A Universal Moral Grammer: a case for Intention Predicates, Consequence Predicates and Action Predicates?

There is an interview of Mark Hauser on the American Scientist wherein Hauser discusses Moral Development in humans and animals in context of his soon-to-be-released book Moral Minds.

In brief, Hauser contends, that just like humans are born with an innate ability to acquire language and there exist universal grammatical rules underlying this language acquisition, so too there are universal, innate, unconscious moral rules and they govern the development of Moral Sense. Thus, though different languages may have different content (actual words etc), their form would be constrained by the Universal Grammar that was instrumental during the language acquisition, so too though different cultures may have different moral or ethical systems or values (the actual content), their form would be constrained by the universal, unconscious grammatical rules that constrained the development of that particular moral language.

To simplify things a bit, it is instructive to read up a bit on Universal Grammar as well as familiarize oneself with popular grammars like Generative grammars that are used in linguistics.

Hauser mentions that the “moral grammar is a set of principles that operate on the basis of the causes and consequences of action”. To put that in a simplified (and my own!) form, one may say that every moral sentence (or moral act/judgment) can be represented in the form of a Cause or Intention Predicate (IP), a Action Predicate (AP) and a Consequence Predicate (CP).

Thus, A Moral Sentence S consistent with a particular Moral System would have the form


This is similar to a normal language sentence being of the form Noun Predicate followed by Verb Predicate followed by Prepositional Predicate (juts for sake of example)

The IP,AP and CP may themselves be recursively defined and may be made of either terminals are non-terminals like IP,CP, AP themselves.

Thus we may have different types of Moral languages – ranging from type 3 or regular moral languages to type 0 or unrestricted.

Only sentences that are valid and as per the rules of the Moral language would be ‘right’, while sentences that have been rejected by an automata as not belonging to that grammar would be ‘wrong’. Thus, an algorithmic implementation of judging acts as moral or immoral can exist.

Hauser, also mentions some interesting observations.

  • When consequences of an action are same, one (even children) differentiates based on whether the act (or lack of it!) was accidental or intentional.
  • If an act was accidental and leads to the same consequence, one still distinguishes whether the act was hasty, due to negligence or carelessness or something which normally should have been performed, but skipped.
  • He also discusses, that even when consequences and intentions are same, say in active and passive euthanasia; still based on the nature of act – viz. the fact that in former one is actively ending life by administrating poison, while in other one is passively letting the person die by removing life-support – our moral judgments are different.

Hauser doesn’t go on to develop from these observations a full-fledged universal Moral grammar, or maybe he does so in his book, but I take the liberty here to relate this to my own theories of Moral devlopment as well as my analysis of Kohlberg’s theory and see how this Universal Grammar affects the acquisition of Moral Sense in a developmental staged manner in Humans.

To make the analogy clear, consider language acquisition in Children. There is a clear developmental pattern to all language acquisitions and this is independent of the language learned. The child begins by babbling, follows up with one letter words (either nouns or verbs), then goes on to construct two letter words, this is followed by a telegraphic speech phase wherein multi-word sentences are created, but there is too much grammeticalisation and finally the adult usage of multi-word grammatically correct sentences that are pragmatically used.

Within these broad stages, there are universal features found in all languages like usage of inflection and intonation to denote exclamation or interrogation without changing the order or content of words used to denote a normal sentence. For example, normal sentences like

“Dad is coming”

when spoken with different inflections and intonations can either represent an exclamation or an interrogation viz.

“Dad is coming!”

“Dad is coming?”

This is true for all languages and this ability to use inflection also develops later and in a staged manner. Similarly prepositions are learned later than say nouns, verbs or adjectives in all languages.

To focus discussion back on Universal Moral Grammar and acquisition/development of Moral Sense, what I propose is that different stages of Moral development reflect the mastery of some rules of this universal grammar.

In stage I of Moral Development, one is babbling in the sense that one is trying to formulate a coherent moral judgment about any act. One has still not learned/ identified the ‘words’/ ‘acts’ that form the moral lexicon (of the moral culture in which this moral sense is developing) and as such judges an act based on whether it is personally rewarded or punished. One has started forming the concept of ‘consequence’ of an act, but that consequence is defined by how the society around us responds to a particular act, rather than on any intrinsic property of the act. The concept of Consequence Predicate is beginning to form and one starts judging an act based on the ‘good‘ or ‘bad’ consequence it had and this consequence is learned by feedback provided by society/parents.

