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Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule

By Michael Shermer

Pub Date: Feb. 2nd, 2004
ISBN: 0-8050-7520-8
Publisher: Henry Holt

Imagine there’s no Heaven (as John Lennon suggested): what, then, is the foundation for morality?

Skeptic magazine editor Shermer (In Darwin's Shadow, 2002, etc.) seeks to answer that question and to discover a scientific explanation for our notions of good and evil. He quotes Darwin to the effect that all scientific observation must be either for or against some point of view and avers his own viewpoint to be “non-theistic agnosticism”: the decision that, since God’s existence is unprovable, he will live and act as if there is no God. The origins of morality and ethics, common to every society on Earth, must then lie in human institutions, Shermer concludes. Over hundreds of thousands of years, our ancestors arrived at moral principles designed to maintain peace and order in communities of ever-increasing size and complexity. The earliest “moral” principles are those that many animals recognize, such as protecting one’s mate or young. As human society grew, the needs of larger and larger groups became the basis of morality; at the center of many of them lies something like the Golden Rule, treating others as we would wish to be treated. At the same time, early superstitions coalesced into religions, each of which took on the role of sanctioning the moral principles of its parent society. Shermer goes on to argue that evil has no independent existence but is inherent in human nature. Yet no outside authority is needed to make us moral, he argues; atheists (or temporary doubters) seem no more inclined to kill and steal than the religious. The true dignity of our morality arises from its basis in our common humanity. Shermer draws effectively on familiar instances, from the Columbine killings to the Holocaust, to illustrate and support his thesis.

Thought-provoking and well-honed examination of deep questions.