Rawls' Linguistic Analogy: A Study of the 'Generative Grammar' Model of Moral Theory Described by John Rawls in 'A Theory of Justice.' (Phd Dissertation, Cornell University, 2000)

388 Pages Posted: 28 Jul 2005 Last revised: 4 May 2009

See all articles by John Mikhail

John Mikhail

Georgetown University Law Center

Date Written: May 1, 2000


The aim of the dissertation is to formulate a research program in moral cognition modeled on aspects of Universal Grammar and organized around three classic problems in moral epistemology: (1) What constitutes moral knowledge? (2) How is moral knowledge acquired? (3) How is moral knowledge put to use? Drawing on the work of Rawls and Chomsky, a framework for investigating (1)-(3) is proposed. The framework is defended against a range of philosophical objections and contrasted with the approach of developmental psychologists like Piaget and Kohlberg.

One chapter consists of an interpretation of the analogy Rawls draws in A Theory of Justice between moral theory and generative linguistics. A second chapter clarifies the empirical significance of Rawls' linguistic analogy by formulating a solution to the problem of descriptive adequacy with respect to a class of commonsense moral intuitions, including those discussed in the trolley problem literature originating in the work of Foot and Thomson. Three remaining chapters defend Rawls' linguistic analogy against its critics. In response to Hare's objection that Rawls' conception of moral theory is too empirical and insufficiently normative, it is argued that Hare fails to acknowledge both the centrality of the problem of empirical adequacy in the history of moral philosophy and the complexity of Rawls' approach to the problem of normative adequacy. In response to Nagel's claim that the analogy between moral theory and linguistics is false because whatever native speakers agree on is English, but whatever ordinary individuals agree in condemning is not necessarily wrong, it is argued that the criticism ignores both Rawls' use of the competence-performance distinction and the theory-dependence of the corresponding distinction in linguistics. In response to Dworkin's claim that Rawls' conception of moral theory is incompatible with naturalism and presupposes constructivism, it is argued that Dworkin's distinction between naturalism and constructivism represents a false antithesis; neither is an accurate interpretation of the model of moral theory Rawls describes in 'A Theory of Justice.' The thesis concludes by situating Rawls' linguistic analogy within the context of broader debates in moral philosophy, metaethics, natural law theory, the theory of moral development, and the cognitive and brain sciences.

Keywords: Rawls, Chomsky, Piaget, Kohlberg, Foot, Thomson, Hare, Singer, Nagel, Dworkin, moral psychology, metaethics, deontic logic, cognitive science, trolley problem, jurisprudence, moral grammar, human rights

JEL Classification: D63, D64, K13, K14

Suggested Citation

Mikhail, John, Rawls' Linguistic Analogy: A Study of the 'Generative Grammar' Model of Moral Theory Described by John Rawls in 'A Theory of Justice.' (Phd Dissertation, Cornell University, 2000) (May 1, 2000). Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 766464, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=766464 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.766464

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