moral “right” and “wrong.” Going a step further than Harris, Shermer explains that the justification for this kind of morality is that, through natural selection, sentient beings have developed an innate desire to survive and flourish, and to pursue that desire is their natural right.
In reading The Moral Arc, I was very impressed with the wide range of information and research it must have taken to put together such a book. The scope of the work is very broad, and Shermer doesn’t hesitate to give his views in considerable depth. He backs up many of his points with history, polls, and case studies. He also uses many personal anecdotes, which I don’t think contribute much in proving his case, but they were a good tool in illustrating his points. I also found that I enjoyed reading the anecdotes to learn about how many of the issues directly relate to the author.
I also enjoyed that, throughout most of the book, Shermer takes a very optimistic point of view. He shows how far we have come in terms of violence and civil rights. In the last chapter, he makes predictions by projecting the trends into a very bright future and even speculates about the very distant future. However, it isn’t all positive. Shermer also talks about the psychology behind the minds of Nazi’s, sociopaths, and the demons we all have inside. I was disheartened to see, through the Milgram experiment, other case studies, and historical examples, how the majority of us can come to do evil.
What disappointed me most in the book is Shermer’s explanation of Mormonism and the discrimination of African Americans on page 154. He had mistakenly claimed that Mormons believe that African Americans were the descendants of the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon and that the Nephites and Lamanites were considered to be two of the tribes of Israel. Actually, the belief is that African Americans were cursed because they are the seed of Cain, who killed Abel. Also, both the Nephites and Lamanites came from the same seed of Judah. I would expect the Editor in Chief of “Skeptic” magazine to get that right. However, in Shermer’s defense, his point that there was (and is) discrimination in the belief that people with dark skin were thought to be cursed is still accurate.
In all, I thought that The Moral Arc was a very thought provoking book with useful information on the history of moral progress. I would recommend it based on that, as well as the fact that, for me, it was a very entertaining read. I also, think that Shermer makes his point that the “moral arc” does indeed bend towards justice, and that scientific thinking played a large roll in that bend. Overall, I give this book a 4 out of 5.
- The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom by Michael Shermer
- The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris
- Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life by Christina Hoff Sommers
- An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain by Diane Ackerman