Monday, April 24, 2006

Universal moral grammar: John Mikhail on Chomsky on morality


John Mikhail has put "The Poverty of the Moral Stimulus" up on SSRN. In it he compares the universal grammar of Chomsky---by which a child placed in a suitable environment will, without explicit instruction, use apparently innate rules to construct a natural language---to a possible universal moral grammar, in which a suitably-situated child will also construct a "natural jurisprudence" of surprising complexity and intuitiveness.

His examples are startling: without socialization sufficient to account for the results, 3-4 year-old children distinguish between "genuine" moral violations (murder) and "social" violations (wearing pajamas to school); 5-6-olders calibrate punishments with intuitive mitigating factors; 6-7-olders have a sense of innate procedural justice and the right to be heard; children as young as 8 have a rough sense of the doctrine of double effect in the trolley-car problem. See the references to the paper for more.

The basic pattern of reasoning by Mikhail is similar to Chomsky's poverty of the stimulus argument, which shows most children have nowhere near enough teaching to explain the grammatical miracles they pull off. Mikhail analogizes this to the poverty of the moral stimulus: the moral rules the children exhibit are not learned from verbal instruction, or from observed examples. They must be innate. In the same way that the universal grammar must be rich enough to enable children to bootstrap, it also must be flexible enough to deal with significant linguistic variations. The universal moral grammar: same.

The form of the innateness is not dealt with, but whatever form it takes, it already has a name: synderesis. Consider the old joke at Scholastics' expense, in which a naif asks a philosopher why opium puts us to sleep. The scholastic answers: "Opium puts us to sleep because of its soporific faculty." Of course this definitional jonesing is partially incompatible with another accusation, that the Scholastics engaged in angels-on-a-pin speculation about everything without any empirical backing. This is of course true: the Scholastics simply had no tools to make these inquiries meaningful. And they did not appreciate how much needed to be explained, or how much would be possible. They proceeded in a cycle of definitions and guesses. They had mastered dialectic (for God's sake, see St. Thomas's discussion of Aristotle's Topics and Posterior Analytics); they just had not included the material world in their discourse.

So the modern world has learned to ask "Why?" more insistently of matter, and more counterintuitively, and to deploy sharp objects and measuring tapes in trying to get answers. If this rakish modern curiosity could be combined with a medieval docility to truth, and an ancient (or Husserl-ian) sense of man and the methodology of principles, we would get somewhere.

There is much more in this hopeful paper. Hat tip to the Scholastic saint Larry Solum for pointing this one out.

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