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Dr. Michael Shermer - Science of Good and Evil

Friday morning began with announcements from Hal Bidlack, now attired in his Air Force uniform.


Lt. Col. Bidlack
Lt. Col. Bidlack, From A Safe Distance

First to speak in the morning session was Dr. Michael Shermer. His talk at last year's TAM was a preview of this year's. He was then working on the book which he has just now released, called "The Science of Good and Evil".

The talk explores the origins of morality in the human species as an evolutionary adaptation to solve complex social problems. Instead of talking about absolute or relative morality, Shermer proposed the term "Provisional" morality to echo the scientific principle of provisional acceptance of a theory. Provisional morality holds that a moral principle is provisionally accepted as true if the evidence of its benefit is strong enough that it would be perverse to withhold assent.

Morality of this type is not absolute and is not a fixed part of the universe, since it does not exist apart from the human communities that produced it, but neither is it entirely relative to the individual. It belongs to the human species as a whole. It is the recognition of good and evil which has evolved, and the cultural norms have been grafted onto that by social evolution.

Shermer used the example of how Hitler was regarded since his death to illustrate why it is important to see a moral sense as a product of human evolution, and not as an absolute, or a mystery. For decades, Hitler was considered to be "inexplicable", and something which cannot and should not be explained. But Hitler was the product of forces that arose in Germany, ones that could rise again unless we examine carefully the reasons behind them.


Dr. Michael Shermer
Dr. Michael Shermer On Good And Evil

The first principle of human morality is Reciprocity, expressed in nearly all cultures in the Golden Rule or similar sentiment. No organizations were needed to enforce the morality of groups until the size of the group exceeded the tracking capability of the human brain, at between 100 and 200 individuals. Religion began as a social system to codify conduct within a larger group. Members of the group performed the religious rituals as a way of demonstrating their membership in the community. Higher principles include the Happiness principle, "Seek happiness with others' happiness in mind.", and the Liberty principle, "Seek liberty with others' liberty in mind."

In the end, provisional morality is the best that we humans can do, and it is sufficient.



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