Marc Hauser: Moral Grammar

In earlier postings of mine, I mentioned the term “moral grammar” without providing the full references as to where the term originates and what it means. The term “Moral Grammar” was coined by Marc Hauser to describe a universal set or rules and principles to be used to build moral systems:

The core idea is derived from the work in generative grammar that [MIT linguist Noam] Chomsky initiated in the 1950s and that the political philosopher John Rawls brought to life in a short section of his major treatise A Theory of Justice in 1971. In brief, I argue that we are endowed with a moral faculty that delivers judgments of right and wrong based on unconsciously operative and inaccessible principles of action. The theory posits a universal moral grammar, built into the brains of all humans. The grammar is a set of principles that operate on the basis of the causes and consequences of action. Thus, in the same way that we are endowed with a language faculty that consists of a universal toolkit for building possible languages, we are also endowed with a moral faculty that consists of a universal toolkit for building possible moral systems.

Source: American Scientist The Bookshelf talks with Marc Hauser by Greg Ross

It’s also important to realize that the Moral Law theory does not prescribe what morality should look like

Hauser wrote:

To be explicit, the theory that I have developed in Moral Minds is a descriptive theory of morality. It describes the unconscious and inaccessible principles that are operative in our moral judgments. It does not provide an account of what people ought to do. It is not, therefore, a prescriptive theory of morality.

To me, the concept of a Moral Grammar has significant overlap with the Natural Law arguments by Aquinas. In fact, some interesting observations can be made when combining the concept of Natural Law, the Bible and these scientific findings. In Romans 2:15, it is stated that the law is written on the hearts of believers and non-believers alike. If this is the case then we can make the following observations

  1. Christians who argue that atheists have no principled foundations for their morality and ethics need to take another look at their Bible which contradicts their claims.
  2. Of course both Christians and atheists can take these new scientific findings, one accepting that these rules were Created by God, while the other can avoid such conclusions by observing how these rules would have arisen via evolutionary processes.