|John Mikhail, Georgetown Professor of Law|
In the 1960's Noam Chomsky famously wrote that our human ability to acquire language is innate. Our brains come equipped with a language acquisition device. We are pre-programmed to learn language said Chomsky.
Analogously, Chomsky also proposed that our capacity for moral reasoning is supported by a universal moral grammar. John Mikhail, a professor of law at Georgetown who writes on constitutional law and moral philosophy, has a chapter that examines what Chomsky has said over the years about his postulated language acquisition device and the potential that we also come equipped with a universal moral grammar--that we arrive in this world pre-programmed to make moral judgments.
Just like we grow limbs and don’t learn limbs, says Chomsky, we grow our innate language skills. Similarly, Chomsky suggests that we grow our innate moral sense, we don’t learn our morality. In Chomsky's view, normal adults have moral competence in a way that is analogous to linguistic competence. Just like we can take our deep, innate language rules and make them applicable in an infinite variety of linguistic applications, we can take our Universal Moral Grammar and apply it in infinite situations that call for moral judgment.
A Desultory Glossary of Moral Reasoning
In his chapter on Chomsky's Moral Reasoning Mikhail provides us with a useful historical glossary of some moral reasoning terms, albeit not alphabetical or chronological. I found this glossary interesting and trust it will come in handy in future reading:
Wittgenstein was skeptical about deep language rules.
Particularism: Holds moral judgments are made on a case by case basis without support of moral principles or rules. It says we bring a contentless ability to discern what matters to new situations—our ability to make moral judgments comes from successful moral education. In other words, moral competence has no stable content. The environment and context (and our education) determine everything.
Plato’s concept of soul: we have a tripartite soul consisting of Reason—Appetite—Emotion.
Ezekiel (Revelations 4:6-8): Speaks of four creatures supporting the heavenly throne—Man—Lion—Ox—Eagle.
Origen (3rd Century): translated Ezekiel to Plato’s soul idea. Man is reason, the Lion is appetite, the Ox emotion, and the Eagle is the conscience or presiding spirit that rules over reason, appetite and emotion.
Jerome (4th Century): Turned Origen’s “conscience and presiding spirit” and called it syneresis—and he conceived of this as an innate habit or natural instinct of the mind that supplies implicit premises of moral judgments.
Moral argument, says Mikhail, is a constructive process by which individuals may come to recognize that at least some of their particular moral judgments are inconsistent with their own moral principles. Moral reasoning can shed light on mistaken beliefs, false assumptions, and invalid reasoning. Moral reasoning per Chomsky is modular: it has elemental parts, like reason, appetite, emotion, and judgment.
Here are some historical examples of “modular” explanations of moral reasoning:
Joseph Butler (1692-1752): said a full account of human nature must include “conscience” which partakes of both reason and sentiment.
David Hume: said moral distinctions have motivational properties; they are not derived from reason, but rather from a moral sense.
Immanuel Kant: said “ought” expresses a kind of necessity…not found elsewhere in nature.
Charles Darwin: said moral sense is what differentiates man from lower animals.
To summarize the history reflected in this glossary, says Mikhail, would be to say that a moral sense is a collection of cognitive, emotional, motivational, and other characteristics, which may be unique to humans.
Back to Plato. In The Meno Plato said virtue cannot be taught. [We compare Locke and Aristotle who said the human mind comes as a tabula rasa—a blank slate: everything is learned] Leibniz responded to Locke and Aristotle, saying “The mind inherently contains the sources of its various notions and doctrines; external objects and events rouse up these sources on suitable occasions.”
St. Paul’s letter to the Romans comes into it as well: “both Gentiles and Jews,” he said, “possess a natural law written in their hearts.”
Cicero (106 BCE-63 BCE) held that the sense of justice is a natural faculty of the mind which commands us to do what ought to be done and forbids us to do the opposite.
Gaius (130-180) a jurist, used Cicero’s concept of our innate morality to distinguish between jus gentian (law of nations) and jus civil (law of individual states).
Grotius (Dutch legal scholar 1583-1645) referred to common sense morality enhanced with a technical legal vocabulary. He observed babies helping each other (even before they are taught), and he noted in this a sense of natural law. He said this natural law includes basic moral rules and legal rules, including the rule of abstaining from taking other people’s stuff, returning to the rightful owner what does not belong to us, keeping promises, making reparations for damage done by fault, and the recognition that some actions merit punishment. The foundation of this natural justice, he said, lies in a human moral faculty. And he noted this as a uniquely human faculty. This law would hold true, he said, even without God.
Hobbes and Locke, says Mikhail, both denied the existence of an innate moral faculty.
Today, of course, cognitive neurological science is busily exploring what innate moral factors might be found in evolutionary biology. Moral philosophers must reckon with how these new findings will impact, revise, or refute the historical models of our moral reasoning. Along the way they will come up with new models. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy [at link in this paragraph] calls the work based on Chomsky's idea of a Universal Moral Grammar--including the work of John Mikhail--"perhaps the most influential hybrid model of innate and cultural
and hybrid factors in moral judgment research" today.
What is clear, whatever the findings of science, morality is something we will continue to think about as long as our species survives.