Scientists from various disciplines have begun to focus attention on the psychology and biology of human morality. One research program that has recently gained attention is universal moral grammar (UMG). UMG seeks to describe the nature and origin of moral knowledge by using concepts and models similar to those used in Chomsky's program in linguistics. This approach is thought to provide a fruitful perspective from which to investigate moral competence from computational, ontogenetic, behavioral, physiological and phylogenetic perspectives. In this article, (...) I outline a framework for UMG and describe some of the evidence that supports it. I also propose a novel computational analysis of moral intuitions and argue that future research on this topic should draw more directly on legal theory. (shrink)
Is the science of moral cognition usefully modelled on aspects of Universal Grammar? Are human beings born with an innate 'moral grammar' that causes them to analyse human action in terms of its moral structure, with just as little awareness as they analyse human speech in terms of its grammatical structure? Questions like these have been at the forefront of moral psychology ever since John Mikhail revived them in his influential work on the linguistic analogy and its implications for jurisprudence (...) and moral theory. In this seminal book, Mikhail offers a careful and sustained analysis of the moral grammar hypothesis, showing how some of John Rawls' original ideas about the linguistic analogy, together with famous thought experiments like the trolley problem, can be used to improve our understanding of moral and legal judgement. (shrink)
To what extent do moral judgments depend on conscious reasoning from explicitly understood principles? We address this question by investigating one particular moral principle, the principle of the double effect. Using web-based technology, we collected a large data set on individuals' responses to a series of moral dilemmas, asking when harm to innocent others is permissible. Each moral dilemma presented a choice between action and inaction, both resulting in lives saved and lives lost. Results showed that: (1) patterns of moral (...) judgments were consistent with the principle of double effect and showed little variation across differences in gender, age, educational level, ethnicity, religion or national affiliation (within the limited range of our sample population) and (2) a majority of subjects failed to provide justifications that could account for their judgments. These results indicate that the principle of the double effect may be operative in our moral judgments but not open to conscious introspection. We discuss these results in light of current psychological theories of moral cognition, emphasizing the need to consider the unconscious appraisal system that mentally represents the causal and intentional properties of human action. (shrink)
The aim of the dissertation is to formulate a research program in moral cognition modeled on aspects of Universal Grammar and organized around three classic problems in moral epistemology: What constitutes moral knowledge? How is moral knowledge acquired? How is moral knowledge put to use? Drawing on the work of Rawls and Chomsky, a framework for investigating -- is proposed. The framework is defended against a range of philosophical objections and contrasted with the approach of developmentalists like Piaget and Kohlberg. (...) ;One chapter consists of an interpretation of the analogy Rawls draws in A Theory of Justice between moral theory and generative linguistics. A second chapter clarifies the empirical significance of Rawls' linguistic analogy by formulating a solution to the problem of descriptive adequacy with respect to a class of commonsense moral intuitions, including those discussed in the trolley problem literature originating in the work of Foot and Thomson. Three remaining chapters defend Rawls' linguistic analogy against some of its critics. In response to Hare's objection that Rawls' conception of moral theory is too empirical and insufficiently normative, it is argued that Hare fails to acknowledge both the centrality of the problem of empirical adequacy in the history of moral philosophy and the complexity of Rawls' approach to the problem of normative adequacy. In response to Nagel's claim that the analogy between moral theory and linguistics is false because whatever native speakers agree on is English, but whatever ordinary men agree in condemning is not necessarily wrong, it is argued that the criticism ignores both Rawls' use of the competence-performance distinction and the theory-dependence of the corresponding distinction in linguistics. In response to Dworkin's claim that Rawls' conception of moral theory is incompatible with naturalism and presupposes constructivism, it is argued that Dworkin's distinction between naturalism and constructivism represents a false antithesis; neither is an accurate interpretation of the model of moral theory Rawls describes in A Theory of Justice. The thesis concludes by situating Rawls' linguistic analogy within the context of broader debates in metaethics, democratic theory, natural law theory, and the theory of moral development. (shrink)
: To what extent do moral judgments depend on conscious reasoning from explicitly understood principles? We address this question by investigating one particular moral principle, the principle of the double effect. Using web-based technology, we collected a large data set on individuals’ responses to a series of moral dilemmas, asking when harm to innocent others is permissible. Each moral dilemma presented a choice between action and inaction, both resulting in lives saved and lives lost. Results showed that: patterns of moral (...) judgments were consistent with the principle of double effect and showed little variation across differences in gender, age, educational level, ethnicity, religion or national affiliation and a majority of subjects failed to provide justifications that could account for their judgments. These results indicate that the principle of the double effect may be operative in our moral judgments but not open to conscious introspection. We discuss these results in light of current psychological theories of moral cognition, emphasizing the need to consider the unconscious appraisal system that mentally represents the causal and intentional properties of human action. (shrink)
