Logo IMG
HOME > PAST ISSUE > May-June 2005 > Article Detail


The Soul of Science

Michael Shermer

The Purpose Principle

Although purpose may be found in countless activities, is there a principle by which we may generalize its particulars? In The Science of Good And Evil I suggested two principles of morality. First, the happiness principle: it is a higher moral principle to always seek happiness with someone else's happiness in mind, and never seek happiness when it leads to someone else's unhappiness. Second, the liberty principle: it is a higher moral principle to always seek liberty with someone else's liberty in mind, and never seek liberty when it leads to someone else's loss of liberty. In this context I would like to suggest a purpose principle: it is a higher moral principle to pursue purposeful thought or behavior with someone else's purposeful goals in mind, and never pursue a purpose when it leads to someone else's loss of purpose.

Although purpose is inherent, moral purposes are learned; thus, the highest levels of the purpose pyramid require individual volition, personal effort and social consciousness. Morality and purpose are inextricably interdigitated—you cannot have one without the other. Fortunately, nature grants us the capacity for both morality and purpose, culture affords us the liberty to reach for higher moral purposes, and history brings us to a place where we can employ both for the enrichment of all.

Through natural evolution and man-made culture, we have inherited the mantle of life's caretaker on earth. Rather than crushing our spirits, the realization that we exist together for a narrow slice of time and space elevates us to a higher plane of humanity and humility: a proud, albeit passing, act in the drama of the cosmos.

comments powered by Disqus


Of Possible Interest

Engineering: Can an Engineer Appreciate Art?

Feature Article: Like Holding a Piece of Sky

Feature Article: Curious Chemistry Guides Hydrangea Colors

Subscribe to American Scientist