More on Morality From Michael Shermer

Yesterday, he explained why we can’t just look to God for guidance on what’s right and wrong. Today, as an alternative, he introduces us to the “Ask-First Principle,” which he pitches as an improvement on the golden rule:

To find out whether an action is right or wrong, ask first. The moral doer should ask the moral receiver whether the behavior in question is moral or immoral. If you aren’t sure that the potential recipient of your action will react in the same manner you would react to the moral behavior in question, then ask. You will almost always receive your moral answer swiftly and without equivocation. And, as often as not, you do not actually have to ask the question to know the answer. The thought experiment alone should give you a strong sense of what is right and wrong.

Category: Morals


3 Responses

  1. V. V. Raman says:

    The challenge to the materialist is not how to define or determine what is right and what is wrong without reference to God (as Shermer has very well done), but why, knowing what is morally right and what is immoral or wrong, we should choose the right from the wrong when we ourselves will not be adversely affected.
    I am not saying we should appeal to God or religion or scriptures for this, but I am not sure what other possible source is there to induce or urge us to CHOOSE right from wrong as the preferred mode. THAT is the problem, not a definition of right and wrong or a strategy for determining them.

    V. V. Raman
    January 12, 2010
    Author of:
    “Truth and Tension in Science and Religion.”

  2. Rodrigue Tremblay says:

    I enjoyed very much reading your recent blogessays on morality.

    I like the way you frame moral dilemmas on Science and Religion Today.

    However, allow me to raise a few questions.

    First, in your example about suicide-bomber terrorists, the fact that they are ready to die for their cause does not mean they would accept being killed by others. This is a non sequitur.

    Secondly, regarding your “Ask-First Principle” and the examples you provide, these are cases similar to the masochist who enjoys being hurt by others. It’s a pathological case and it cannot be generalized as a guide to morality. Of course, normal people do not want to be hurt by others, and they do not want to hurt others (even if such others could enjoy it). Applying the Golden Rule of reciprocity in that case would not be moral.

    In my coming book in English (The Code for Global Ethics, Prometheus Books, ISBN: 978-1616141721), I resolve this dilemma with what I called the Super Humanist Rule of morality that is based on human empathy.

    Thirdly, this time regarding your “happiness principle”, i.e. “never seek happiness when it leads to someone else’s unhappiness”, such a rule would seem to me to be too restrictive, and thus unrealistic. For example, if a young woman is wooed by two suitors, accepting candidate #1’s advances makes her happy, but it also makes candidate #2 unhappy, even if she does nothing to insult him. Another example would be two friends applying for the same job. Is one, to act morally, obliged to turn down the offer in order not to make his friend unhappy?

    In the normal world of fair competition, there are a lot of zero-sum games when one’s choice makes one happy but also results in unhappiness for others. There is nothing immoral in that. What is morally required is that nobody should make others unhappy on purpose, and not incidentally.

    Congratulations for your excellent book “The Science of Good and Evil”.

    Rodrigue Tremblay, Ph.D.
    Emeritus Professor

  3. […] introduced us to the “Ask-First Principle” earlier this week, he now offers the “Happiness Principle” as a way to further help us judge between […]

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