Could a computer be programmed to make moral judgments about cases of intentional harm and unreasonable risk that match those judgments people already make intuitively? If the human moral sense is an unconscious computational mechanism of some sort, as many cognitive scientists have suggested, then the answer should be yes. So too if the search for reflective equilibrium is a sound enterprise, since achieving this state of affairs requires demarcating a set of considered judgments, stating them as explanandum sentences, and (...) formulating a set of algorithms from which they can be derived. The same is true for theories that emphasize the role of emotions or heuristics in moral cognition, since they ultimately depend on intuitive appraisals of the stimulus that accomplish essentially the same tasks. Drawing on deontic logic, action theory, moral philosophy, and the common law of tort, particularly Terry's five-variable calculus of risk, I outline a formal model of moral grammar and intuitive jurisprudence along the foregoing lines, which defines the abstract properties of the relevant mapping and demonstrates their descriptive adequacy with respect to a range of common moral intuitions, which experimental studies have suggested may be universal or nearly so. Framing effects, protected values, and implications for the neuroscience of moral intuition are also discussed. (shrink)
In this comment on Joshua Greene's essay, The Secret Joke of Kant's Soul, I argue that a notable weakness of Greene's approach to moral psychology is its neglect of computational theory. A central problem moral cognition must solve is to recognize (i.e., compute representations of) the deontic status of human acts and omissions. How do people actually do this? What is the theory which explains their practice?
Various theories of moral cognition posit that moral intuitions can be understood as the output of a computational process performed over structured mental representations of human action. We propose that action plan diagrams—“act trees”—can be a useful tool for theorists to succinctly and clearly present their hypotheses about the information contained in these representations. We then develop a methodology for using a series of linguistic probes to test the theories embodied in the act trees. In Study 1, we validate the (...) method by testing a specific hypothesis (diagrammed by act trees) about how subjects are representing two classic moral dilemmas and finding that the data support the hypothesis. In Studies 2–4, we explore possible explanations for discrete and surprising findings that our hypothesis did not predict. In Study 5, we apply the method to a less well‐studied case and show how new experiments generated by our method can be used to settle debates about how actions are mentally represented. In Study 6, we argue that our method captures the mental representation of human action better than an alternative approach. A brief conclusion suggests that act trees can be profitably used in various fields interested in complex representations of human action, including law, philosophy, psychology, linguistics, neuroscience, computer science, robotics, and artificial intelligence. (shrink)
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. (shrink)
This article argues that the key elements of the prima facie case of harmful battery may form critical building blocks of moral cognition in both humans and nonhuman animals. By contrast, at least some of the rules and representations presupposed by familiar justifications to battery appear to be uniquely human. The article also argues that many famous thought experiments in ethics and many influential experiments in moral psychology rely on harmful battery scenarios without acknowledging this fact or considering its theoretical (...) or empirical implications. The unifying factor in all these studies is goal-directed harmful contact, inflicted without consent or justification. (shrink)
Darwin’s (1871/1981) observation that evolution has produced in us certain emotions responding to right and wrong conduct that lack any obvious basis in individual utility is a useful springboard from which to clarify the role of emotion in moral judgment. The problem is whether a certain class of moral judgment is “constituted” or “driven by” emotion (Greene, 2008, p. 108) or merely correlated with emotion while being generated by unconscious computations (e.g., Huebner, Dwyer, & Hauser, 2008). With one exception, all (...) of the “personal” vignettes devised by Greene and colleagues (2001, 2004) and subsequently used by other researchers (e.g., Koenigs et al., 2007), in their fMRI and behavioral studies of emotional engagement in moral judgment, involve violent crimes or torts. These studies thus do much more than highlight the role of emotion in moral judgment; they also support the classical rationalist thesis that moral rules are engraved in the mind. (shrink)
By focusing on mistaken judgments, Sunstein provides a theory of performance errors without a theory of moral competence. Additionally, Sunstein's objections to thought experiments like the footbridge and trolley problems are unsound. Exotic and unfamiliar stimuli are used in theory construction throughout the cognitive sciences, and these problems enable us to uncover the implicit structure of our moral intuitions.
