Perhaps you have heard the story. "Telling Right From Wrong," the author's first book, was to have been published last year by Random House, in some measure on the strength of a recommendation it had received from the noted philosopher Robert Nozick. Then Random House learned it was no recommendation at all but a forgery, committed by Timothy J. Cooney in hope of finding a publisher for his manuscript. Faced with the prospect of considerable embarrassment, Random House thereupon removed the book from its schedule; Cooney himself was severely criticized by, among others, Robert Nozick.

Yet there was considerable feeling that the chief victim of the scandal, apart from Cooney's reputation, was a worthwhile manuscript. So now comes Prometheus Books, a small publisher in Buffalo, to the rescue. Not merely has it brought out the book, it has taken the unusual step of prefacing it with a "Publisher's Note" that concludes: "No doubt it will be perplexing to the reader to learn that an author who writes so eloquently on moral philosophy should violate his own principles. In spite of this, we firmly believe that 'Telling Right From Wrong' is an insightful, thought-provoking and controversial book that deserves to be published."

Perhaps so, though it is difficult to avoid the comment that the book almost certainly would have received scant notice had it been published without benefit of notoriety. It is a work of amateur philosophy -- its author has no formal training to speak of and has, at the age of 56, an exceedingly curious career behind him -- written in a prose that falls, not very comfortably, somewhere between jargon and plain style. Especially in its first half, it contains some interesting arguments and ideas; but overall its tone is so contentious that even the most sympathetic reader may be alienated.

The title is misleading: "Toward a New Theory of Morality," or some such, would more accurately represent what Cooney is trying to do. At the risk of greatly oversimplifying the complex argument advanced in the first 75 pages, Cooney suggests that "a quite precise definition" of morality is "an ultimate and universal guide to action." The question, though -- the one that has given fits to philosophers and theologians for centuries -- is whether there is indeed any such guide and, if there is, what is its foundation.

Cooney proposes an answer. He believes that the only verifiable source of moral truth -- of the difference, that is, between "right and wrong," "good and bad," "moral and immoral" -- is the "shared desire" of the community about decisions involving two or more individuals. In the case of nonmoral judgment, he argues (and here I reduce his case to its barest bones) that we make what he unhelpfully calls "hybrid statements" in forming everyday decisions that help us fulfil our desires.

A sample of a hybrid statement is, "Jones is the wrong man for the job," made by one bank employe to another after learning that Jones, the applicant, is a two-time embezzler. This is not a moral judgment but a reflection of the shared desire of the two employes not to be fired, not to risk the bank's stability, not to be ridiculed or embarrassed. It is a desire that is verifiable by the simple fact that both men share it -- just as comparable desires can be verified by the near-universality with which larger groups or communities or nations hold them.

Similarly, when Cooney turns to moral judgments he proposes a "primary code" and a "secondary code." The first arises from "the generally shared desire to stay alive" and thus proscribes murder, robbery, arson, assault and pollution -- acts or conditions that threaten the actual survival of the community. In this primary code morality "is an ultimate and universal guide to action and is, in fact, the desire that everything not be destroyed." But there is a clear distinction between this code, which affects people in groups of two or more, and the secondary code, which affects acts that "would not cause the destruction of the group if we allowed one person to do them freely."

This, Cooney argues, is not a moral code at all but a political one, and within the system he has established no acts -- prostitution, abortion, divorce, what have you -- can be described as "right" or "wrong" because they do not threaten to destroy the community. To proscribe these and similar acts is politically legitimate, he contends, if that is the community consensus; but to proscribe them in the name of morality, of "right," is "dangerous, for we confuse the true nature of morality and close the door to compromise even as we open the door to a bloodbath of moral righteousness."

Contrary to the rather large claims Cooney makes for this argument, it is not exactly new; essentially he has stated an old distinction in a new way, and given it an apocalyptic twist ("mankind's most tragic mistake") that borders on the hysterical. But he's right that the interjection of specious moral claims into political, cultural, social and legal matters seriously muddies the waters and unnecessarily polarizes the community. His path to that conclusion, as outlined in "Telling Right From Wrong," is carefully and imaginatively charted, which makes it all the more a pity that he chose to press his case by means of a reprehensible and indefensible act.