The Evolution of Morality Book Review part 1

The Evolution of Morality by Richard Joyce part 1

Joyce’s book is in two parts. The first part argues for the thesis that humans have an innate disposition to make moral judgements and that the present day existence of such a trait is because it passed on a reproductive advantage to our ancestors who had the trait. Joyce compares the disposition to acquire and make moral judgements with the disposition to acquire and speak a language. There are many different moralities that have been and are in existence but they have a common concern in being to guide inter-personal relations and concern themselves with negative appraisals of hurting others, values relating to reciprocity and fairness, behavioural requirements surrounding hierarchies and status, as well as regulations regarding bodily matters dominated by concepts such as purity and pollution. They have a common structure in consisting of categorical reasons for action. Just as there are many different languages in existence they share commonalities by which they all count as language and require the existence of innate learning mechanisms.

Joyce argues that an evolutionary explanation of morality has something to do with the benefit that someone who acts out of concerns for justice, virtue or respects the rights of others is likely to be a more useful member of society than someone who does not. However, Joyce warns that it is a mistake to think that an evolutionary explanation of pro-social traits that other animals might be said to have also explains the existence of morality. This is because:

To do something because you want to do it, is very different from doing it because you judge that you ought to do it. We can easily imagine a community of people who all have the same desires: They all want to live in peace and harmony, and violence is unheard of. Everywhere you look there are friendly, loving people, oozing prosocial emotions. However there is no reason to think that there is a moral judgement in sight.

Joyce p.50

Joyce then distinguishes doing something from pro-social emotions such as concern for your family or love of your spouse from doing something because you judge that you ought to do it. As such if we have an explanation of why humans have altruistic tendencies we do not as yet have an explanation of why humans have moral attitudes. The difference is in terms of understanding the concept of prohibition: that some things ought not to be done regardless of whether you desire to do them or not.

This raises the question ‘What is a moral Judgement?’ to which Joyce responds by noting that there are numerous grey areas whereby philosophers and all concerned are unsure about whether a moral judgement has occurred for instance when a psychopath claims that murder is wrong but has no motivation to comply. Also there is a dispute about what sort of things people are doing when they express moral judgements such murder is wrong. Are they reporting facts, expressing commands, or simply expressing their feelings?

Joyce’s answer to these questions is to say that when we make linguistic utterances such as ‘murder is wrong’ we are not asking what sort of mental state causes me to express this because people can quite easily express the same sort of linguistic utterances from a variety of different motivational factors. For instance in promising to repay a debt I may be motivated out of fear of the consequences, concern to do my duty, love of another but what I do which is promise to repay my debt is still the same. Joyce illustrates the distinction between the type of speech act performed and its cause with the example of an apology. When someone gives an apology for something they have done they express regret but it is perfectly possible that they did not feel any regret at all. What they are doing is following a range of linguistic conventions for the expression “I’m sorry”.  As such someone can admit to having regret without thereby apologising and apologise without having regret (for which we might call them insincere but we cannot deny that they have in fact apologised)

However Joyce also subscribes to the following principle:

If a type of sentence S, uttered in circumstances C, functions to express mental state M, we would expect that someone in C who utters a token of S should prompt confusion in her audience if she immediately added “but I don’t have M”. If, then, we observe such confusion for some particular instantiations of S, C, and M, and no other obvious explanation of this confusion is forthcoming, we should take it as evidence that S functions to express M in C.

Joyce p.54.

Now if we consider sentences such as “Sorry. But I don’t regret it for a moment” Joyce claims that such statements would cause bafflement because “Sorry” is the term used to express regret and the following statement makes it clear that the person has no regret. The latter statement appears to nullify what is expressed in the first one. On this model the following moral judgements should strike us as odd for the same reasons:

1 The Elgin marbles morally ought to be returned to Greece. But I do not believe that they ought to be returned to Greece.

2 Hitler was despicably evil. But I don’t believe that he was despicable evil.

3 The Elgin marbles morally ought to be returned to Greece. But I subscribe to no moral standard that commends their return to Greece.

