What We Legal Theorists and Philosophers Can Learn from Great Apes: A Critical Account of the Innate ‘Universal Moral Grammar’ Thesis as Represented by John Mikhail
XXVII World Congress of the International Association for the Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy” in Washington D.C., USA, from 27 July to 1 August 2015
29 Pages Posted: 23 Apr 2016
Date Written: April 19, 2015
The thesis of an innate Universal Moral Grammar (‘UMG’) relies upon an analogy to the thesis of a universal grammar of the human faculty of language in linguistics. Drawing upon this faculty, John Mikhail, among others, argues that we humans have an inborn moral grammar. In this paper this fascinating thesis is juxtaposed with counter perspectives from the various fields on which it is based, substantial criticism from such fields as Neurobiology, Evolutionary and Developmental Psychology and Philosophy leaving ample space for doubting UMG and especially its claimed innateness. The astonishing behaviour of non-human great apes aids comprehension of possible differences and similarities humans and non-human great apes, and thus questions UMG and its postulated uniqueness for humans. This leads me to the proposal to think of an ‘innate inter-subjectivity’ instead of a UMG, the former being a more detailed and refined approach to dealing with the biological set-up which enables humans to make moral judgments. A second suggestion made by Mikhail is to use collective evidence from the various disciplines to prove the hypothesis of an innate UMG, as there is not sufficient substantial support for UMG within each discipline alone. This multi- and interdisciplinary approach is contested in this paper too. While there might be room for further research within the relevant fields in the natural sciences, this revealed insecurity within the natural sciences forbids the use of UMG for law, something which Mikhail actually suggested doing.
Keywords: Universal Moral Grammar, theory of mind, evolution of morality, evolutionary psychology, inter-subjectivity,
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation