Reviving Rawls's linguistic analogy: Operative principles and the causal structure of moral actions

In Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (ed.), Moral Psychology, Volume 2. MIT Press (2008)
The thesis we develop in this essay is that all humans are endowed with a moral faculty. The moral faculty enables us to produce moral judgments on the basis of the causes and consequences of actions. As an empirical research program, we follow the framework of modern linguistics.1 The spirit of the argument dates back at least to the economist Adam Smith (1759/1976) who argued for something akin to a moral grammar, and more recently, to the political philosopher John Rawls (1971). The logic of the argument, however, comes from Noam Chomsky’s thinking on language specifically and the nature of knowledge more generally (Chomsky, 1986, 1988, 2000; Saporta, 1978). If the nature of moral knowledge is comparable in some way to the nature of linguistic knowledge, as defended recently by Harman (1977), Dwyer (1999, 2004), and Mikhail (2000; in press), then what should we expect to find when we look at the anatomy of our moral faculty? Is there a grammar, and if so, how can the moral grammarian uncover its structure? Are we aware of our moral grammar, its method of operation, and its moment-to-moment functioning in our judgments? Is there a universal moral grammar that allows each child to build a particular moral grammar? Once acquired, are different moral grammars mutually incomprehensible in the same way that a native Chinese speaker finds a native Italian speaker incomprehensible? How does the child acquire a particular moral grammar, especially if her experiences are impoverished relative to the moral judgments she makes? Are there certain forms of brain damage that disrupt moral competence but leave other forms of reasoning intact? And how did this machinery evolve, and for what particular adaptive function? We will have more to say about many of these questions later on, and Hauser (2006) develops others. However, in order to flesh out the key ideas and particular empirical research paths, let us turn to some of the central questions in the study of our language faculty..
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