Another Review of Moral Minds

by F.

Paul Bloom and Izzat Jarudi from Yale review Marc Hauser’s book Moral Minds in Nature. While acknowledging that the book will stimulate research, they point out the obstacles to Hauser’s program, which relies an an analogy between morality and language.

Problem #1: Emotion

In other regards…language seems very different from morality. For one thing, linguistic knowledge is distinct from emotion. You might be disgusted or outraged by what somebody says, but the principles that make sense of sentences are themselves entirely cold-blooded. Your eyes do not well with tears as you unconsciously determine the structural geometry of a verb phrase. By contrast…even those who accept that some moral capacity is innate often see it as inextricably linked to emotion. Perhaps the universal core of morality is a set of emotional responses — disgust, shame, sympathy, guilt and so on — that are triggered by certain situations. This hypothesis is supported by clear demonstrations that, at least in some circumstances, emotion precedes intuition….

Problem #2: Combinatorial-ness

…languages are combinatorial symbolic systems. An English speaker, for example, knows perhaps hundreds of thousands of words, and also knows principles of syntax that dictate how these words combine with one another to form sentences. There are other combinatorial systems in human cognition, such as number and music, but it’s not clear that morality is one of them. Even if it is distinct from emotion, moral knowledge might be better characterized as a small list of evolved rules, perhaps simple (such as a default prohibition against intentional harm), perhaps complex (such as some version of the doctrine of double effect), but still very different in character from linguistic knowledge….


[t]hese differences call into question how much insight the research programme developed by linguists can provide into morality. For instance, some arguments for linguistic innateness are based on assumptions about the generative nature of language; these might not export well to the moral domain.

But let’s not give up too soon:

it might be that nobody has found these sorts of deep parallels because, before Hauser, nobody had really looked. Moreover, even if morality lacks certain interesting features of language, the very idea of an innate moral faculty is well worth investigating. Linguists have been exploring this idea for more than 50 years; in the study of morality, we are just getting started.

The entire review is here.