Human Exceptionalism

“Morally Smarter” or Morally Myopic?

I am always amused when secularists present advances in contemporary morality as somehow due to SCIENCE.

Michael Shermer’s column in Reason exemplifies the presumption. He notes that IQ scores have been rising and correlates this with a higher morality–as if one leads necessarily to the other.

Shermer categorizes human thinking as either “concrete,” which he sees as regressive and the cause of brutality, or the more supposedly progressive, “abstract,” which he claims to be “scientific.” From, “Are We Becoming Morally Smarter?”

“What do dogs and rabbits have in common?” If you answer, “Both are mammals,” says [social scientist James] Flynn, you are thinking like a scientist in classifying organisms by type-an abstraction. If you said, “You use dogs to hunt rabbits,” you are thinking concretely, imagining a tangible use for a dog.

Wait: Science isn’t only about learning truths of the natural world (abstract), but applying this information to the betterment of humankind (concrete). But I digress.

Shermer then credits our contemporary, supposedly, improved morality to general increases in “abstract reasoning,” among which he includes that great scientific equation, the “Golden Rule:”

Abstract reasoning and scientific thinking are the crucial cognitive skills at the foundation of all morality. Consider the mental rotation required to implement the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

This requires you to change positions-to become the other person-and then to extrapolate what action X would feel like as the receiver instead of the doer (or as the victim instead of the perpetrator).

Please. The Golden Rule began as an explicitly Jewish religious formulation, based on what God, who loves humankind, was believed to want of us. Or, does Shermer see belief in God as “scientific?”

Ditto, St. Paul’s assertion that all, man and woman, Greek and Jew, master and slave, are all one and equal in Christ Jesus.

Talk about a radical concept for the time! But these and other Judeo/Christian religious maxims shattered then existing cruel moral templates, setting us (the West) walking (too slowly) down the road that led to today’s concepts of universal human equality, human rights–and embracing human exceptionalism, the key to achieving those ends.

Not only that, but the early Christians practiced what they preached, e.g., caring for the destitute and rescuing babies exposed on hills. In other words, these distinctly religious thinkers opposed the barbaric practice of infanticide–which many contemporary scientific thinkers have brought back into fashion by claiming that babies are not “persons” because they lack certain cognitive abilities.

Contrast that to the “scientific” ideology of eugenics–abstractly conceived from Darwinistic principles and the monk Mendel’s gene experiments–that advocating culling the human herd between the so-called “fit” and “unfit.”

Social Darwinism, that odious cruelty, was similarly conceived as a great moral advance based on scientific premises that the weak among us were dangerous lead weights pulling us under the waves, and worse, that the answer to their and society’s misery was to let–or make–them die.

Note: These two forms of authoritarianism were overwhelmingly supported by political progressives and materialistic “free thinkers,” who have always claimed they represent the scientific worldview.

Shermer than describes what he thinks makes our age morally superior:

Since the Enlightenment, humans have demonstrated dramatic moral progress. Almost everyone in the Western world today enjoys rights to life, liberty, property, marriage, reproduction, voting, speech, worship, assembly, protest, autonomy, and the pursuit of happiness.

Liberal democracies are now the dominant form of governance, systematically replacing the autocracies and theocracies of centuries past. Slavery and torture are outlawed everywhere in the world (even if occasionally still practiced).

The death penalty is on death row and will likely go extinct sometime in the 2020s. Violence and crime are at historic lows, and we have expanded the moral sphere to include more people as members of the human community deserving of rights and respect.

Even some animals are now being considered as sentient beings worthy of moral consideration.

Animals have always been seen as deserving of some moral consideration, yes, all the way back to Genesis. Moreover, the ancient Jainism faith accords us, animals, insects, and grass, moral equality. I am sorry, but it is really “abstract” to think of grass and people as having equal ultimate value.

Yet, Shermer gives all credit to moral advances on scientific thinking!

Thinking like a scientist means employing all our faculties to overcome our emotional, subjective, and instinctual brains to better understand the true nature of not only the physical and biological worlds, but the social world (politics and economics) and the moral world (abstracting how other people should be treated) as well.

But empathy isn’t rational, it is emotional. Viewing all humans as morally equal certainly isn’t a scientific premise. It can’t be proved objectively by measuring capacities, abilities, strength, and the like–too often done in scientific circles.

Science is a powerful and empirical method of learning. It can only tell us what is–and fashion hypotheses about what may be. But it can’t tell us what is morally better or worse, right or wrong, enlightened or regressive. That is the subjective job of religion, philosophy, and morality.

Besides, tens of millions of unborn babies have been aborted in this supposedly superior moral age–and yet, the Schermers of the world think of it as a great moral advance despite the unquestionable biological humanity of abortion’s victims.

Yes, science tells us that embryos and fetuses are human beings. But it can’t tell us whether abortion is morally correct. Ditto euthanasia.

Do you also notice how Shermer declares what he believes to be morally superior? We all do that. But morally “smarter” due to abstract and scientific human thinking?

That’s part of it. to be sure. But what we in the West generally see as great moral advancements were caused by dynamic human processes–objective and subjective, religious and secular, scientific and philosophical–working together to design Western Civilization. 

Materialists like Shermer are determined to give science false credit for moral advancements, as they exclude other distinctly human disciplines and smugly look down their noses at unscientific thinking. That is not only unadulterated scientism, but it is morally myopic.

Wesley J. Smith — Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism.

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