Richard Joyce in ‘The Evolution of Morality’ p128-131 has recently argued that empirical evidence from moral psychology supports the thesis of moral projectivism.  Projectivism is an attempt to give an account of how the world seems to those doing the projecting without invoking the actual properties that seem to the subject to be real. Hence projectivism is used to support a form of moral scepticism in meta-ethics such as emotivism or error theory as it claims that despite the world seeming to contain moral properties that make our judgements right or wrong there are no such moral properties in the world.

Joyce’s argument from empirical psychology has the following structure:

1: Moral judgements appear to track objective truths

2: Moral appearances are caused by emotional activity

3: Moral appearances are to some extent defective

4: The best explanation for this defectiveness is moral projectivism.

1: Moral judgement appear to track objective truths

Joyce cites the work of Larry Nucci 86, 2001 and Nichols (2004) in support of the thesis that children are predisposed to distinguish between moral transgressions and cultural transgressions with moral transgressions transcending authority and time and place.   According to Nichols (2004) moral objectivism is the default assumption of the moral sense.

I mention the work of Larry Nucci 2001 that Joyce cites because it is easy to link to online. Nucci  (2001) tested a number of religious school children and found that amongst Mennonite and Amish children there is a distinction between transgressions that are independent of any authority including God’s authority and transgressions that are dependent on someone else’s decree. For instance he found that among such children:

100% thought that it was okay to work on a Sunday if God said so.


80% thought that it was not okay to steal from others if God said so.

These responses follow a pattern whereby moral transgressions involving harm or stealing were deemed to be independent of authority and extending to different times and places whereas religious transgressions such as whether it was okay to fast or to have pre-marital sex were found to be dependent on decree and changeable (by the appropriate religious authority). Nucci 2001 uses this data to conclude that children’s moral understanding is independent of their understanding of specific religious rules with religious codes being conceived allowing for more variation than moral codes.

Joyce takes such data to indicate the first of his claims that moral transgressions i,e, those involving harm and stealing are conceptualised as ‘objective’ in the sense that they are perceived to apply independently of authority and independently of the particular time and place in which they occur.

2: Moral appearances are caused by emotional activity

Joyce cites work from neuro-imaging and psychopathy to show that moral reasoning and emotional activity are clearly linked. However he also cites the work of Jonathan Haidt to argue that emotions cause us to make moral judgements and view situations as morally wrong even when there is no good reason to think that such situations are morally wrong. For instance Joyce refers to Haidt’s study in which he described the following scenario to subjects

Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that, was it OK for them to make love?

In this study Haidt notes that subjects typically report that it is not okay for the brother and sister to make love and then they search for reasons to justify that moral judgement. The reasons that subjects often give to justify their response such as the couple may have children with birth defects, or they will be frowned upon by others in society or their family have all been ruled out by the scenario. Participants are unwilling to say that they just feel angry or disgust at this situation but are motivated to find reasons to justify their position.

Haidt describes this as the ’emotional tail wagging the rational dog’. A quick automated emotional response drives people to search for reasons to justify their initial reaction. Then people enter into the illusion of thinking that it is the reasons that they find which is the source of their initial judgement when it is the initial emotional reaction generating the intuition that the situation is wrong which then looks for post-hoc justification.

Joyce also cites the paper by Wheatley and Haidt 2005 whereby subjects were given a post-hypnotic suggestion to feel a pang of disgust whenever they read an arbitrary word. Once this association was set up they were asked to read a variety of fictional vignettes some involving transgressions and others without any transgressions. For instance in the below

Dan is a student council representative at his school. This semester he is in charge of scheduling discussions about academic issues. He [tries to take] <often picks> topics that appeals to both professors and students in order to stimulate discussion.

Subjects that had been primed to associate disgust with otherwise neutral words judged Dan to be doing something wrong, or something weird or disgusting, and not to be trusted. Subjects groped for reasons to justify their judgments and would do everything but admit that they just felt that the situation was wrong and that was all there was to it.