4 Hitler was despicably evil. But I subscribe to no moral standard that condemns his character or actions.

In each case the first statement is part of a linguistic convention that expresses what a person believes and expresses acceptance of a convention that commends or condemns the activity in question where as the latter statement says that the person does not have any such commendation/condemnation.

In addition and more controversially Joyce also takes moral statements to express standards or general principles. Do we express general principles when making moral judgements? If we think of how moral judgements supervene on non-moral facts then this might seem plausible. For instance if we judge Tom to be a morally good person because he helps old ladies with their shopping then we should also judge Judy to be a morally good person if she also carries out the same action and likewise for anyone else in a similar situation. On such a view there might be said to be a general principle that is underpinning our moral judgments but that this is so is far from clear and needs further argument.

So for Joyce moral judgements are assertions and express beliefs about moral facts about peoples characters and what they have reason to do (regardless of whether they in fact desire to do what is morally required). However Joyce also takes moral judgements to express our sentiments, our feelings of approval and disapproval. The term ‘express’ here is not meant to denote a causal relation but what type of linguistic act is expressed when making a moral judgement.

In addition to expressing beliefs and attitudes moral judgements are also seen as expressing or giving reasons for action. The sorts of reasons that moral judgements have are categorical imperatives. Joyce holds that this requirement seems to be central to any system of morality. A categorical imperative is contrasted with a hypothetical imperative – a recommendation that you take certain means to achieve your end such as ‘if you want to be home by tea time then you had better start walking now’ the force of such advice is entirely dependent on the person having the relevant desire of wanting to be home by tea time. By contrast categorical imperatives such as ‘Do not kill innocent people’ are said to have a force or be binding regardless of what desires the person has. In other words a person cannot excuse themselves from the requirement not to kill innocent people by citing their lack of care for innocent people’s lives.

All cultures recognise certain acts of harming others as wrong, but no culture thinks that the wrongness of all such acts depends upon a primary harm that the perpetrator does by frustrating his own ends…Moral Inescapability is the quality had by categorical imperatives (including institutional rules, such as etiquette): of being legitimately applied to a person irrespective of her ends.

Joyce 61-62

However Joyce expresses some sympathy with the Kantian idea that there is something additional required by morality that is not captured within norms of etiquette or other forms of non-categorical imperatives. For instance an institution that required its followers to die their hair purple, or to engage in certain ceremonies might be insisted upon and a dissenter might meet with the reply that there is nothing in the rules about whether they care about complying or not. Here it seems that people who do not care about such rules are free to ignore them if they wish. However the price of accepting this is that if the authority of morality is nothing other than a convention then people may be legitimately free to ignore it just as we are free to ignore cult members telling us to die our hair purple. If we are motivated to avoid this conclusion then we need to be motivated to find some additional source of the clout of morality other than convention. Whilst Joyce is adamant that the extra clout of morality does not come from fear of punishment (although punishment is an important component of any moral system in that we should hold transgressors as deserving of punishment) he claims that the question of where the additional clout of morality stems from can be accommodated in naturalistic terms which I will explain in part 2.


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3 Responses to The Evolution of Morality Book Review part 1

  1. Ryo Chonabayashi says:

    Thank you for this post and sorry for this late commenting!

    1. I am wondering what Joyce means when he claims that all moral judgements we see in different cultures have a common feature in consisting of categorical reasons for action. Does Joyce need to say that the people in a society which is arranged on the hedonist principle are not making any moral judgement? Consider such a case:

    In this society, all people believe that an action is good iff that action increases pleasures in general. I am a citizen in this society. I have a reason to keep my promise with my sister since if I break the promise, my sister will be disappointed, and I don’t desire my sister’s disappointment.

    Ultimately, my reason to keep the promise is, I suppose hypothetical: I have a desire to avoid my sister’s being disappointmed, and keeping the promise is the way to achieve this goal. I have a reason to take the action because of this contingent goal.

    2. Suppose what Joyce says is all true. Then, am I allowed to say as follows?

    a. I sincerely believe that Hitler is morally depraved since he killed so many people, and got rid of these people’s happiness.

    b. But, I ultimately don’t mind whether Hitler was morally depraved or not.

