Brain Food: Explorations into the Neural World of Non-Fiction – Human Moral Development

MoralArc2The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice and Freedom by Michael Shermer

When one turns on the news in this day and age, one would be forgiven for believing that we are living in dark times indeed. Suicide bombings, religious wars, school shootings, ‘honour’ killings, greed, selfishness, income inequality – the list just seems to go on and on. However, Dr Michael Shermer states in this very well researched and convincingly argued book that we are in fact living in a world more moral than ever before in human history. This argument is backed up by a thorough exploration of the science of morality.

Shermer looks at all different areas of the sciences, including psychology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, neuroscience and economics just to name a few. Having studied psychology, it was really interesting to revisit a number of seminal psychological studies, including Milgram’s shock experiments and Zimbardo’s prison experiments. I really enjoyed how these cases, which enjoy notoriety far beyond the circles of academia, were looked at in the context of morality. I had been aware that there had been a number of modern re-creations of the studies (outside of academia, as there is little chance either would pass the rigorous ethical tests now facing all psychological experiments – evidence in itself of an increasing awareness of other people), but I hadn’t known the precise results and I hadn’t considered them in terms of morality. Because of my studies, this was fascinating for me. I love it when I come across things I have studied and get the opportunity to interpret them anew.

Shermer ranges over a wide number of topics as he explores the ‘moral arc’, looking initially at how we define morality and which creatures are covered by it today – all sentient beings is his conclusion, which means all human beings regardless of gender, age, colour, race, religion or sexuality, and all animals as well who have at least some measure of consciousness. He then progresses on to such diverse and interesting topics as crime, charity, happiness, wealth, the nature of evil, the death penalty and even our choice of food.

I found the book both enlightening and uplifting. I really enjoy a book which makes me feel like I am expanding my knowledge about the world I live in, and there is no doubt that this book fits the bill. However, a book like this wouldn’t work without the swathe of evidence which is brought into play, which is necessarily a part of the scientific angle that Shermer was taking. Without it, it would have just sounded like a fluffy book of feel-good aphorisms which wouldn’t have been convincing at all. Granted, the message wasn’t all positive, and there were definitely times I felt that it got bogged down in details – some of the quotes could have been abridged or left out altogether – but it did add to the quality of the book. I have read other books by this author, as well as articles and I have also heard podcasts of him speak and I have always found him intelligent, measured and entertaining. I’m not sure this is the best of his books, but I haven’t come across a book like it and that alone makes it worth reading.

The final chapter of the book was both good and bad. It was good in that it provided a lot of food for thought, and a really fascinating and generally positive imagining of the future ahead of us in terms of our morality and our acceptance of all other living beings. But it fell down because it did ramble on quite a lot. I listened to the book on audio (narrated by the author himself, which I always enjoy) and I was really surprised when he announced the final chapter and there was still two and a half hours to listen to. As such, I lost the thread a bit and I do think I probably need to go back and listen to it again to get more out of it. Nevertheless, if you are interested in the arc of the human race and how far we have progressed in terms of morality; if you are interested in how things have improved since the Enlightenment (despite many blips); if you are interested in cogent arguments and if you have an open mind, this is a very good book. But do make sure you are concentrating hard. It might be better to take the book in small sittings rather than all at once.

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