Michael Shermer and the moral arc of libertarianism

Massimo Pigliucci in Scientia Salon:

Img_0265Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer has gotten onto the same “science can determine moral values” bandwagon as other scientistically-minded writers such as Sam Harris. But this commentary isn’t directly about Shermer’s latest book [1], and even less about Harris (about whose ideas I’ve written more than enough [2]). Rather, it concerns a more specific claim about science-driven moral progress made by Michael in a recent article that appeared in the libertarian Reason magazine, entitled “Are We Becoming Morally Smarter? The connection between increasing IQs, decreasing violence, and economic liberalism” [3]. The piece is an interesting mix of good points, good reasoning, bad points, and bad reasoning. I am going to try to sort things out in the interest of stimulating further discussion.

Shermer begins by talking about the famous (and still poorly understood) “Flynn effect” [4] the observation that IQ test scores, when non standardized to the population average, have increased by two standard deviations throughout the 20th century: we have become “smarter.” Of course, one has to buy into the idea that IQ tests actually measure “intelligence,” or that the latter is even a sufficiently coherent concept to be quantified effectively. But for the sake of the argument, let’s say that cultural evolution (obviously, as Shermer himself readily acknowledges, this has nothing to do with biological evolution) has made it so that people are getting better at scoring high on a certain class of standardized test that has something to do with intelligence, at the least when the latter is understood in certain ways.

More here.