This 239-page collection of interviews with philosophers, primatologists, and anthropologists, most of which first appeared in The Believer, might be countertitled Morality Without Religion or maybe The Search for "Should." All the interviews—conducted by Tamler Sommers, professor of philosophy at the University of Houston—concern the evolutionary and philosophical origins of morality: if it exists, where it came from, and whether it even matters. The arguments, all in simple, colloquial English, take some crazy hairpin turns.
One interview, with philosopher Stephen Stich (who, controversially, uses scientific experimentation in his inquiries), ends with him arguing that objective, transcendent morality is an illusion: "And if people become aware of that fact, they might no longer condemn practices like female genital mutilation, which accord with the norms of other cultures... if legalizing genital mutilation would be a way of correcting for the illusion—then my answer to your question is a resounding no! We most definitely should not always design legal systems in a way that corrects for illusions." Know the truth, but be careful about living the truth.
The title comes from The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy pulls back the curtain and discovers that the wizard is just a guy with a bunch of special effects. "You're a very bad man!" Dorothy scolds. "Oh no, my dear," the wizard replies. "I'm a very good man. I'm just a very bad wizard." So it is with our brains. We think we know what we know—incest is wrong, shocking strangers to death just because a stranger told us to is wrong, helping little old ladies across the street is good—but Sommers and the intellectual inquiry of his interviewees keeps throwing our received wisdom against the rocks.
Philosopher Galen Strawson argues that we don't have free will, so Timothy McVeigh is ultimately no more morally responsible for the destruction of the Oklahoma City federal building than a mouse would be if it chewed up the wiring in the building and caused a fire that killed as many people. Anthropologist Joseph Henrich runs into a moral dilemma in Fiji when one of his local informants beats up his wife and nobody sees this as a problem, including Fijian women who had close relationships with Henrich's female research assistant and talked with her about the situation. Henrich and the research assistant are horrified, despite their hard-won cultural relativism, and don't know how to navigate the situation. Then evolutionary biologists and primatologists such as Frans de Waal argue that moral approval and revulsion are wired into our genetic code, as well as the genetic codes of our near primate cousins. Therefore, the Nietzschean arguments for extra-moral supermen—and the ultralibertarian relativists who deny any intrinsic moral code—are as foolish as a man who denies that we have arms or eyeballs.
Sommers interviews a huge range of thinkers: utilitarians, Kantians, meta-ethicists, and a scholar of the super-butch honor codes of Icelandic sagas. The only thing they have in common is a disregard for God and theology. All these thinkers want to understand why we do what we do—and what we should or shouldn't do—on our own terms, without abdicating our decisions to some Guy in the Sky.