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The Evolution of MoralityReview - The Evolution of Morality
by Richard Joyce
MIT Press, 2006
Review by Christina Behme, MSc
Jul 18th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 29)

Richard Joyce introduces the two tasks of his book as: (i) to address the question 'is morality innate?' (chapters 1-4) and, assuming that it is, (ii) to evaluate the philosophical implications for moral realism and skepticism (chapters 5/6). Joyce attempts to synthesize interdisciplinary research results into a sketch of a philosophical viewpoint. He asks specifically 'whether morality (under some specification) can be given an adaptive explanation in genetic terms' (p. 2). For the purpose of his book morality will be understood as the capacity of humans to make moral judgments.

Chapter one, 'The Natural Selection of Helping', deals with the question of whether or not moral behavior (frequently perceived as giving up selfish advantage in favor of other-serving action) could have been selected for. Before tackling this question Joyce provides a clarification of the, often confused, terms 'helping', 'fitness sacrificing' and 'altruism' (p.13ff). The main task of the chapter 'is to outline the evolutionary processes that may lead to the development of helping behaviour' (p.19) and Joyce discusses in some detail how kin selection could have contributed mechanisms that prompt helpful behavior towards kin. Some of these mechanisms are the principles of mutualism: organisms engage in non-reciprocal cooperative behavior to achieve ends which they could not achieve alone, direct reciprocity: providing a benefit to another individual in expectation of future 'payback', indirect reciprocity: gaining, and profiting from, a reputation as 'reliable partner' in reciprocal exchanges and group selection: groups that contain some helpful individuals have a selective advantage over groups that are exclusively composed of selfish individuals. Joyce provides numerous examples from game theory (prisoners’ dilemma scenarios occupy 5 pages) to recent neuroscientific findings to support his conclusion that helpful organisms enjoy an evolutionary advantage over selfish ones.

Chapter two, 'The Nature of Morality', explores the possibility that the 'neural mechanisms for regulating the mother-offspring bond…in the mammalian brain' (p.46) lay at the root of human morality. Joyce argues that helping one’s offspring, which is a biological necessity for human survival, can be seen as the first step towards developing a tendency to help others (kin and eventually unrelated humans) and a willingness to punish those who refuse to help or take selfish advantage of others. Creatures that make moral judgments need a capacity to understand prohibitions (p.50). While Joyce rejects Ayer’s pure non-cognitivism he merely skirts the ongoing philosophical debate regarding the ontological and epistemic status of moral facts. He defines moral judgments as speech acts that 'express … beliefs and conative non-belief states' (p.56) and have a high degree of 'practical clout' (p.57). Moral judgments are inescapable -- they apply to a person irrespective of her ends -- and they have authority (it would be irrational to ignore them, p.62). Joyce further provides a detailed discussion of the subject matter of moral judgments, moral desert, and wraps up the chapter reiterating seven characteristic points of moral judgments (p.70).

In chapter three, 'Moral Language and Moral Emotions', Joyce argues that moral concepts require (human) language and that therefore only humans are moral animals. He cites research by primatologist Frans de Waal showing that non-human apes can distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behavior but lack the capacity to formulate and communicate abstract normative rules (p.77). Joyce distinguishes between three senses of ought: (i) the ought of expectation (it should rain tomorrow), (ii) the hypothetical ought (if you want to achieve X you ought to do Y) and (iii) the moral ought (you ought not to steal). He argues that some animals may have the cognitive capacity required for (i) and (ii) but denies that a creature without human language can truly acquire (iii). This is not because moral concepts are too abstract or too complex but because only language users can evaluate whether or not the normative standards they employ are justified (p.82). Joyce provides some clarifications concerning realism and instrumentalism about moral beliefs without taking sides in the debate and then presents Robin Dunbar’s hypothesis of language evolution as support for his claim that 'an important evolutionary function of language is to convey certain types of social evaluative content' (p.92). He further claims that language is necessary for some morally motivating emotions (predominantly guilt which is 'central to the moral conscience', p.105). It seems that this view would commit Joyce to disagree with Temple Grandin (2005, p.258f) who holds that language-less people, like Ildefonso, have morality even though they clearly lack the required concepts ('just' and 'unjust' in Grandin’s example). Thus, Joyce’s commitment might be too stringent.

