Sunday, March 23, 2008

Moral Skepticism - Part II

The other excellent book dealing (in part) with moral skepticism I wanted to talk about is Richard Joyce's The Evolution of Morality (MIT Press, 2006). Joyce examines whether morality is innate in the sense of whether it ‘can be given adaptive explanation in genetic terms: whether the present-day existence of the trait is to be explained by reference to a genotype having granted our ancestors reproductive advantage’ (2). Joyce arrives at the conclusion that morality is innate, although he recognizes that the empirical evidence available does not allow us to draw a conclusion with any certainty, so that one cannot completely rule out the possibility that moral thinking is a culturally generated capacity. He thus endorses only provisionally, as a plausible and testable hypothesis, the view that morality is an adaptation produced by biological natural selection. What are the metaethical implications of accepting the evolutionary hypothesis? He maintains that this hypothesis shows that our moral beliefs are, not false, but epistemically unjustified, i.e., to accept that our tendency to make moral judgments is the product of biological natural selection leads, not to moral nihilism, but to moral agnosticism: we cannot say whether moral beliefs are true or false. The reason is that it is possible that the formation of beliefs about moral rightness and wrongness may have served to enhance our ancestors’ fitness independently of whether there existed any moral properties or facts.

It is worth noting that Joyce is not himself a moral agnostic but a moral nihilist. I think that a manifestation of his moral nihilism is found in his adoption of moral projectivism as a plausible and testable hypothesis, since this metaethical position denies the existence of moral properties or facts. Now, given his claim that the thesis of morality being the result of natural selection suggests moral projectivism, it appears that the provisional acceptance of that thesis would lead to moral nihilism rather than to moral agnosticism. This is why I perceive a certain vacillation in Joyce as to what metaethical implications may be drawn from the evolutionary hypothesis.

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