Universal Moral Grammar: Theory, Evidence, and the Future

Trends in Cognitive Sciences, April 2007

Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 954398

10 Pages Posted: 2 Jan 2007 Last revised: 8 Aug 2017

See all articles by John Mikhail

John Mikhail

Georgetown University Law Center


Scientists from various disciplines have begun to focus attention on the psychology and biology of human morality. One research program that has recently gained attention is universal moral grammar (UMG). UMG seeks to describe the nature and origin of moral knowledge by using concepts and models similar to those used in Chomsky's program in linguistics. This approach is thought to provide a fruitful perspective from which to investigate moral competence from computational, ontogenetic, behavioral, physiological, and phylogenetic perspectives. In this article, I outline a framework for UMG and describe some of the evidence that supports it. I also propose a novel computational analysis of moral intuitions and argue that future research on this topic should draw more directly from legal theory.

Keywords: moral cognition, moral intuition, moral grammar, universal grammar, universal moral grammar, deontic logic, poverty of the stimulus, Socratic method, trolley problem, battery, double effect, descriptive adequacy, act tree, Chomsky, Marr, Greene, Haidt, Sunstein, legal theory, intuitive jurisprudence

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

Suggested Citation

Mikhail, John, Universal Moral Grammar: Theory, Evidence, and the Future. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, April 2007, Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 954398, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=954398

John Mikhail (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

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