virus: _Skeptic_ magazine

Ken Kittlitz (
Wed, 14 Aug 1996 15:31:02 -0600 (MDT)

The current issue of _Skeptic_ focus on how ethics evolved and how a
secular ethical system might be established, topics that should be of
interest to people on this list. I've written the following review,
also available at


Skeptic Vol. 4 No. 2

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

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