    I think he would say that we can accept (a) and (b) simply because by saying (b), I am still believing that Hitler in the history was actually morally depraved.

    You might feel this point is beside the point. But for me, it is an important point for my thesis. If Joyce would not happy about the acceptance of (a) and (b), I need to tackle him…


  2. Yep I think that hedonistic cultures (if there are any) would not count as making moral judgements if they only uttered hypothetical imperatives.

    To my ear A and B combined have a certain oddness about them. Joyce doesn’t talk about past tensed moral judgements – if they were in the present tense I think he, like expressivists would in general have a problem with them. The problem seems to be that you are using a phrase ‘morally depraved’ that is typically used to express disapproval and then saying that you don’t have such disapproval. It is like saying ‘I am sorry but I have no regret’. And I think Joyce would be tempted to quote Austin and say that these are sentences that ‘fail to get by’.

    I think past tensed moral judgements will get a different analysis because it does not strike me as rational to take a negative attitude towards an immoral act that someone has committed in the past in many cases. After all if the person is long dead then what point is there in expressing disapproval of what they did?

    However past tensed moral judgements regarding people long dead whom we care little are not the norm and so these types of examples will not get provide very fruitful for analysing current moral discourse whereby commenting that someone is morally depraved and adding but I have no disapproval towards what they do will look odd.

  3. I think the problem with someone saying:

    Hitler was morally depraved but I don’t care if he was morally depraved

    is that it treats moral judgement as if it were a species of judgements of taste. Such a statement sounds like:

    I don’t like asparagus, but I don’t care if you eat it.

    There is nothing odd or amiss about the above statement but moral claims sound odd when the person says that they don’t care about them. Consider: Life is sacred but I don’t care if you kill him. There sounds like something is amiss in this to me.

    How do we account for this oddness?

    We could say that the linguistic conventions used to make moral judgements typically express positive or negative affective states that encourage the person/and others to engage or not to engage in the said activity.

    So we might want to say someone who makes moral judgements without ever having had any intent to act in accordance with those judgements are not sincerely making moral judgements. They may be analogous to blind people who learn the conventions for applying colour predicates to objects and states of affairs in the world. As such they can learn the conventions of linguistic usage without fully understanding what the terms mean because they never have colour experiences.

    But the interest class of cases are surely those who are capable of making sincere moral judgements i,e, capable of making moral judgements that express affective states that they in fact possess so that in making their moral judgements they are motivated to act in accordance with it. For surely it is possible for such people to fail to be motivated to act in accord with what they judge to be right for a variety of reasons e.g depression etc.

    What do we say in these cases?

    Perhaps we could say that the difference between judgements of taste and moral judgements is that moral judgements express a world view or cultural norms about how others should live whereas judgements of taste (typically) do not? In other words moral judgements are other orientated and attempts to persuade others to agree with us whereas judgements of taste are not.

    But whatever we say to the above, the notion that moral judgements typically just express beliefs without expressing affective states sounds perverse to me – as perverse as someone saying life is sacred but I don’t give a damn if you kill him. Interestingly those with emotional deficits in areas of social emotions such as Psychopaths use moral language in strange ways like this. For instance Harre 93 documented those with emotional deficit in the prefrontal cortex and found that subjects reasoned as follows:

    When asked if he had ever committed a violent offense, … a man serving time for theft answered, “No, but I once had to kill someone.”

    Another commenting on his career in crime says “It had to do with my mother, the most beautiful person in the world. She was strong, worked hard to take care of the kids. ..I started stealing her jewellery when I was in the fifth grade. You know, I never really knew the bitch. ”

    Hare describes these cases as people with emotional deficits and as such they fail to recognise the linguistic conventions that evaluative terms possess. This because evaluative terms are typically affect laden. As a consequence their linguistic usage no longer follows norms that we are accustomed to. This view also coheres with that of Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis that shows how affect is used in learning at a pre-conscious level.

    Still the main point that I am labouring here is that to treat moral judgements as if they *only* expressed beliefs is to model moral language on those who use such language in very strange ways!

    Now my question to you is why would anyone take this sort of usage as the norm?!

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