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The Evolution of Morality (Life and Mind: Philosophical Issues in Biology and Psychology)

3.8 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0262600729
ISBN-10: 0262600722
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Editorial Reviews

Review

Joyce's book is brilliant. There is nothing more important than knowing what we are doing when we speak in the language of value. We are animals that judge with cognitve and affective equipment. Joyce explains who we are. Nothing matters more.

(Owen Flanagan, James B. Duke Professor of Philosophy, Duke University)

Morality is often considered the opposite of human nature: our main tool to keep human nature in check. Yet the moral sense likely evolved along with the rest of human sociality. Exploring this evolutionary angle, Richard Joyce provides a revealing philosopher's account of what makes us moral primates.

(Frans de Waal, author of Our Inner Ape)

Why do humans not just help each other and feel bad when they harm each other but also make specifically moral judgments about helping and harming? I know of no better discussion of this central question than Joyce's admirably clear, concise, and critical survey. Joyce's answer and his arguments will challenge philosophers and move the debates to new levels.

(Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Professor of Philosophy and Hard Professor of Legal Studies, Dartmouth College)

Joyce's approach is refreshing, and he wears his learning lightly...[He] does an excellent job of bringing philosophy to the ordinary reader, using striking and quirky examples of different moral judgements...His bold, jargon-free approach means that this work is serious philosophy can nonetheless by understood by the non-philosophically trained layperson.

(Matthew Cobb Times Literary Supplement)

In his enjoyable and informative book The Evolution of Morality, Richard Joyce distinguishes between explaining how natural selection might explain socially useful behavior in animals and what more is needed to explain morality, with its thoughts about right or wrong, in human beings. Contrary to what others have said, Joyce argues plausibly that, to the extent that our moral concepts and opinions are the results of natural selection, there is no rational basis for these concepts and opinions.

(Gilbert Harman, Department of Philosophy, Princeton University)

This book is a tour de force, synthesizing disparate literatures into a pleasing whole. Joyce's writing is clear, articulate, and enjoyable, and his presentation masterful.

(William D. Casebeer, Associate Professor of Philosophy, U.S. Air Force Academy)

About the Author

Richard Joyce is Professor of Philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington.

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Product Details

  • Series: Life and Mind: Philosophical Issues in Biology and Psychology
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: MIT Press (August 24, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262600722
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262600729
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #405,319 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on September 3, 2006
Format: Hardcover
"Morality", that sense of doing good, or at least avoiding harm, to others is one of humanity's treasured phrases. It is one of the characteristics that supposedly sets us apart from the other animals. We use the values imparted to it in judging others, as we are judged in turn. However, it remains an enigmatic term, carrying a host of definitions. And that's not counting the exceptions. Richard Joyce, for all his assertive title, isn't claiming to have the final word on morality. Instead, he's launching a project with areas of study that should be investigated further. Only one thing he insists on - as a product of evolution by natural selection, human beings will find the origins of that valued concept in our biological heritage.

Joyce's treatise is tightly organised. Given he addresses this complex idea in just over two hundred pages, discipline with words is a must. There are but six chapters in which to deal with questions plaguing our species since at least the invention of writing. In that short stack, he ties anthropology, sociology, evolutionary psychology and other fields together in a very neat package. Even such a short presentation doesn't force him to be terse. The material is clearly presented and sprinklings of wit keep it from bogging the reader down. However, the proposals are carefully, if succinctly, offered and the reader's attention must not flag.

Since "morality" hinges on the interactions between humans [other animals, whatever their behaviour traits, are deemed "amoral"] the key in Joyce's analysis is "reciprocity". Reciprocity hinges on a host of factors, from the genetic proximity of relatives to what kind of reputation one has - even across a large group.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Moral philosophers tend to take the content of morality as given, perhaps by intuition or our cultural heritage, and attempt to derive moral truth from a sparse set of assumptions, such a utilitarianism (Bentham, Mill), virtue theory (Aristotle), or synthetic a priori deontological notions (Kant). Other philosophers attempt to derive valid moral rules themselves on the basis of a neo-Platonic foray into the juggling of abstract universals (Rawls, Nozick, Singer, Dworkin). Perhaps I betray my position as a behavioral scientist by believing that morals are things that people have, like noses and tendencies to procrastinate, and should be studied scientifically rather than philosophically. Happily, I am not alone, however, as Richard Joyce takes the same position in his book, The Evolution of Morality.

Joyce recites the extensive body of evidence showing that there is a universal human morality observed in virtually all societies ever studied, including the thousand or so primitive hunter-gather societies that exist in the contemporary world. Of course, there are also strong contrasts in some moral principles across societies, but these tend to be confined to a few delicate areas, including gender relations and political philosophy, and they can doubtless be explained by level of economic development and political integration. But, if this is the case, it is unlikely that "ethical theory" can stand as a bastion of philosophizing. Rather, ethical theory is the study of the structure and evolution of human morality. This is the "moral skepticism" that Joyce embraces, and it is well taken.
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Format: Paperback
This book puts forth an argument that I think will have to be dealt with for a long time to come. It essentially takes what we know about Natural Selection and asks what this tells us about the reliability of our moral beliefs. The answer is not very flattering for our moral beliefs.

Yes more work will need to be done in this area. The author does not claim to close the case but is more of the inclination that he is opening the case. So the book is not exhaustive of every possible approach one might take when dealing with this issue. However, when Joyce does go down a line of thought, he does so with clarity. Chapter 5 dealing with those who think evolution actually vindicates our moral beliefs is, alone, worth the price of the book. The author makes short work of sorting out the ambiguities that cloud the thinking here. In doing this, he not only points out the critical flaws in much of what has been previously written on this topic, but he informs the reader how to spot many of the ambiguities that repeatedly come up in this discourse.
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Richard Joyce has written the best review I have seen of the topic indicated in the title, and I highly recommend it on that basis. It was the conclusion of the book that I initially found hard to grasp, and then found incredibly radical and subversive. (I takes a lot to get me to use those terms, as I consider myself to be an atheist, a humanist, a liberal, and a progressive.) I am also a sociologist, and I have long been comfortable with the idea that there are no objective moral truths and that moral judgements should be made relative to the norms and values of a particular society and culture. I would argue that moral relativism is not at all the same thing as moral nihilism, which is the attitude that all moral beliefs are false and no actions are either morally right or morally wrong. For instance, I would judge Hitler by the moral standards of his own culture, and particularly by the moral standards of the Nazis' favorite philosopher, Frederick Nietzsche. Nietzsche, the famous "immoralist," vehemently condemned militarism, statism, nationalism, and anti-Semitism.

Joyce argues that the human tendency to believe that there are morally right and morally wrong actions is a natural, innate, evolved characteristic of our species. He also argues that there is no objective basis for believing that anything at all is morally right or wrong. Such a belief cannot be tested empirically, as a statement of fact can. Therefore he says we should be skeptical of all such beliefs. He denies that he is a morally nihilist, and claims that he is simply a moral skeptic.
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