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The Science of Good and Evil


A review of Michael Shermer s The Science of Good and Evil Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule Jamie Severtson Western Michigan University – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: The Science of Good and Evil

The Science of Good and Evil
A review of Michael Shermers
Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow
the Golden Rule
  • Jamie Severtson
  • Western Michigan University

Evolution of Morality
  • Morality
  • Right and wrong thoughts and behaviors in the
    context of a social group
  • Scientific analysis
  • More beneficial than philosophical as an
    explanation of moral development
  • Removes God from equation
  • Not arguing existence, just not relevant to
    scientific approach
  • Creates the problem of moral relativity
  • Methodological naturalism
  • Morals result from laws of nature
  • Evolution
  • Morals evolved through natural selection on
    individuals and populations
  • All animals are trying to survive and cooperation
    is a good strategy

Evolution of Morality (cont.)
  • Morality
  • Exclusively human
  • Conscious assessment of right and wrong
  • Verbal behavior ? rule statements
  • Self-aware, self-conscious
  • Premorality
  • Moral-like behavior observed in our ancestors
  • Examples
  • Vampire bats share food
  • Dophins push the sick to surface to get air
  • Species differ to the degree that they
    demonstrate moral behavior
  • If humans are .8 to .9 moral, then
  • Apes are .6 to .7 moral
  • Monkeys are .4 to .5 moral
  • Whales and dolphins are .2 to .3 moral

Evolution of Morality (cont.)
  • As humans evolved, culture changed and morality
  • Increased populations
  • Changing social structure
  • Division of labor
  • Value changes
  • Organized religion developed
  • Bands 10s-100s of
  • Tribes 100s 1,000s
    of individuals
  • Chiefdoms 1,000s
    10,000s of individuals
  • States 10,000s 100,000s of
  • Empires 100,000s 1,000,000s of

Bio-Cultural Evolutionary Pryamid A Model of the
Origin and Development of Ethical Behavior
  • Problem with God
  • How can God be all knowing, and all good, if evil
  • Gods will
  • Myth of pure evil
  • Force within us
  • Accountability problem (free will?)
  • Solution
  • Talk about evil as an adjective (e.g., evil act)
    rather than a noun.
  • No such thing as pure evil

Immorality (cont.)
  • Myth of pure evil (cont.)
  • Justifies immoral acts
  • 17th century Europe
  • Burning witches
  • Spanish Inquisition
  • 20th century Muslim Middle East
  • September 11th
  • Killing Americans will restore peace
  • Does not lead us to a real explanation for

Immorality (cont.)
  • Although we have evolved into moral creatures,
    anyone can engage in an evil act given the right
  • Holocaust
  • Not all Germans were Nazis
  • Not all Nazis were bad
  • Those evil actions were not unique to Nazis
  • Milgrim experiments
  • Zimbardos Standford prison experiements
  • Calling someone evil does not get at the cause of

Immorality (cont.)
  • Myth of pure good
  • Nobel savages
  • Also detrimental to understanding of morality
  • Humans are both good and bad

Political Organization and Frequency of Warfare
Death Rate from Wartime
Making Moral Choices In a Determined Universe
  • Law
  • Insanity Defense
  • Free will
  • Most people will follow the law
  • Few people will not under mental duress
  • How can you punish someone for something they did
    not choose to do?
  • The Durham Test
  • Did the defendant have a mental defect?
  • If so, was the defect the reason for the unlawful

Making Moral Choices In a Determined Universe
  • Free Will
  • Quantum indeterminacy
  • Random neural firings
  • Fuzzy Logic
  • Shades of categories unrecognized by law
  • Neuroscience
  • Science shows that mind and body are not separate
  • Brain is wired and rewired
  • Genetics and environmental conditions
  • Choices feel free even if they arent really

Making Moral Choices In a Determined Universe
  • Free Will (cont.)
  • Derived from determinism?
  • Incompatible terms
  • Left with ignorance
  • We can not know all of the causal variables
  • Therefore our choices are free because we are

Godless Goodness
  • Is a belief in God necessary to right the wrongs
    of immoral behavior?
  • Many nonbelievers behave morally
  • Abraham is believed to be an atheist
  • Many believers behavior immorally
  • Hitler was Catholic
  • Without God, would you be more likely to commit
  • robbery?
  • rape?
  • murder?
  • Does the presence of God prevent these acts?

Godless Goodness (cont.)
  • How can we be good without god?
  • Values (behaviors) are passed down through
    generation to generation
  • Behaviors that coincide with cultural norms are
  • Behaviors that do not are punished
  • Secular ethics may be primitive and flawed, yet
    it is the most precious thing we have.

