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At his Prefrontal Nudity blog at Forbes, Will Wilkinson discusses the comparison of morality and language. The argument is that morality is like language, in that we come with it to some extent “built in”. The theory, Moral Nativism, is inspired in part by Noam Chomsky, who argued that languages and grammar may vary across cultures and time, but there is a deep commonality among them. Furthermore, there is “insufficient information in a child’s experience to account for her acquisition of competence in the rules of grammar”. Therefore, language is not simply something we learn, but something that is built into us; humans have an “innate linguistic capacity”.
Moral Relativism takes this concept of innateness of knowledge and applies it to morals. Specifically, Rawls asked whether the experience of children was sufficient to account for the morals they possessed. Will cites Scott James who summarizes the argument thusly:
“Since kids, across a wide spectrum of backgrounds, all exhibit this ability to distinguish moral from conventional rules, is it plausible that kids could have learned this from their environment? If the answer is no (as some insist), then the mind may well contain the moral analogue of the Language Acquisition Device. And this conclusion is bolstered if we can identify (as some allegedly have) other moral competencies that kids don’t learn.”
As a rebuttal to this viewpoint, Will takes us to Jesse Prinz who presents a long list of evidence for the terrible variation in morality across time and cultures:
Anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday found evidence for cannibalism in 34% of cultures in one cross-historical sample. Or consider blood sports, such as those practiced in Roman amphitheaters, in which thousands of excited fans watched as human beings engaged in mortal combat. Killing for pleasure has also been documented among headhunting cultures, in which decapitation was sometimes pursued as a recreational activity. Many societies have also practiced extreme forms of public torture and execution, as was the case in Europe before the 18th century…
As anyone familiar with humanity’s impressive history of violence could guess, the list goes on and on. Language, Will argues, may vary greatly, but at a deeper there are many clear constraints and commonalities. Aside from those rules which are necessary for a society to thrive, pretty much anything has gone in terms of morality. As Will puts it:
If the putative moral capacity can produce moralities that allow things that strike our judgment as monstrously immoral–if it doesn’t really rule anything out–it can’t account for the normativity of our judgments and the linguistic analogy fails.
I have to say I find this evidence against moral nativism pretty convincing, just as I find it convincing evidence against moral objectivism. Another reason I’m skeptical, at least of moral objectivism, is the following thought experiment. Say you had an unlimited amount of money and time to persuade the chief of some Amazonian tribe of an objective scientific claim that the best evidence suggests is true. Say, that the earth revolves around the sun, or some other basic scientific claim. You can conduct scientific experiments, sit with him in the library going over the literature, and argue with him for 1,000 years. No matter what the starting point of his knowledge and beliefs, you should eventually be able to convince him of the truth as best as the evidence indicates, after all, its demonstratable knowledge.
Now say this tribesman believes that murdering an enemy and eating his heart pleases the Gods. With unlimited money and time, is there any way you could demonstrate to him the falseness of his beliefs? Well, you could try some Ghost of Christmas past shit and take them to see their victims mourning families and such, but in many cases this would not be successful. Those with horrifying moral beliefs are often quite aware of, and even relish in, the suffering that is caused. I also think this thought experiment would hold true for many moral beliefs that we find horrendous and those who hold them. To me this to me is an important distinction. There is simply no way to demonstrate the truth of the claim to people who disagree.
I think some of the difficulty in rejecting moral objectivism comes from the perceived implications of objecting it, rather than it’s plausibility per se. But at the end of Will’s post is a defense of moral relativism that counters many of these common objections, for instance:
Allegation: Relativism entails that we have no way to criticize Hitler.
Response: First of all, Hitler’s actions were partially based on false beliefs, rather than values (‘scientific’ racism, moral absolutism, the likelihood of world domination). Second, the problem with Hitler was not that his values were false, but that they were pernicious. Relativism does not entail that we should tolerate murderous tyranny. When someone threatens us or our way of life, we are strongly motivated to protect ourselves.
It would be worth reading Will’s post for this list alone.
Despite all these reasons to be skeptical of moral objectivism, I don’t think I can reject it with much confidence, and I should probably remain close to agnostic. Why? Well, as I’ve surely made clear by this point, I am a philosophical naif with the background knowledge of the typical economist; that is, “utilitarianism is the moral framework, Rawls said some stuff that disagreed, but what can you really do with that stuff? Now tell me your R-squared.” So why does that lead me towards moral objectivism? Because I put weight in the beliefs of experts, and (via Bryan Caplan) I can see that a slim majority of them accept or lean towards moral objectivism. Until I’m intellectually curious enough to do the hard lifting of really understanding the arguments of moral objectivists, I’ll remain near agnostic out of humility in the face of 52.4% of professional philosophers disagreeing with me.
End Note: It would he helpful to Will if you would leave some comments on this blog post over at Forbes.