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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 23.3 > Science and Morality: A Response to Massimo Pigliucci

Science and Morality: A Response to Massimo Pigliucci

(Originally published in Skeptic.com)

MY MAY 2018 COLUMN IN SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN WAS titled “You Kant be Serious: Utilitarianism and its Discontents”, a cheeky nod to the German philosopher that I gleaned from the creators of the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale, whose official description for those of us who score low on the scale read: “You’re not very utilitarian at all. You Kant be convinced that maximizing happiness is all that matters.” The online version of my column carries the title (which I have no control over): “Does the Philosophy of ‘the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number’ Have Any Merit?” The answer by any reasonable person would be “of course it does!” And I’m a reasonable person, so what’s all the fuss about? Why was I jumped on by professional philosophers on social media, such as Justin Weinberg of the University of South Carolina on Twitter @DailyNousEditor, who fired a fusillade of tweets, starting with this broadside:

Disappointing that @sciam is contributing to our era’s ever-frequent disrespect of expertise by publishing this ill-informed & confused @michaelshermer column on moral philosophy. (1/12) https://bit.ly/2H7LRPT

I sent a private email to Justin inviting him to write a letter to the editor of Scientific American that I could then respond to—given that Twitter may not be the best medium for a discussion of important philosophical issues—but I never received a reply.

Social media responses were followed by a critical review by the noted scientist and philosopher (and fellow skeptic) Massimo Pigliucci (“Michael Shermer on utilitarianism, deontology, and ‘natural rights’” in his blog Footnotes to Plato that was 2.5 times the length of the original column. Because I respect Massimo (he and I have been friends since the mid 1990s) and I always appreciate it when people take my writings seriously enough to respond, allow me to explain what I was trying to do in this column (and all my columns), address Massimo’s specific comments in particular, and then consider the larger issues in these competing ethical systems on the moral landscape.

1. Limits

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About Skeptic

SCIENCE AND MORAL VALUES Jordan Peterson Phenomenon; Thought Crimes: Jordan Peterson and the meaning of the Meaning of Life; Special Section on Science & Morality. Getting Real About Right and Wrong; No, Being Religious Will Not Save You from Suicide; Lessons from Behavioral Science in a Warzone: How Reason, Skepticism, and Compassion Can Win Hearts and Minds; Moral Philosophy and its Discontents: Can science determine moral values? An Exchange with Massimo Pigliucci, Michael Shermer, and Kevin McCaffree; Facilitated Communication Redux: Persistence of a Discredited Technique; The Mystery of Elite Religious Scientists: A Cognitively Impenetrable Illusion; Five Questions About Human Errors for Proponents of Intelligent Design; The SkepDoc: Beware Stem Cell Clinics that Offer Untested Treatments; Junior Skeptic: Astral Projection