Moral grammar

The approach to generative grammar originating with Chomsky (1957) has been enormously successful within linguistics. Seeing such success, one wonders whether a similar approach might help us understand other human domains besides language. One such domain is morality. Could there be universal generative moral grammar? More specifically, might it be useful to moral theory to develop an explicit generative account of parts of particular moralities in the way it has proved useful to linguistics to produce generative grammars for parts of particular languages? Should moral theorists attempt to develop a theory of moral universals that is analogous to the theory of universal grammar in linguistics? Can moral theorists develop a “principles and parameters” account of possible moralities inspired by the principles and parameters approach to language in current linguistics? Could there be a “minimalist” program for moral theory inspired by the minimalist program in linguistics? In this chapter we offer a preliminary account of some analogies, focusing on clarifying issues, making distinctions, and considering how—in a general way—such analogies might yield a fruitful research program for moral theory. There are two main parts to our discussion, one focusing on an analogy between generative grammar and moral theory, the other focusing on analogies between universal grammar and theories of moral universals. In the first part, we say a little about the background and say how we are going to understand morality and moral theory. We describe certain aspects of generative grammar and how claims about generative grammars are tested, allowing for a distinction between “competence” and “performance”. We then try to say what a corresponding “generative moral grammar” would be and how it would be tested. We next discuss a number of objections to the analogy between moral theory and generative grammar and indicate possible responses. In the second part, we discuss certain universal constraints on grammars and consider whether there might be similar constraints on moralities. Then we discuss how linguists describe core aspects of languages in terms of principles and parameters and consider what aspects of moralities might be described in similar terms. After that we make some brief remarks about minimalism.
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