Joyce as a Moral Anatomist

The cover illustration for Richard Joyce’s elegant and powerful recent work, The Evolution of Morality, is a reproduction of an oddly fascinating and disturbing sixteenth-century engraving, the Anatomia del corpo humano. One has to examine the image for a minute to realize that the standing human figure, stripped of skin, and with muscles, tendons and joints revealed, holds the anatomist’s knife in his left hand and that, with his right, he holds up the single piece of skin, from bearded face to dangling extremities, that had once covered his body. This is the anatomist self-flayed, revealed to inspection by his own knife. A double worry is suggested: the body without the skin may have surprising, or disquieting, features. There is no assurance that what is revealed will accord with our preconceptions. Additionally, there is the thought that only the artist’s magic, freezing a moment in time, permits the body to maintain its integrity. In reality, the body of the self-flayer would collapse and die in short order. Richard Joyce similarly undertakes to wield the analytic knife of science and philosophy to cut away the surface appearance of the moral sense and see what lies beneath. Again, what we find may be surprising or disquieting. Beneath the surface, we find the once-hidden articulation of the moral sensibility. We see its parts, how they are connected, how one links to another. And we may also suspect or fear that what remains cannot long stand inspection in such a state. It may be, indeed, that “we murder to dissect.” And if so, then like the self-flayer, we are ourselves the victims.
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