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Elements of Moral Cognition


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Is the science of moral cognition usefully modeled on aspects of Universal Grammar? Are human beings born with an innate "moral grammar" that causes them to analyze human action in terms of its moral structure, with just as little awareness as they analyze 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 judgment. The book will be of interest to philosophers, cognitive scientists, legal scholars, and other researchers in the interdisciplinary field of moral psychology.


Part I. Theory: 1. The question presented; 2. A new framework for the theory of moral cognition; 3. The basic elements of Rawls' linguistic analogy; Part II. Empirical Adequacy: 4. The problem of descriptive adequacy; 5. The moral grammar hypothesis; 6. Moral grammar and intuitive jurisprudence: a formal model; Part III. Objections and Replies: 7. R. M. Hare and the distinction between empirical and normative adequacy; 8. Thomas Nagel and the competence-performance distinction; 9. Ronald Dworkin and the distinction between I-morality and E-morality; Part IV. Conclusion: 10. Toward a universal moral grammar.


“Judicious, carefully executed, and deeply informed, this valuable study builds upon the early work of John Rawls, including his now-classic Theory of Justice, identifying its core principles, persuasively defending them against critics, deepening them conceptually and developing rich empirical foundations. It thereby provides the outlines of a naturalistic theory of moral judgment and moral cognition, which may well be a common human possession. One conclusion with broad consequences is that moral cognition crucially relies on the generation of complex mental representations of actions and their components. Mikhail’s enterprise resurrects fundamental themes of traditional moral philosophy and Enlightenment rationalism, while showing how they can be cast as empirical science with far-reaching implications for political, social, and legal theory. It is a most impressive contribution.”
--Noam Chomsky

“John Mikhail’s Elements of Moral Cognition: Rawls Linguistic Analogy And The Cognitive Science of Moral Judgment carefully and convincingly explains John Rawls’ remarks in his Theory of Justice about a possible analogy between linguistics and moral theory, showing that most commentators have mischaracterized these remarks and have therefore misunderstood important aspects of Rawls’ early writings. (This is the best account I have read of Rawls.) In addition Mikhail takes the linguistic analogy more seriously than other researchers and develops the beginnings of a kind of moral grammar that is somewhat analogous to the grammar of a language. The grammar he envisions has rules characterizing more or less complex actions, rules that derive partly from Alvin Goldman’s Theory of Action and uses concepts taken from common law. He also speculates on the implications of the possibility that a moral grammar of this sort might account for aspects of ordinary moral judgments, comparing morality with language. I believe that Mikhail’s current work in this area as reported in his book is the most important contemporary development in moral theory.”
--Gilbert Harman, Stuart Professor of Philosophy, Princeton University

"Finally, a book that compares our current knowledge of human morality against the idea of an inborn rule-based system, not unlike universal grammar. With great erudition, John Mikhail carefully discusses all of the steps needed to understand this linguistic parallel, adding a new perspective to the ongoing debate about an evolved moral sense.”
--Frans de Waal, author of "The Age of Empathy" (Harmony, 2009)

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