Joyce takes such studies to give evidence that what causes our moral judgements are our emotional reaction to a situation and that these emotional reactions make that that situation appear to us as if it contained some objective property that made the situation morally wrong. Since in the situations described there is no property that makes the situation wrong these examples support projectivism – the idea that our emotional reactions are projected onto the world to make it seem like the world contained properties like moral rightness and wrongness.


It strikes me that in order to understand peoples moral judgement that the incest case is wrong when they have no reason to think that it is wrong we must understand that the incest case is actually morally permissible (absent any good reason to think that it is morally impermissible).  If so then it would only be by thinking that the scenario has this moral property of moral permissibility (absent reasons to the contrary) that we can understand others reactions to it as being mistaken and a form of post-hoc rationalisation as J Haidt (2001) describes it.  The same applies to the student council scenario.  However if this is correct then projectivism could be used as a tool for the moral realist to explain why people sometimes make incorrect moral judgements.

Further if projectivism applies to all moral judgements then we seem to lost the ability to pick out flaws in peoples reasoning like the above cases (and these certainly do look like flaws). We lost the ability to highlight such flaws because when all moral judgements are the result of projection they all become equally misguided. However the above scenarios rely on some moral judgements not being misguided in order to earn the dismissive title post hoc rationalisations.

Finally the claim that moral judgements are caused, at least in part, by emotional activity is neutral with regards to whether the content of those judgements is true or false and made true or false by moral facts.  Perhaps Joyce will say that the aetiology of our moral judgements makes them all suspect absent any reason to the contrary?



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2 Responses to Projectivism

  1. Ryo Chonabayashi says:

    Hi Julian,

    I’ve got two comments, one is about taxonomy of meta-ethics, another is about Joyce.

    I don’t think emotivism (or expressivism) is necessarily committed to the claim that there are no such moral properties in the world. I understand that emotivism or expressivism are theses about the nature of moral judgements. The emotivist claims that the cognitive state of moral judgements is the expression of our emotions towards certain states of affairs. This view does not need to imply that there are no such moral properties, though the proponent of emotivism typically argues that we do not have any good reason to believe in the existence of moral properties. David Copp recently suggests a position he calls ‘realist expressivism’. Regardless of the plausibility of his suggestion, I think, there is a logical space that an expressivist could hold a view that there are such real moral properties.

    I agree with you on the point that example cases Joyce gives do not support his thesis. Even if Joyce’s two claims (1) moral judgements are caused by our emotional reactions toward certain situations is true, and (2) the best explanation of our moral judgement about what Julie and Mark did and disgusted subjects’ judgement about Dan’s action is a projectivist one, are true, truths of these claims do not support the truth of ‘global projectivism’, though they might support the truth of ‘local projectivism’. By ‘global projectivism’, I mean that all our moral judgements are caused solely by our emotional attitudes, and the best explanation of all of our moral judgements is the projectivist explanation. By the word ‘local projectivism’, I mean that some of our moral judgements are caused solely by our emotional attitudes, and the best explanation of them is the projectivist one. I suppose Joyce ultimately wants to defend the truth of global projectivism, rather than of local projectivism.

    To defend ‘global projectivism’, I think, Joyce needs to take some cases typically the people in the realist camp take. Some naturalistic moral realists typically suggest that some moral properties are causally relevant, and we need to mention moral properties in our best explanation of the phenomena we experience. For instance, the proponent of such a view would say that injustice of a country is causally relevant to people’s discontented. In this scenario, somebody who knows the state of the country very well could say that injustice of the country is causally relevant to people’s discontented (making a moral judgement), even if this person does not have any emotional attachment to the unfortunate situation of the country, and we do not see any causal relation between his emotional reactions towards the situation and his moral judgement. I am wondering what Joyce would say about such a case.


    • Yes, I didn’t realise that there was conceptual space between emotivism and the existence of moral properties but I see it now thanks. 😀

      I totally agree with what you say about Joyce and local and global projectivism too.
      [I did think the Haidt paper on the psychology of moral judgement making was interesting though]

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