Chapter four, 'The Moral Sense', attempts to answer the questions (i) why might a moral sense be adaptive and (ii) how did a moral sense evolve (p.108). In answer to the why question Joyce claims that moral judgments can be fitness enhancing when they affect the motivation to act (or to refrain from acting) in certain ways. Moral judgments can regulate an individual’s behavior, especially in cases where prudence may falter, and allow others to evaluate this individual as a potential partner in co-operative actions. Joyce does not think his view commits him to the claim that humans evolved to be unconditional cooperators; rather, that 'there are adaptive benefits to be had by moralizing the whole plastic social structure' (p. 118). Moral judgments, as effective personal commitments, will provide an effective motivational bulwark. Additionally, moral emotions signal interpersonal commitments. Regarding the 'how' question Joyce admits that the ideal answer, which would be given in neurological and genetic terms, still eludes us (p. 124). As an alternative he offers a philosophical metaphor: moral projectivism. Empirical evidence suggests that there is a strong link between moral deliberation and emotional capacity (Joyce cites the famous Phineas Gage case) and Joyce claims that evolution could have generated a mechanism by which certain qualities that appear to be in the world, like the moral wrongness of killing an infant, 'owe this appearance to the nature of the perceiver’s mental life' (p.126). Joyce is careful to distinguish this projectivism from non-cognitivism and claims that the former is supported by moral phenomenology: the view that moral properties seem to be in the world, etiology: the claim that moral appearances are caused largely by moral activity, and by the, assumed, fact that we have no evidence to suggest that a moral sense functions to detect genuine moral facts; if moral judgment were a matter of detecting moral facts then intractable moral disagreement would be inexplicable. Joyce provides evidence from archeology, biology, child psychology and anthropology to bolster his evolutionary 'just-so story'. Even though I agree with him that 'the fact that we do not know the complete answer…should stimulate our inquiry rather than nourish suspicion that [morality is] not the direct product of natural selection' (p. 133) I am not entirely convinced that he provided enough evidence to 'declare the first task of the book [to show that the human capacity to make moral judgments is the result of biological natural selection] complete' (p.142).

Chapter five, 'The Evolutionary Vindication of Morality' would have been titled more appropriately 'The Failed Attempts of an Evolutionary Vindication of Morality' because Joyce claims to demonstrate how evolutionary moral naturalism -- the attempt by prescriptive evolutionary ethicists to vindicate morality by appealing to evolution,-- fails. Before doing this Joyce clarifies the difference between some philosophical 'classics': Moore’s naturalistic fallacy and open question argument, and Hume’s claim that it is impossible to derive an 'ought' from an 'is'. While this clarification seems justified it appears rather strange to use another classic (the logical rule of inference that everything follows from a contradiction) to 'prove' that, pace Hume, one can derive an 'ought' from an 'is':

P1: Paris is the capital of France and it is not the case that Paris is the capital of France.

Therefore: You ought not steal bananas (p. 153).

Joyce admits that this perfectly valid proof is somewhat odd but flippantly asks: 'Who cares?' (Ibid.). I care, because if we accept the above argument we also have to accept:

P1: Paris is the capital of France and it is not the case that Paris is the capital of France.

Therefore: It is impossible to derive an 'ought' from an 'is'.

Thus, the logical trick got us nowhere, and the philosophically inexperienced reader is left wondering whether or not he can legitimately derive an 'ought' from an 'is'. Next, Joyce evaluates the theories of Robert Richards (1986), Richmond Campbell (1996), Daniel Dennett (1995), and William Casebeer (2003) and judges that they all fail to provide an evolutionary vindication of morality. Some readers may agree with this final verdict but Joyce’s arguments are not always convincing. For example he presents Campbell’s view extremely uncharitable to the degree of distortion. The tennis player example (p.162) is incorrect because, according to Campbell[1], Kate’s belief that she is the greatest tennis player could only be justified if Kate also believed that the criterion by which we judge tennis players is 'who wears the prettiest dress to the match'. However, even though she might in fact wear the prettiest dress, this is not the standard by which we judge tennis players and, according to Campbell, her belief, while providing pleasure to her, would be an unjustified belief. Further, since Joyce does not indicate that Kate had a special standard for judging what a good tennis player is her belief would be simply unjustified, in Campbell’s view. This makes sense because, from an evolutionary perspective, there could be no justification for beliefs that 'ignore reality' in the way Kate's belief does: our hypothetical distant ancestor Roy might derive some pleasure from the belief 'I can outrun any lion' but Roy would probably not survive long with such a belief and Roylike creatures would not leave any offspring who could pass on their disposition for reality ignoring self-indulgence. Thus, a disposition to ignore (external) reality in favor of (internal) pleasure may never evolve because it could not be selected for. This may in turn confirm that a purely hedonistic moral theory of the form 'any belief is justified as long as an agent derives pleasure from it' is not a justifiable moral standard. Here is not the place to evaluate whether or not Campbell’s theory can vindicate morality, but if it does fail it is not for the reasons Joyce adduces.

