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« Bio-Ethics Bites series launched | Main | Alison Gopnik on the Imagination »

June 04, 2011



There seems to be two reasonable ways to interpret Mikhail's thesis. On one interpretation, it is trivially true. On another, it is prima facie false.

It seems trivial on one interpretation because on that interpretation, what he is saying is just that normal humans have shared moral senses or moral intuitions. That seems obvious. Our evolution seems to favor such intuitions or senses.

On the second interpretation in which I take Mikhail literally, what he says is clearly false. Morality is not like language. It does not have a grammar properly speaking. If it does, Mikhail certainly has not demonstrated suggesting anything remotely of an analogy. In what ways does morality have properly speaking, a grammar? What are moral analogues to parts of speech, e.g.?

Demonstrating that children and people from around the world have similar moral intuitions or "senses" does not imply whatsoever they have a shared moral grammar. Take the fact that most people in the world have a shared taste in preferences for flavors. Most would prefer sweet to bitter etc. There is large overlap between desirable tastes and undesirable ones across cultures. But it makes no sense to say that preference in taste has grammar much as language has grammar.

John Mikhail

Thanks for your comment. The concept of a moral “grammar” operates both as a metaphor and as a technical concept with a fairly precise, stipulated meaning. It does not imply that morality is like language in every respect or that it has a grammar as much as, or in the same sense as, language has a grammar. Nor does it imply that something equivalent to “parts of speech” exists in the moral domain. It is not meant to be taken this literally.

Rather, the basic idea is simply that the best explanation of the properties of moral judgment must appeal to an unconscious rule system and explain how that system is acquired by each individual. The theory of moral cognition is thus usefully compared to the study of language in these respects. Further, various poverty of the stimulus considerations suggest that there may be a significant component of innate knowledge in both domains. Thus, one can and should draw a distinction between the acquired moral grammar of each individual and the universal moral grammar or innate knowledge of the species that makes this acquisition possible. From this perspective, one can perhaps make progress in solving the ancient philosophical problem of how moral knowledge is acquired.

The thesis that each normal individual possesses intuitive and perhaps even innate knowledge of specific rules of criminal law, torts, and other bodies of law is not trivial; on the contrary, it is a nontrivial, controversial hypothesis that goes well beyond the mere appeal to a shared moral sense. Likewise, the hypothesis goes beyond the often ambiguous, obscure and unsatisfying claims of the natural law tradition, according to which a universal conscience, moral faculty, or law of nature is engraved in the human mind. In my book, Elements of Moral Cognition, I use the trolley problems and other controlled thought experiments to argue that the moral grammar hypothesis, so understood, is conceptually plausible and supported by a substantial body of empirical evidence. I invite you and other interested readers to consult the book for a more detailed and systematic discussion of these ideas, which I agree are open to different interpretations as well as important objections.


Thank you for the response.

I guess it all comes down to whether our shared moral intuitions or senses are more like our shared taste preferences or our shared moral grammar. I don't know what the empirical evidence is but I suspect that it is far more like the former than the later. The former is far more simpler and hence more parsimonious an explanation. If it is like the former, calling it a moral grammar may be inaccurate and misleading. Unless there is good evidence to suggest that there are actual moral rules qua rules analogous to grammatical rules which are innate, I see no reason to think that moral rules are what is innate or even that surprising to posit shared moral senses.

I find it very difficult to accept that we have "innate knowledge of specific rules of criminal law, torts, and other bodies of law." It seems that the basic intuition behind those laws, or at least in their most bare bones form, are what is shared between communities, not the rules.


Oops, I meant " all comes down to whether our shared moral intuitions or senses are more like our shared taste preferences or our shared *linguistic* grammar." in the first sentence.

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