Baumard et al. attribute to humans a sense of fairness. However, the properties of this sense are so underspecified that the evolutionary account offered is not well-motivated. We contrast this with the framework of Universal Moral Grammar, which has sought a descriptively adequate account of the structure of the moral domain as a precondition for understanding the evolution of morality.
Until recently, little was known of H.L.A. Hart’s private life. That has now changed with the publication of Nicola Lacey’s A Life of H.L.A. Hart: The Nightmare and the Noble Dream. Drawing on Hart’s notebooks and correspondence, Lacey paints an illuminating portrait of Hart, which reveals that despite his public success he struggled with internal perplexities, including his sexual orientation, Jewish identity, intellectual insecurity, and unconventional marriage. Yet, as critics have noted, the connection between these revelations and the development of (...) Hart’s ideas is unclear. Moreover, one cannot help but wonder whether by focusing on these aspects of Hart’s personal life, Lacey has missed an opportunity to explore certain basic questions about his jurisprudence and its link to wider intellectual currents. For example, linguistics, psychology, and the philosophy of language and mind are much different today than they were in the 1940s and 1950s, yet Lacey does not discuss how such familiar events as the overthrow of logical positivism, the demise of behaviorism, the rise of generative linguistics, or the broader cognitive revolution of which they were a part actually impacted Hart or should influence our understanding of his legacy. Surprisingly, none of these developments are taken up in this book, leading one to ponder the significance of their absence. (shrink)
In her insightful and stimulating article, The Mind of a Moral Agent, Professor Susanna Blumenthal traces the influence of Scottish Common Sense philosophy on early American law. Among other things, Blumenthal argues that the basic model of moral agency upon which early American jurists relied, which drew heavily from Common Sense philosophers like Thomas Reid, generated certain paradoxical conclusions about legal responsibility that later generations were forced to confront. "Having cast their lot with the Common Sense philosophers in the "formative (...) era" of American law," she explains, "early republican jurists thus bequeathed to future generations of lawyers a problem of responsibility of no small proportions." In this invited comment for Law and History Review, I first argue that the problems of responsibility on which Blumenthal focuses our attention are not specific to Scottish Common Sense, but rather descend straight from the core of the Western legal and moral tradition. The same problems would arise if Common Sense philosophy had never existed. Second, even if it is true that Common Sense exerted a powerful influence on American academic life in the antebellum period, it still must be shown that this influence extended to specific features of American law, which remained at the time almost entirely the product of English common law. Blumenthal has not met this burden, however, because she does not identify any specific doctrines or judicial opinions that might support the conclusion that early American jurists "were steeped in Common Sense philosophy" or sought to construct "an indigenous legal tradition, built on the universalistic premises of Common Sense." Rather, her defense of this interesting claim is highly selective, resting mainly on the writings of Wilson and Hoffman. Third, although Blumenthal claims that there is something puzzling or paradoxical from a Common Sense perspective about the diversity of moral opinion, the existence of irrational or evil actors, or the fact that individuals often disregard the dictates of their moral sense, she does not adequately explain what exactly that paradox is, nor why Common Sense adherents should be troubled by it. Locke had made objections like these familiar as a result of his attack on innate practical principles in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Yet already by the eighteenth century, critics like Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Reid, and their followers had rejected Locke's arguments as based on mere confusion and fallacy. Finally, a key point that Blumenthal neglects, as does John Witt in his elegant chapter on Wilson, is that Common Sense philosophers also supplied positive scientific arguments for innate moral knowledge, based on observation and induction rather than introspection, whose intellectual worth has proved remarkably durable. We risk misunderstanding Scottish Common Sense and its place in the history of ideas if we overlook contributions like these, or remain content to think of it merely as an unduly optimistic philosophy, which relied mainly on introspection to affirm the innate goodness of humankind, but which gave way to a more accurate theory of human nature as the nineteenth century unfolded. Certainly there is some truth to this description, but it is only part of the story, and a potentially misleading one. (shrink)