Chapter six, 'The Evolutionary Debunking of Morality', provides positive arguments for Joyce’s view that moral beliefs lack epistemic justification. He conceives of a thought experiment concerning belief pills (p.180f) and claims natural selection would have a similar effect on our moral belief system as these imaginary pills. The essential claim is that it might have 'been useful for our ancestors to form beliefs concerning rightness and wrongness independently of the existence of rightness and wrongness' (p.183). Joyce is careful to avoid the non-cognitivist conclusion but asserts that for the usefulness of moral beliefs it is irrelevant whether or not moral facts exist[2]. He claims that moral naturalism cannot overcome what he calls Harman’s (1977, 1986) challenge: the claim that there could be a complete explanation of moral judgments that 'neither presupposes moral facts nor acts as a reductive base of moral facts' (p.186). It seems that Joyce’s argument rests mainly on his assertion that naturalistic moral facts could not 'provide the inescapable authority we apparently expect and require of moral values' (p. 191, original emphasis). Again, some of Joyce’s analogies seem questionable. He attempts to demonstrate the difference between the 'practical clout' of etiquette and morality by imagining himself 'to eat like a pig in front of the TV' (p.202), in the privacy of his home; and compares this with the imagined case of Jack wanting to murder John 'at the edge of an abandoned well shaft in the middle of a dark and lonely moor' (p.203). Joyce claims we would agree that he could violate the rules of etiquette if he desired to do so: his desire would outweigh any obligation arising from etiquette, while in Jack’s case we would have contrary intuitions: moral obligations should override Jack’s desire. Therefore, morality has a qualitatively different 'practical clout'. I think the reason we have different intuitions is simply that in Jack’s case another human being, John, is directly affected by the imagined act. I doubt that an immoral act that affects no one, if such an act is even possible, is any more reprehensible than a violation of etiquette that affects no one. However, an unfortunately chosen example does not disprove the point it was supposed to support. Whether or not Joyce’s main point concerning the status of moral facts is correct remains a matter of heated philosophical debate.

Overall Joyce has written a thought provoking book. He provides a good selection of relevant literature for the reader interested in questions of morality and evolution. The work would possibly have profited from fewer but more carefully analyzed examples. And a more neutral language in reference to natural selection would have been desirable. '[F]ar more…than natural selection ever dreamed of' (p.22), 'natural selection loves to kill two birds with one stone' (p.95), 'why would natural selection bother with that mechanism?' (p.114), 'the function that natural selection had in mind' (p.131), 'natural selection has taken a direct interest in…' (p.180), are only a few examples of language use that attributes purpose to a process that has been acknowledged as purpose-free by virtually all biologist. At best this language is careless; at worst it creates unjustified expectations regarding the ‘products’ of natural selection. This is an important issue because if it turns out that human morality is the result of natural selection then we will need to answer the question whether we could expect a mechanism that produces 'inescapable practical authority' (p.199, emphasis added) or merely a mechanism that provides more practical authority than other (evolutionary possible) mechanisms. Much work remains to be done before we can answer this question and either agree or disagree with Joyce (p.209) that no form of moral naturalism can account for the practical clout of moral judgments, the core desideratum of any moral theory.



Campbell, R. (1996). Can Biology Make Ethics Objective? Biology and Philosophy 11. 21-31.

Campbell, R. (2003). Feminist Epistemology Naturalized in Nelson, L. and Nelson, J., (Eds.), Feminist Interpretations of W. V. Quine. Pennsylvania State University Press.

Campbell, R. and Woodrow, J. (2003). Why Moore's Open Question Is Open: The Evolution of Moral Supervenience. Journal of Value Inquiry 37, 353-372.

Grandin, T. (2005). Animals in Translation. Scribner.

Joyce, R. (2001). The Myth of Morality. Cambridge University Press.


2006 Christina Behme


Christina Behme, MSc (1986, Biology, University Rostock, Germany), MA (2005, Philosophy, Dalhousie University) is currently a PhD student in the philosophy department at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Her research interests are philosophy of mind and psychology, cognitive science, and philosophy of language.


[1] I am indebted to Richmond Campbell for discussing his view in detail with me. That Joyce incorrectly ‘classifies’ him as pure non-cognitivist can be confirmed in several publications for example “Moral Epistemology” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: on-line at 2003 edition.

[2] This seems to be only a slight variation of the error theory defended by Joyce in 2001.


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