The Myth of Morality

The Myth of Morality

The Myth of Morality

The Myth of Morality

Synopsis

Richard Joyce argues in this study that moral discourse is hopelessly flawed. At the heart of ordinary moral judgments is a notion of moral inescapability, or practical authority, which, upon investigation, cannot be reasonably defended. He asserts, moreover, that natural selection is to blame, in that it has provided us with a tendency to invest the world with values that it does not contain, and demands that it does not make. This original and innovative book will appeal to readers interested in the problems of moral philosophy.

Excerpt

This book attempts to accomplish two tasks. The first part of the book examines moral discourse with a critical eye, and finds the discourse fundamentally flawed. Just what it means for a discourse to be “flawed” will need to be carefully discussed. For the moment, it will do to compare the situation with that of phlogiston discourse. Through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the dominant theory for explaining a variety of phenomena – most notably combustion – was to posit a kind of invisible substance in the world: phlogiston. The theory allowed for various chemists, such as Stahl and Priestley, to employ what might be called “phlogiston discourse” – they asserted things like “Phlogiston is lighter than air, ” “Soot is made up largely of phlogiston, ” etc. In the eighteenth century Lavoisier showed that this discourse was utterly mistaken: there simply was no such stuff as phlogiston. I wish to argue that our moral discourse is mistaken in an analogous way. We assert things like “Generally speaking, you mustn't tell lies” and “Cloning humans is a terrible thing and mustn't be permitted, ” and these assertions fail to be true. They fail to be true not because lying or cloning are really okay, but because they employ predicates like “… is forbidden” and “… is morally good” which are (in senses to be explored) vacuous. Roughly, when one reflects carefully on what it would take for an action to instantiate a property like being morally forbidden, one sees that too much is being asked of the world – there is simply nothing that is forbidden in the specifically moral sense of the word. The thought that morality is a fiction in this way is hardly an original thought, enjoying a long history that can be traced back through Camus, Wittgenstein, Russell, Nietzsche, Hume, Mandeville, Hobbes, and all the way to Antiphon and characters like Callicles and Thrasymachus.

Many pieces of our moral vocabulary, of course, have non-moral uses (moving one's rook diagonally in chess is forbidden); this non-moral language is not under attack. A further part of the project will be to argue that the obvious response of simply “asking less of the world” – that is, of . . .

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