Linguistic Background to Moral Minds

Moral Minds by Marc Hauser

General Linguistics Perspective

Scientific linguistics seeks to describe and explain our language behavior. It is distinct from prescriptive linguistics, which attempts to say how we should use our language. Marc Hauser wants to develop a science of morality similar to scientific linguistics, that is, he wants to describe and explain our moral behavior, not tell us how we should behave in a moral manner. So, in reading his book you should not expect to learn how to behave :).


The linguistic analogy goes only so far. Humans learn multiple languages without experiencing emotional conflict. Learning multiple moral codes would be very confusing emotionally. Sentences have a simple linear presentation, while moral deliberation and action has no such simple structure. People in a culture follow the moral codes with much less consistency than the linguistic codes.  Nevertheless, a reasonably clearly presented theory, even if it turns out to be false, is something we can learn from.

Principles and Parameters

Principles and Parameters theory is an attempt to explain two facts of language: 1) human infants acquire a language surprisingly quickly and 2) there is a lot of commonality among languages of the world, including among languages that are not historically related.


Principles and Parameters theory regards principles as the language faculty that we are born with. One principle is that adjectives occur close to the noun they modify in all languages. Each built-in principle has parameters that are switched on or off. For example, the modifier principle has a switch for whether an adjective comes before or after the noun it modifies.


The Principles and Parameters theory claims that human infants learn the syntax of their native tongue quickly, because all they have to do is figure out how to set all the parameters, e.g., the adjective before-or-after parameter.


All languages, it claims, have the same principles. Just the parameters are set differently. For example, there are no languages that form the negative of a sentence by simply reversing the order of the words in the sentence.

Principles and Parameters Theory of Morality

Hauser proposes, following John Rawls, that all healthy humans are born with a set of moral principles (technical sense), analogous to principles (technical sense, as above) of syntax. He also argues that humans learn their culture’s moral system quickly because they only have to set the parameters of each principle. The parameters being switched differently accounts for the variation in moral systems across cultures.


Hauser spends a lot of time discussing John Rawls’ theory of justice.

Rawls: “all societies have a normative sense of fairness. What varies between cultures are the range of tolerable responses to situations that elicit judgements of fairness. In essence, each culture sets the boundary conditions, by tweaking a set of parameters, for a fair transaction.” (p. 99 in Moral Minds)


Click here to read a synopsis of Rawls’ theory.


You don’t have to buy into the Principles and Parameters theory of morality to read the book. There are many ideas that don’t come from linguistics.


Neil Bergeson’s selection, Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land, provides many examples of the fairness principle in action. Likely, 90% of the books we have read do the same, whether nonfiction or fiction.


Many cooperative-competitive games generate examples of fairness during play. One I like playing is “Settlers of Catan.”


This essay by Leonard Pitts raises moral issues and asks us to come up with principles.


I am sure you all will have your favorite sources of examples.


You can stop reading at this point. I have covered the general outline of linguistic theory of grammar. The rest of this preparatory essay talks about linguistic methodology, in order to suggest one line of criticism of Hauser’s methodology.

Linguistic Judgements

Marc Hauser adopts Rawls’ idea of modeling moral judgements and theory on linguistic judgements and theory of grammar. He takes much for granted in the reader’s knowledge of how linguistics is done. So, I will try to fill in the gaps.


Linguists rely on judgements of acceptability offered by native speakers. Two kinds of judgements are relevant.

  1. Judgements of whether a sentence is grammatical or not,
  2. Judgements of whether a sentence has meaning or not.

Hauser is primarily interested in grammaticality judgements, but, in order to clarify which judgements are grammatical, linguists feel the need to separate them from semantically weird sentences.


So, let’s play linguist for a bit. Linguists mark unacceptable sentences with an asterisk. Acceptable sentences are not marked.


Let’s begin with some obvious judgements.

  1. The boy is sleeping restlessly.
  2. *Sleeping boy the restlessly is.
  3. *Green ideas sleep furiously.


The first example is judged to be acceptable, both grammatically and semantically. The second, which is merely a reordering of the words in the first, is judged ungrammatical. The third is judged grammatical, but semantically weird. Grammarians are interested in grammaticality. Hauser is interested in ‘grammaticality’ of moral judgements.


Now let’s see how linguists build a theory of grammar for a language based on judgements of moral ‘grammaticality.’

Interrogative questions

In English the interrogative pronoun comes at the beginning of the sentence. This requirement may involve a grammatical rule is known as wh-movement.

The man taught the boy.

Who taught the boy?

Whom did the man teach?

*The man taught whom? [though it can occur with special intonation when asking to clarify a word that was missed.]


However, not all languages observe wh-movement. Vietnamese does not. In Vietnamese you do not move the interrogative pronoun, you simply replace the location of the answer by the question word.

Người đàn ông [the man] đã dạy [teach] cậu bé [the boy].

Người nào [who] đã dạy cậu bé.

Người đàn ông đã dạy người nào [who].

*Người nào [who] người đàn ông đã dạy [Moving the interrogative pronoun is ungrammatical.]


The operative Principle in these two sets of examples (English and Vietnamese) is that all languages have a rule for forming interrogative questions and it requires inserting an interrogative pronoun in place of a noun. But there is variation in syntax, as we see above. English makes sure to place the interrogative pronoun at the front of the sentence, while Vietnamese simply replaces the noun with it. So, linguists invent a parameter for the interrogative pronoun which indicates whether it moves or not, if they are of the Principles and Parameters school and want to support the idea of a universal grammar i.e., a grammar for all languages of the world, where we only have to set the parameter values properly to distinguish individual languages, e.g., English from Vietnamese.

Is There a Universal ‘Grammar’ of Moral Judgements?

What are the data, the judgements?

What is the grammar?

What are the principles?

What are the parameters?

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