Morality between Nativism and Behaviorism. (Innate) Intersubjectivity as a Response to John Mikhail’s ‘Universal Moral Grammar’
The Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 2017, Vol. 37, No. 4, pp. 230–260: DOI/10.1037/teo0000067
59 Pages Posted: 14 Dec 2017
Date Written: July 1, 2017
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 article this fascinating thesis is juxtaposed with counter-perspectives from the various fields on which it is based, with substantial criticism from such fields as neurobiology, evolutionary and developmental psychology, and philosophy leaving ample space for doubting UMG and especially its claimed innateness. In methodological terms, Mikhail suggested using 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 also contested in this article. In lieu of UMG this article proposes thinking of intersubjectivity in order to deal with the origins and development of the biological set-up of human morality. In so doing it refers to Colwyn Trevarthen’s concept of primary, secondary, and tertiary intersubjectivity, which is gaining more and more in popularity. This enables us, so runs the argument, to align morality and its development with core concepts of (developmental) psychology. Such an understanding of morality furthermore lays bare the origins of moral normativity, which is essential in order to evaluate moral behavior.
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