Is there a moral grammar?

January 4, 2008 |

Morality may seem like a topic for philosophers and theologians rather than psychologists. While it is true that during the last few decades moral reasoning hasn’t been a hot topic of psychological research, moral reasoning is a behavior — and an important one — and that makes it a worthy topic for psychology. (I don’t mean that psychologists should study what is moral and what isn’t, but rather what humans think is moral and what they think is not, and why.) In the last few years, interest in the field has exploded.

One of the most controversial new approaches, promoted by Marc Hauser of Harvard University, is to study moral reasoning by analogy to linguistics. For instance, what are the phonemes of moral reasoning? What is the grammar that determine whether an action is considered moral or not?

There has been a lot of criticism of this analogy, none of which seems to particularly bother Hauser. What is interesting is that he has put forward the analogy of moral reasoning to linguistic reasoning not so much because he thinks it’s literally true (in fact, he thinks it would be bizarre if morality was exactly like language — they are obviously different systems), but because he thinks the analogy leads to new questions about moral reasoning that nobody was asking. This leads to new experiments, new data, and hopefully better theories. Hauser argues that the linguistic analogy has does just this.

There is something to this argument. Obviously having a correct theory is ideal. However, few if any theories — psychological or otherwise — are through-and-through true, and so it’s better to have an incorrect theory that at least points research in a profitable new direction than an incorrect theory that leads nowhere.

You can find some of his recent published papers here. For a less technical treatment, though, you might read his new book. You can also participate in his Moral Sense Test here. For more thoughts about the scientific method, read this. For more about the scientific method and psychology in particular, read yesterday’s post.

4 Responses to Is there a moral grammar?

  1. Anonymous April 14, 2008 at 4:53 am #

    Whilst I’m not against moral psychology per se, I’m doubtful about its usefulness. Moreover, some of the stuff is deeply flawed such as Jonathan Haidt’s experiments, which are a clear example of misunderstanding the issues.

  2. Anonymouse January 5, 2008 at 5:22 pm #

    Rawls? No! Betrand Russell, one of the founding members of logical positivism and the modern analytical school of philosophy. Russell’s work “On Denoting” (1905) and the Principe Mathematica (1910-13) laid the ground for other philosophers, most notably Wittgenstein, that did just the sort of linguistic analysis you’re referring to.

  3. coglanglab January 5, 2008 at 12:47 pm #

    Are you sure you don’t mean Rawls? My understanding is that the idea originated with Rawls, but that it’s been dormant for a long time.

    Please try my web-based experiments

  4. Anonymouse January 4, 2008 at 5:35 pm #

    Bertrand Russell got to this, oh, about 70 years ago. Tough luck, you’re late to the game.

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