Universal Moral Grammar?

I imagine that most of the people who read blogs such as this one have developed their own ways of consuming digital media. One of the things that I like to do is listen to podcasts while walking to campus each morning. One of the podcasts I usually like very much is called Philosophy Bites, but the episode that came up in my playlist today left me somewhere between chaffed and flabbergasted.

It featured a scholar named John Mikhail who, modeling his approach after Chomsky’s work on universal grammar (because, you know, it was so successful) suggests that there’s a sort of pre-political, innate moral grammar that all humans share.

Now, the “chaffed” part comes from all the work that he does not discuss in making this claim: Foucault’s work on the emergence of “the human” out of a very particular political formulation, Alasdair MacIntyre’s work on the history of moral philosophy, Lynn Hunt’s (among many many others) work on the history of human rights, in fact most anthropologistswork on human rights discourse that I’m aware of–most of which illustrates not only the degree to which such notions depend on particular conceptions of what it means to be human, but also the ways in which these notions of human-ness are themselves tied to particular discursive and economic structures that are quite clearly “political” and less than “universal”.

Fine.  Scholars rely on different bodies of knowledge.  That’s part of what make contemporary universities so interesting. But the flabbergasted part comes from what he does discuss as evidence: namely, the fact that “everybody seems to agree more or less agree on human rights” (again, what can this truth claim even mean in the era of Guantanamo Bay?!  What mode of life and thought makes it even utterable?) as well as “growing anthropological evidence”. What is he talking about here? I literally have no clue. I would be surprised if someone could point out to be any member of the American Anthropological Association whose work would support the existence of a universal human grammar. I will offer a free dinner to anyone who can show me even one domain where the preponderance of anthropological evidence would support the idea.  In fact the American Anthropological Association’s Committee for Human Rights issued an official proclamation in 1999 which reads:

Human rights is not a static concept. Our understanding of human rights is constantly evolving as we come to know more about the human condition.

So there’s that, for what it’s worth. I actually think that’s it’s probably a more fruitful question to ask just what in the heck he means by “anthropological” because, whatever he does mean by it doesn’t seem to include, you know, the work of anthropologists.

Again, I just found out about this guy, so I haven’t yet been able to see what he cites for such a claim (or if, for that matter). I suppose if I were a real scholar that’s what I’d do next…

A List of Scholarly Citations Linked To in this Post (really, this is only the tip of the iceberg)

Thomas J. Csordas (2009). Growing up Charismatic: Morality and Spirituality among Children in a Religious Community Ethos, 37 (4), 414-440 D

Michael Dunn,, Simon J. Greenhill,, Stephen C. Levinson, & Russell D. Gray (2011). Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals Nature, 473, 79-82 DOI: 10.1038/nature09923

Didier Fassin (2008). Beyond good and evil? Questioning the anthropological discomfort with morals Anthropological Theory, 8 (4), 333-344 DOI: 10.1177/1463499608096642

MARK GOODALE (2006). Ethical Theory as Social Practice American Anthropologist, 108 (1), 25-37 DOI: 10.1525/aa.2006.108.1.25

Sally Engle Merry (2003). Human Rights Law and the Demonization of Culture (And Anthropology Along the Way) PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 26 (1), 55-76 DOI: 10.1525/pol.2003.26.1.55

Michael Lambek (2008). Value and virtue Anthropological Theory, 8 (2) DOI: 10.1177/1463499608090788

Saba Mahmood (2001). Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival Cultural Anthropology, 16 (2), 202-236 DOI: 10.1525/can.2001.16.2.202

ANNELISE RILES (2006). Anthropology, Human Rights, and Legal Knowledge: Culture in the Iron Cage American Anthropologist, 108 (1), 52-65 DOI: 10.1525/aa.2006.108.1.52

DAROMIR RUDNYCKYJ (2009). SPIRITUAL ECONOMIES: Islam and Neoliberalism in Contemporary Indonesia Cultural Anthropology, 24 (1), 104-141 DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1360.2009.00028.x


6 thoughts on “Universal Moral Grammar?”

  1. RE: Guantanamo Bay… it is possible that there is a universal moral grammar, but that does not necessarily mean that the grammar always extends to out-groups.

  2. Hi Aaron,

    I came across you blog while searching for more information on Universal Moral Grammar (UMG) after listening to the same podcast (love Philosophy Bites). I hope you don’t mind if I throw out a comment. As I recall, Mikhail sites four types of evidence for a Universal Moral Grammar (UMG).

    1) Paucity of stimulus – children express subtle moral distinctions, even in the absence of specific instruction/examples, similar to their ability to make subtle grammatical distinctions without explicit instruction, or even exposure to examples.

    2) Ability to make moral judgments in novel situations coupled with the inability to articulate the specific reasoning/rule system underlying those judgments, similar to a native speakers’ ability to make grammatical judgments about novel sentences, coupled with their inability to articulate the underlying grammatical rules.

    3) Surprisingly consistent cross-cultural/cross-gender/cross-age/etc. responses to novel moral problems (cf. the trolley problem mentioned in the podcast and a host of similar examples).

    4) Some discussion of Universal Human Rights. As you rightly point out, this was by far the weakest, most waffling and, yes, flabbergasting assertion. I got the sense that he wasn’t particularly comfortable with it, but that could be projection.

    That said, I found the evidence of types 1-3 to be quite compelling. I think you focus too much on (4) above.


    PS I wouldn’t throw out the generative baby with the Chomsky’s-search-for-specific-parameters bathwater. I suspect that even the most hard-core functionalists will concede that there is an innate language facility. Likewise, most of the generative linguists that I know concede that it’s a heck of a lot more complicated than an innate fully specified formal grammar mediated by binary parameters.

  3. I haven’t listened to this yet (too bad, I was looking for podcasts earlier, while cleaning the office!) – but by anthropological does he really mean ‘evolutionary psychology’? People seem to eat that stuff up, and it is often problematic and makes great leaps.

    I’m teaching primates this week in Intro Anth, and the major emphasis is on the importance of effective social organization for survival in all primates. One student asked about prejudice among primates, and a colleague put me on to an article about Rhesus Macaques that not only distinguish in and out group members in positive and negative fashions, but also recognize objects as belonging to in or out group members, and treat them accordingly. There’s also some evidence of chimps killing other chimps that don’t conform to social norms. So while I might agree that there is some heritage of social organization (those better at understanding the group rules and using them to their advantage are more successful, those that put the group at risk are punished), I certainly wouldn’t tie it to morality or a universal sense of human rights. Does he know the history of the idea of universal human rights? Does he not recognize any of the major wars, slavery or oppression of select groups of people? I will listen to this tomorrow.

  4. Sure there is evidence. Take a poll of the population in every country on earth about simple moral questions. Every poll would show the same excat thing that 90% of the people agree. The flaw in your thinking is that you assume that states or authoritarian/hierarchical structures act morally. But the opposite is true. They exploit, suppress and kill, don’t matter how much they rescribe themselfs as democracy or whatevery. You can read Chomsky for that and read the references he makes. Another thing is that there is good evidence that in the past, for example in the hunter gatherer period (befor the creation of state like structures, where everything reversed) there was much much less violence, and much much more equality among people. And of course there are always people who disagree on moral questions, but think of it as a gaussian distribution, you always have some annomalies at the edges.

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