Absolute vs. Relative vs. Provisional Ethics
  • Absolute
  • Inflexible
  • Typically derived from religious sources
  • Most popular
  • Relative
  • Flexible
  • Derived from social group
  • Problems of justifying any action
  • Consequential
  • An action

Absolute vs. Relative vs. Provisional Ethics
  • Provisional
  • Allows room to make better moral choices
  • Middle ground between absolutism and relativism
  • It would be reasonable for us to offer our
    conditional agreement that an action is moral or
    immoral if the evidence for and the justification
    of the action is overwhelming.

Skinner on Morals
  • the behavior we call moral or just is a product
    of special kinds of social contingencies arranged
    by governments, religions, economic systems, and
    ethical groups (Skinner, 1974, p. 268-269)

  • Many of the authors notions regarding the
    development of morality are in line with behavior
    analytic account
  • Evolution of altruism in different species
  • Moral behavior is necessary for the survival of
    the individual and the species
  • Human verbal behavior makes them unique
  • Rule governed behavior
  • The creation of God as a governing authority

Conclusions (cont.)
  • Religion adds contingencies to control behavior
  • May have been necessary at one point in the
    history of humans, but may not be necessary now
  • Consequences for behavior may be due to
  • Natural selection
  • Classical conditioning
  • Operant conditioning
  • Shermer appears to uphold the theoretical
    assumptions of contextualism

Thank you!
  • For more information on a theoretical behavior
    analytic account of religion and moral
    development, enjoy the following slides put
    together by Jamie Severtson and Candice Jostad

Religion and Moral Development
  • Avoiding Hellfire and eternal damnation
  • By
  • Jamie M. Severtson Candice M. Jostad

the behavior we call moral or just is a product
of special kinds of social contingencies arranged
by governments, religions, economic systems, and
ethical groups (Skinner, 1974, p. 268-269)
Natural Contingencies
  • Do not Support Moral Behavior
  • (Support immoral behavior)
  • Greed
  • Laziness
  • Lying
  • Lust
  • Gluttony
  • Wrath
  • Pride

Jamies Mom on the importance of morality
  • My answer, without looking at the bible, is that
    morals are important becauseyou gotta be moral,
    because if youre not, its bad. Bad things could
    happen, and you want to be good.

The Need for Moral Control
  • Mediation of future (Skinner, 1974)
  • Enjoy the benefits of Group Membership (Baum,

The Need for Moral Control
  • good behavior without monitoring (Malott
    Suarez, 2004)
  • The eyes of the Lord are everywhere, keeping
    watch on the wicked and the good. Proverbs 1432

  • contingencies to support moral behavior
  • Be altruistic
  • Cooperate with Others
  • Love thy Neighbor
  • Be Kind
  • Obey Parents
  • Feed the hungry
  • Care for the sick
  • Be Honest
  • Show Mercy
  • Forgive Others

Im sorry I said your wig looks fake!
Thats okay.
Behavioral Theory
Religion Impacts Moral Development through
  • Respondent Conditioning
  • Pairing
  • Operant conditioning
  • Direct-Acting Contingencies
  • Indirect-Acting Contingencies

Respondent Conditioning
  • Conditioned Reinforcers
  • Aversive Stimuli
  • Good
  • God
  • Jesus
  • Love
  • Right
  • Righteous
  • Heaven
  • Elicit physical reactions

Bad Satan Demons Hate Wrong Evil Hell
Stimulus Equivalence
Trained Relations Derived Relations
Stimulus Equivalence
Trained Relations Derived Relations
Operant Conditioning
  • Contingencies
  • Direct-Acting
  • E.g., Prayer, Bible Study, Crafts
  • Reinforce participation
  • Punish Inappropriate behavior
  • Indirect-Acting (Rules)
  • Heaven Hell
  • Ultimate Reinforcer
  • Ultimate Aversive Condition

The Big Ten
  • How can 10 rules encompass all moral behavior?
  • If certain stimuli are in an equivalence class
    with Good or Bad then you would engage in
    Relevant approach or avoidant behavior

Honor thy Father Mother
  • No back-talk
  • Clean up your toys
  • Dont fight with your brother
  • Take out the trash
  • Do your homework
  • Feed the dog
  • Come home before curfew
  • Ask before you take the car
  • Get good grades
  • Go to college
  • Get married
  • Have babies

Thou shall not covet your neighbors wife
  • How many different rule statements could you make
    based on this one commandment?

  • Religion benefits Society by establishing moral
    behavior for the survival of the culture
  • Moral development occurs as a result of the
    social communitys reinforcing practices