Universal Moral Grammar and Implications

On philosophy bites, John Mikhail speaks with support of empirical evidence in favor of an innate basis to our sense of right and wrong, somewhat analogous to Chomsky's ideas on universal grammar.

I have always leaned towards the idea of an innate universal moral grammar and I think its very likely to be correct. However, the actual problem of normative ethics still remains unsolved, even if this theory is correct. For instance, we all have an intuitive physics, but much of that intuitive physics is wrong. How do we know that the innate morality does indeed provide the best answers to moral questions? If we have a dilemma where an act leads to increased well-being of a large number of people but that act clashes strongly with our conscience (innate moral sense), how do we know that following the conscience is indeed the morally best thing to do?

Another aspect to note is that the universal moral grammar applies to broad elementary questions of morality (such as when is it wrong to harm someone), and cannot really be applied to more sophisticated notions, such as freedom of speech, or more complex moral problems, such as elective abortion, where possibly basic rules conflict with each (harming the fetus vs psycho-social well-being of the mother) confounding the innate sense.

If Universal Moral Grammar theory is correct, and I believe so, then we need to distinguish between two categories of questions in Ethics.

The first question is broadly psychological: What does our innate moral sense tell us about right and wrong?

The second question is philosophical: Do we have good reasons to act in one way rather than another?

Neither of these questions can be ignored, because in practice, much of our everyday moral judgements and actions remain intuitive, and are likely to remain so, regardless of what we may think of morality philosophically. Even a nihilist doesn't stop acting on what he strongly feels to be right; we are limited by our psychology in what we do.


Komal said…
Good post.

Let's not forget that one of the sophisticated questions that an intuitive moral sense, unrefined by further reflection, does not answer is the question of the good life and virtue. Morality is not just about other people, it is also about what kind of a person one wants to (what is admirable, what is virtuous, and what is the good life).
Komal said…
one wants to be*
Raul said…
I would like to agree with a universal moral-grammar, but I do not believe it's possible.

Chomsky's universal grammar involves there being switches in a child's mind about various aspects of language that the child switches on and off in the process of assimilating the rules and structures of the language, or languages, around them.

The point that distinguishes language from morals is experience. We learn a language from things around us, children create complex sentences from some innate intuition, they create sentences they never could have heard their parents or anyone else say and to the same degree children do that with actions and these are negatively reinforced by their parents i.e. told it's wrong - which is the opposite to language where children are rarely corrected in their speech and the focus is on the truth of their statement.

However, just as a children has learnt all of its basic rules and has them mentally figured out by the age of four and all the more complex structures by six, a child's moral compass is taught by those around us and if those around us are bigots or racists or neo-conservatives then the likelihood is that we, until we reach an age where our own experience may make us re-think, will be bigots, racists or neo-cons too. The fact that communities exists all around the world that focus on 'the other' and in most cases it's okay to wish ill towards them shows that in what exists isn't a moral grammar, but moral relativism.