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 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.
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.
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.