In stage II of Moral Development, one is in the holophrastic speech stage in the sense that one has realized the acts that lead to good consequences and those that lead to bad and undesirable consequences. In this stage one may also start realizing the difference between accidental acts or intentional acts and value intentional acts over accidental ones. Still the child would be using either the schema of Intention or that of Consequence to judge an act. It may not be possible for him to combine the two schemas together and analyze the situation not only on the basis of consequences as well as on the basis of intentions.

In stage III of Moral Development, one may start combining two moral predicates like “Intention” and “Consequence” to form combinations and then judge whether the moral act is inline with his moral system or not.

For example, the terminals for Intention Predicate could be ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘selfish’, selfless’, ‘accidental’, ‘active’, ‘casual’ etc and the terminals for Consequence Predicate could be ‘good’ , ‘bad’ , ‘maximising’ ,’minimising’ ,’disruptive’ ,’constructive’, ‘long-term’ etc

The combination of these two ‘words’ in stage III of Moral development may lead to different value judgments of a moral act, based on taking into account both the consequence and the intention.

In stage IV of Moral development, one may start refining the moral judgment statements, by taking into account Action Predicate terminals like ‘inactive’, ‘casual’, ‘careless’, ‘lazy’, ‘lethargic’, ‘vigorous’, ‘vibrant’, ‘thoughtful’ etc and combine these with IP and CP to form more complex 3 or more words sentences. One would also start refining IP, CP and AP as recursively embedded in each other and thus consisting of more than one words each, but the construction of moral sentences or judgments would be overtly grammatical just like telegraph speech.

In stage V of Moral development, not only would one rely on syntax, but would be using pragmatics to inform the construction of Moral Judgments. One would have reached an adult stage of taking into account different consequences, intentions, actions and their combinations to arrive at a moral judgement.

The above was focused more on development of Moral syntax.

Another way to see how moral lexicon develops is to consider the development of vocabulary for the Consequence Predicate.

In stage I, one may use the words ‘good-rewarding’ and ‘bad-punishing’ in the CP and the consequences would be judged based on whether they are rewarded by society (parents) or punished. This stage leads to formation of the concept ‘good’ as relevant to consequences; and acceptance of the ‘good’ over ‘bad’ as part of one’s moral lexicon.

In stage II, the words used may switch to ‘good-for-self’ and ‘good-for-other’ in the CP and one may start distinguishing on the moral judgments based on whether the consequence is good for self or for others; with ‘good-for-self’ taking precedence over ‘good-for-others’.

In stage III, the words used may switch to ‘good-feeling-self’ and ‘good-feeling-other’ in the CP. In this stage, the Consequence is judged more favorably if it leads to feelings of goodness or that of being a good person. Again, ‘good-feeling-self’ may be preferred over ‘good-feeling-others’.

In stage IV, the words used may be ‘good-for-society’ and ‘greatest good for greatest people’ in the CP. Here Consequences are classified as per whether they benefit the society as a whole or at least the greatest number of people that are involved(including oneself).

In stage V, the words used may be ‘good-for-life’, ‘good-for-property’, ‘good-for-happiness’ etc and here too one may prefer ‘good-for-life‘ over all other including ‘good-for-happiness’ or words learned in previous stages like ‘good-for-society’. At this stage the lexicon used would be reflecting the maturity reached in stage V, with individual rights being upheld and individual universal values (like human rights) preferred over societal duties or obligations to others under the social contract.

Just like for Consequence Predicate, it is easy to show, that words for Intention Predicate also keep changing and getting added as one goes through moral developmental stages.

One may start with a distinction between, ‘accidental’ and ‘intentional’ intentions and refine them with more terminals like ‘selfish intention’, ‘intention to help other’, ‘intention to be happy’, ‘intention to make happy’, ‘altruistic intention to help society’, or ‘intention to reform society/ upheld human values’

I’ll leave the discussion for now and would like to hear from readers how they intuitively feel regarding the Universal Moral Grammar and what experiments can they suggest to prove or disprove the theory?

Endgame: As Moral Judgements do not just involve atrributing whether a moral sentence (or moral act) belongs to the moral grammer (is right) or not; but also involves comparision between competing Moral Acts and a classification as to which act is ‘better’, is the analogy to Language a bit restrictive? or is it that an act is either right or wrong; and that all ‘right’ acts are equivalent and chosing any ‘right’ act (of the many possible) does not make a difference?

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