the moral arc

Review From User :

There are three sections of this book. The first section explains what the moral arc is, how 'morality' has arced towards justice since the enlightenment, and how this is due to the influence of science and reason rather than religion, which has fought moral progress at every stage.

The second section, is probably the most interesting however, and the most persuasive. I was, by the time I got to the last chapter in the section, quite moved, and think that this section of the book deserves some discussion, because apart from anything else, it is very, very well done.

The first chapter is about the abolition of slavery. This is moral progress, there really is no one alive today who can hand on heart say they believe the world was a better place when we were able to trade in humans. There is discussion about the abolitionist movement, and the influence of religion on the process, but Shermer (successfully IMO) argues that it was on the back of the enlightenment, not a 2000 year old book that has quite a bit of slavery in it that ultimately won out.

Next chapter covers Women's Rights. Again, not much to argue with here, though I imagine that there are some sticky bits for some around abortion, but the fact is the moral arc is bending towards women having the right to choose, backed up by scientific evidence, and not some unprovable belief.

Third chapter is about Gay Rights. Shermer argues (again successfully IMV), that despite the older generation not being so keen on it, this is basically a done deal. You would be hard pushed to find a millennial who would be able to comment in any other way except 'so what if those two women want to get married', and thus demonstrating that the moral arc is bending even more towards a liberal and equal future.

Final chapter in this section. This is where it starts to get a little uncomfortable. Animal rights. Comparing sentient beings (of whatever species) we know from science that there is but little difference. We know that animals can suffer and feel pain, empathy and distress. Why do we therefore treat them so badly Of course the answer a lot of the time is because we want to eat them, and eat a lot of them at that. There are things we can do, like make sure that our livestock lives as full a life as possible before the 'one bad day at the end', but the direction of the arc suggests that we shouldn't be eating them at all, and should have consideration for all sentient beings that share this world. Now, as Shermer admits this himself, I am a carnivore, and I would not want to give up eating meat, ever. However, the idea is now planted and it is something that may well fester while I guiltily chomp my way through my next chunk of pig.

The third section of the book, is less compelling, concerning itself with the rise of democracy and capitalism, in tandum with science and reason, with the argument that the two go together, and that the world is a better place without.

Shermer then talks about 'free will' and the current understanding of brain function and how this might ultimately affect our culpability in our actions. This is quite hard to accept, not because it is necessarily wrong, but because (for me anyway) it leaves the wiggle room for people not to take responsibility for their actions. To be fair to Shermer though, he does argue that free will or otherwise, there are enough in-built mechanisms in the brain, excepting some diseases, to moderate ourselves sufficiently such that responsibility for ones actions should be taken as a given.

The next chapter is the most difficult. Retribution VS Restoration. There is the idea that sitting down and talking with the victims of a crime is actually better for the victim and better for the criminal than simple retribution. While Shermer does provide evidence for this, I really don;t think the world is ready for this. I guess that is the point that Shermer is trying to get at. Three hundred years ago, no one would have batted an eyelid at people owning slaves, but now the idea is abhorrent. Maybe ditto for retributive punishment in 300 years. Just not yet.

The final chapter is pure speculation and futurology. Qualified of course, but still 'what could be'.

Over all and excellent book. Shermer is a little too liberal for me at times, but argues his case clearly and well. He is also probably right.


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