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Elements of Moral Cognition: Rawls' Linguistic Analogy and the Cognitive Science of Moral and Legal Judgment Hardcover – June 13, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


"Judicious, carefully executed, and deeply informed, this valuable study builds upon the early work of John Rawls, including his now-classic Theory of Justice, identifying its core principles, persuasively defending them against critics, deepening them conceptually and developing rich empirical foundations. It thereby provides the outlines of a naturalistic theory of moral judgment and moral cognition, which may well be a common human possession. One conclusion with broad consequences is that moral cognition crucially relies on the generation of complex mental representations of actions and their components. Mikhail's enterprise resurrects fundamental themes of traditional moral philosophy and Enlightenment rationalism, while showing how they can be cast as empirical science with far-reaching implications for political, social, and legal theory. It is a most impressive contribution."
--Noam Chomsky

"John Mikhail's Elements of Moral Cognition: Rawls Linguistic Analogy And The Cognitive Science of Moral Judgment carefully and convincingly explains John Rawls' remarks in his Theory of Justice about a possible analogy between linguistics and moral theory, showing that most commentators have mischaracterized these remarks and have therefore misunderstood important aspects of Rawls' early writings. (This is the best account I have read of Rawls.) In addition Mikhail takes the linguistic analogy more seriously than other researchers and develops the beginnings of a kind of moral grammar that is somewhat analogous to the grammar of a language. The grammar he envisions has rules characterizing more or less complex actions, rules that derive partly from Alvin Goldman's Theory of Action and uses concepts taken from common law. He also speculates on the implications of the possibility that a moral grammar of this sort might account for aspects of ordinary moral judgments, comparing morality with language. I believe that Mikhail's current work in this area as reported in his book is the most important contemporary development in moral theory."
--Gilbert Harman, Stuart Professor of Philosophy, Princeton University

"Finally, a book that compares our current knowledge of human morality against the idea of an inborn rule-based system, not unlike universal grammar. With great erudition, John Mikhail carefully discusses all of the steps needed to understand this linguistic parallel, adding a new perspective to the ongoing debate about an evolved moral sense."
--Frans de Waal, author of "The Age of Empathy" (Harmony, 2009)

Book Description

The book's main purpose is to explore whether the science of moral cognition is usefully modeled on aspects of Noam Chomsky's theory of Universal Grammar. Just as Chomsky argued that human beings are born with innate knowledge of grammar, so Mikhail suggests that humans might possess innate moral knowledge, and he shows how this question can be usefully investigated.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (June 13, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521855780
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521855785
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,238,495 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Joao Ricardo Barroca Mendes on December 20, 2012
Format: Hardcover
This book is something new on Ethics and this is one of the reasons why I gave it 5 stars.

This is not a total beginner's book. You need some background on Cognitive Sciences and both Normative Ethics and Meta-Ethics. Often Mikhail is highly technical and he can use an entire chapter to cover a relatively unimportant issue. I think Mikhail is too generous to Rawls and attribute to him most of his own greater insights. So, ironically, you don't need much previous knowledge on Ralws' Theory of justice. Some basic understanding on Chomsky's ideas will help, but Mikhail will provide you with most you will need.

Mikhail proposal can be oversimplified by the following points:

1) There are some genetic encodings on our moral cognitions that should be common to all normal people regardless its cultural background.
2) The basic process created by this genetic encoding can be described on a similar way that of a Formal Grammar or any other cognitive process.
3) You can do Empirical research to uncover those invariant moral processes. This should be done by vanilla scientific method: you do some hypotheses and test those hypotheses against empirical data.
4) You have prima facie reason to believe that those processes have Normative force.
But prepare yourself to a MUCH deeper and nuanced analysis of those issues. And Mikhail will provide you with both reliable empirical data from the famous Trolley problems and a convincing cognitive model that match those data. And surprise: the heart of his model (the principle of double effect) has being around at least since Aquinas. Even so, Mikhail version is a master piece of precision.

I think Mikhail is basically the single guy pointing on the right direction while so many are talking no sense.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Let's Compare Options Preptorial TOP 500 REVIEWER on October 1, 2013
Format: Hardcover
First, since the left canonizes and the right demonizes John Rawls, I was quite surprised that Mikhail gave him a subtitle in this book. The truth is, very few of Rawls actual theories are employed here; rather, Mikhail uses Rawls as a "set up" for opening the door to a universal grammar type "neural encoding" of morality. He quotes an important concept by Rawls, for example, when Rawls decries the "semantic differences" of philosophical aspects of morality such as term and hair splitting about epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, etc. (p. 213) instead of moral theory and research. BUT Mikhail's ideas are original and more related to Chomsky than Rawls, the aforementioned being mostly to support stepping outside of the semantic differences of philosophy to look more closely at, for example, culture and genetics.

I bring this up because I don't want you to be turned off by the mention of Rawls if you dismiss him, love him or hate him-- this is pure Mikhail, not Rawls or Chomsky. Rawls is not as good or bad as promoted, and in fact A Theory of Justice is an important read. But Mikhail also refers to a number of his other books to lightly touch on jurisprudence and economics as well.

Mikhail's ideas are novel and difficult. This is a slow, nuanced, highly techno-speak oriented text, and you need either a good grounding in moral theory terms, or Wikipedia close at hand. Chomsky attempts (and still does) to remove grammar from "common use" to a more testable premise base, with the attendant jargon so characteristic of that translation. Mikhail uses the same syllogism and inductive process to (generalize) common moral terminology to a possibly hard wired universal ethics, in the spirit of Chomsky's universal grammar.
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