Moral Intuitions and Moral Nativism

The Oxford Handbook of Moral Psychology (M. Vargas & J. Doris, Eds.), Forthcoming

45 Pages Posted: 15 Dec 2020 Last revised: 25 Oct 2021

See all articles by John Mikhail

John Mikhail

Georgetown University Law Center

Date Written: December 10, 2020


Moral nativism is a theory which holds that significant elements of moral psychology are innate. This invited chapter for The Oxford Handbook of Moral Psychology first summarizes the intuitive turn in moral psychology and explains its significance for moral nativism. Drawing on an analogy to language, the chapter outlines two principal arguments for moral nativism: the argument for moral grammar and the argument from the poverty of the stimulus. After making some terminological clarifications and correcting some popular misconceptions, the chapter then reviews some of the most significant research supporting moral nativism, including studies of compassion, empathy, and altruistic motivation in humans and other primates; the intuitive jurisprudence of young children; the emergence of moral cognition in human infants and toddlers; the neurocognitive foundations of moral judgment; and human moral universals. The chapter concludes by locating moral nativism within a broader historical and scientific context, including ancient philosophy (e.g., Plato’s Meno), Enlightenment rationalism (e.g., Descartes’ Treatise on Man), evolutionary theory (e.g., Darwin’s Descent of Man), and the modern cognitive science of innate knowledge in various domains.

Keywords: moral intuitions, moral nativism, moral grammar, moral psychology, moral development, moral universals, cognitive neuroscience, legal anthropology, intuitive jurisprudence, deontic modality, empathy, altruism, Plato, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Darwin

JEL Classification: D63, D64, K00, K13, K14

Suggested Citation

Mikhail, John, Moral Intuitions and Moral Nativism (December 10, 2020). The Oxford Handbook of Moral Psychology (M. Vargas & J. Doris, Eds.), Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

John Mikhail (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
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202-662-9409 (Fax)

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