Skeptic Vol. 4 No. 2

(reviewed by Ken Kittlitz (kittlitz at

With news-stands blighted by magazines on crystals, faith healing and other New Age memes, it's always refreshing to see Skeptic shining like a pearl amongst the swine. Ok, so I'm laying on a bit thick; nevertheless, a quarterly periodical devoted to spreading appreciation of critical thinking and the scientific method is something to be thankful for. The current issue is of special interest to virions, focusing on ways morality and ethics may have evolved, and debating the feasibility of a secular ethical system (i.e., one that doesn't rely on the threat of a giant cosmic fly-swatter).

Skeptic editor Michael Shermer tackles the problem of ethics in a swatter-less universe, noting that the absolute ethical systems promoted by most religions are weakened by their own rigidity: by all claiming to be in possession of The Truth, they defy logic and are frequently the cause of much misery. Relative ethical systems are little better because their flexibility makes value judgments difficult to make -- almost anything can be justified.

A third option is to adopt techniques from the scientific method and work towards a system of provisional ethics that classifies actions as "moral" or "immoral" based on the weight of current evidence. Such classifications are not immutable, as they would be in an absolute system, but neither are they as malleable as those of a relative system. Shermer applies provisional ethics to the questions of abortion and adultery, evaluating the social, personal and evolutionary costs of each. While I like the idea of provisional ethics, I find some of Shermer's arguments unconvincing. For example, he claims that unrealized adulterous thoughts are not immoral, because they harm no one else and give pleasure to the one experiencing them. But does the situation change if one's spouse is upset by these fantasies, or if one loses interest in one's spouse because of them? Shermer's discussion is a good start, but the concept needs more work.

The other major article in this issue is John Hartung's "Prospects for Existence: Morality and Genetic Engineering". Hartung argues forcefully that a secular meaning of life can be found in life itself; i.e., the purpose of living things is to ensure the continuance of life, and this should be the basis of the morality of creatures capable of understanding what morality is. As such creatures, we owe it to our ancestors, human and otherwise, and to the other animals in the biosphere to ensure that life is not extinguished, be it by environmental disaster, a comet striking our planet, or the death of our sun. Hartung apparently isn't familiar with the concepts of memes or life-extension, however, worrying only about the survival of our descendents and the preservation of genetic information. This is inspiring stuff nonetheless, seemingly more at home in Extropy or a Vernor Vinge novel than a magazine of skeptical inquiry. But who's complaining?

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