The Ethics of Human Rights (51): Human Rights and Universal Moral Grammar

It seems that human morality is to some extent ingrained in the human mind and that humans possess an innate moral faculty which we can call Universal Moral Grammar (UMG). “Innate” here refers to

cognitive systems whose essential properties are largely pre-determined by the inherent structure of the mind, but whose ontogenetic development must be triggered and shaped by appropriate experience and can be impeded by unusually hostile learning environments. (source)

Perhaps it’s evolution that has wired moral grammar into our neural circuits. Social living requires constraints on behavior and those constraints can be favored by natural selection because of their survival value.

This theory is similar to the linguistic claims made by Chomsky about universal grammar and about the fact that even very young children seem to have the ability to apply grammar rules that they obviously haven’t been taught. Analogously, we know moral rules without having learned them, and this knowledge is universal across cultures.

For example, 3–4-year-old children use intent or purpose to distinguish two acts that have the same result. They also distinguish ‘genuine’ moral violations (e.g. battery or theft) from violations of social conventions (e.g. wearing pajamas to school). 4–5-year-olds use a proportionality principle to determine the correct level of punishment for principals and accessories. 5–6-year-olds use false factual beliefs but not false moral beliefs to exculpate*. (source)

Indeed, even animals have feelings of empathy and expectations of reciprocity.

The UMG can help to explain some universal and cross-cultural intuitive judgments in moral thought experiments such as the Trolley Problem (almost universal acceptance) or Fat Man and forced organ transplant (almost universal rejection). These universal judgments are best explained by the existence of stable and innate intuitions and tacit knowledge of rules and concepts because the judgments are quick, unreflective, difficult to justify and identical across demographic groups (including children).

Many people cannot articulate the foreseen/intended distinction [between these moral dilemmas] …, a sign that it is being made at inaccessible levels of the mind. This inability challenges the general belief that moral behavior is learned. For if people cannot articulate the foreseen/intended distinction, how can they teach it? (source)

None of this excludes the possibility that a lot of what we think we know about morality comes from teaching, nurturing, our own reasoning or even our self-interest. Furthermore, innate dispositions, if they exist, can be developed or blocked. Hence, the UMG theory is not necessarily deterministic or self-sufficient, and can accommodate other types of moral cognition as well as the less than universal factual morality of mankind (if UMG were all that mattered and if it were as deterministic as it often sounds, then there wouldn’t be immoral acts).

What does all this have to do with human rights? Those rights are outside of the UMG, partly because they are too specific. UMG is more about very abstract and general rules, such as intent, proportionality, people as ends instead of instruments etc. However, some human rights may be a part of UMG: do not kill, rape or steal are universal moral rules and are part of the UMG that even children know, and they are also translated into human rights.

More importantly, however, the existence of a UMG belies cultural relativism and can support the construction of a detailed universal morality. And finally, elements of UMG, such as the notions of intent and proportionality in moral condemnation and of moral exculpation based on false factual beliefs, have important ramifications for criminal justice and hence for human rights. Human rights restrictions on criminal punishment can be independently supported by UMG.

More posts in this series are here.

* For example killing someone because you mistake the person for a deer, as opposed to killing someone because you believe killing is OK.
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