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Reviving Rawls’ Linguistic Analogy [Hauser, Young, Cushman, Harvard/Cambridge]-In Press

Remember Chomsky’s prearticulate language processor that “automagically” bridges between thought and articulated langage; there is lingistic competence (“Language competence refers to the unconscious and inaccessible principles that make sentence production and comprehension possible” p 5

Rawls(1971) had analogy, Adam Smith, before him, (1759/1976) “argued for something akin to a moral grammar, and … The logic of the argument, however, comes from Noam Chomsky’s thinking on language specifically and the nature of knowledge more generally (1986; 1988; 2000; Saporta, 1978)”

The analogy led them to posit a moral grammar within a moral faculty and to voice the following questions

  How can moral grammarians uncover its structure?
  Are we aware of our moral grammar, its methods and moement to moment functionings within our judgements
  Is there a “universal” moral grammar that allows each child to build a particular –ie personal– moral grammar
  How does a child acquire that moral grammer — does the grammar that is constructed depend on the impoverishment or enrichment of the childs morally relevant experiences?
  “Are there certain forms of brain damage that disrupt moral competence, but leave other forms of reasoning intact? (p3)
  Is it localized in neural structures or particular tissues or processes?(SPH)
  How did this processing (within the brain structures, and as a process)

This linguistic/organo/neurochemical postulate…. that said that there is, in effect, an “organ” that “learns,perceives and produces language. It contains a drive to acquire language and a set of prellinguistic principles for growing a language.

Perhaps it’s not yet clear where this is going but, hold on, the parallel if it exists has huge implications:–

  “Prior to the revolution in linguistics ignited by Chomsky, it was widely held that language could be understood as a cultural construction learned through simple stimulus-response mechanisms. It was presumed that the human brain was more or less a blank slate upon which anything could be imprinted, including language. Chomsky, among others, challenged this idea with persuasive arguments that human knowledge of language must be guided in part by an innate faculty of the mind the faculty of language. It is precisely because of the structure of this faculty that children can acquire language in the absence of tutelage, and even in the presence of negative or impoverished input.”
  “When linguists refer to these principles as the speaker’s grammar, they mean the rules or operations that allow any normally developing human to unconsciously generate and comprehend a limitless range of well formed sentences in their native language. When linguists refer to universal grammar they are referring to a theory about the set of all principles available to each child for acquiring a natural language. Before the child is born, she doesn’t know which language she will meet; and she may even meet two if she is born in a bilingual family. But she doesn’t need to know. What she has is a set of principles and parameters that prepares her to construct different grammars that characterize the world’s languages—dead ones, living ones, and those not yet conceived. The environment feeds her the particular sound patterns [or signs for those who are deaf] of the native language, thereby turning on the specific parameters that characterize the native language. “
  “In sum this child, any child, comes equipped with a language learning and generating faculty . The “faculty of language” is divided into linguistic competence (“unconscious and inaccessible principles that make sentence production and comprehension possible”(4) and language performance:”What we say, to whom, and how, is the province of linguistic performance, and includes many other players of the brain, and many factors external to the brain, including other people, institutions, weather, and distance to one’s target audience.”(5)

Now consider the possibility that there is a parallel (similarly structured and operating, part-unconscious, part conscious and articulated&acted, structure behind what we know and do in the realms of behavior that involve ethics and morality. In this scenario, as with language “The child is born knowing the principle, even though she is not consciously aware of the knowledge she holds. The principle is operative but not expressed.” or expressible.

I find this analogy enlightening . There have been acts by children and animals, e.g. dogs, chimpanzees and other primates, which entailed risk and possibly sacrifice (e.g.,dog for human, wolf for pack, and child for child/adult/pet/sibling); by many measures they were heroic. that by this explanation the genesis of such acts came from a form of compassion that is not part of the talking and language-based centers of the actor, when there are such bases(i.e., dogs don’t talk or rationalize yet are capable of heroism). There have also been ethical epiphanies and consequent actions from children that those children would not be, were not in fact able, to explain. Yet those acts were not well explained or rationalized after the fact. A distinct “moral action engine” which generates moral acts quite apart from the person’s (dog/chimpanzee’s,etc) powers to explain those actions help explain what has been observed to this point.

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