The Poverty of the Moral Stimulus

In Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (ed.), Moral Psychology Volume 1. MIT Press (2008)
Abstract
One of the most influential arguments in contemporary philosophy and cognitive science is Chomsky's argument from the poverty of the stimulus. In this response to an essay by Chandra Sripada, I defend an analogous argument from the poverty of the moral stimulus. I argue that Sripada's criticism of moral nativism appears to rest on the mistaken assumption that the learning target in moral cognition consists of a series of simple imperatives, such as "share your toys" or "don't hit other children." In fact, the available evidence suggests that the moral competence of adults and even young children is considerably more complex and exhibits many characteristics of a well-developed legal code, including abstract theories of crime, tort, contract, and agency. Since the emergence of this knowledge cannot be explained by appeals to explicit instruction, or to any known processes of imitation, internalization, socialization and the like, there are grounds for concluding it may be innate. Simply put, to explain the development of intuitive jurisprudence in each individual, we must attribute unconscious knowledge and complex mental operations to her that go well beyond anything she has been taught.
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