In today’s scientific research there are countless accounts of the applicability of one seemingly discipline-specific theory across other disciplines; and research in moral psychology is no exception in this regard. Nowadays with the growing body of research on morality, scientists and scholars across different disciplines have started binding biology, linguistics, and psychology in studying morality and human moral behavior. As one of the outcomes of such a movement, the universal moral grammar (UMG) inspired by Noam Chomsky’s generative linguistics (1957, 1965, 2000) and John Rawl’s political philosophy (1971, 1975) has gained momentum within the past decade. The aim of UMG is describing the nature and origin of moral knowledge and development using computational models of cognition on the basis of analogical reasoning. From this perspective, the UMG strives to draw a competence-performance distinction in the moral domain to provide a basis for moral judgments and cognition (Mikhail, 2009). Looking from this lens, moral competence, inclusive of moral knowledge and moral judgment, is regarded to be modular in nature as a recursive grammatical system of computations and obtainable from a system of “universal principles and binary parameters” (Dupoux & Jacob, 2007). However, we argue that reliance on computational models and metaphors in studying morality (Iran-Nejad & Zengaro, 2013) could turn into the Achilles heel of the UMG. In this regard we argue that the “principle-and-parameter” analogy to linguistic diversity inherited by the UMG cannot truly depict the underlying mechanisms of moral knowledge and moral judgment to make use of moral information encoded in a dedicated moral grammar. We argue that morality unlike what universal moral grammar framework claims is not an innate predisposition of a set of principles and computations for generating judgments of right or wrong. On the contrary, we argue that while morality is biologically and innately functionalized, it is the outcome of the integration of multiple sources within which the body, brain, and mind go hand in hand to create a biofunctional embodiment of moral understanding and development.
Universal Grammar and Universal Morality
Universal Grammar has been regarded as a radical shift away from how language was once viewed, through the empiricist-behaviorist perspective, as a trial-error-reinforcement sequence. Advocates of generative linguistics posit that all human beings are genetically equipped with a language acquisition device (LAD) which under natural conditions enables them to understand and produce novel sentences in the language they use as their advanced medium of communication and social interaction. This ability is endowed with the universal grammar (UG), an innate set of underlying syntactic rules and principles in the human brain shared by all language users no matter what kind of specific language they use. The universal grammar hence forms the deep structure of the language which manifests itself at the surface structure when exposed to different sociolinguistic environments.
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The metaphor of the universal grammar has been adopted by some moral psychologists (e.g. Hauser, 2006; Mikhail, 2007) who have been trying to investigate the underlying rules of moral judgments and decisions. Proponents of universal moral grammar believe in a universal grammar-like moral faculty. The core idea behind universal moral grammar is that all human beings are equipped with some sort of moral faculty that is consciously inaccessible but works tacitly to enable them to make moral judgments of right or wrong (Pinker, 2014). Grammar in the UMG means that there is a set of fixed and finite principles and computations which generates right and wrong choices to sustain an endless number of moral decisions. The principles of UMG are organized around five main themes focusing on the constituents or the structure of moral knowledge and the processes of acquisition, usability, representation in the brain, and its evolution (Mikhail, 2007). Theoretically these premises posit the idea that human beings are endowed with a pre-wired moral faculty, like the pre-wired language faculty, which is the source of universal moral grammar, and generates intuitions on the rightness or wrongness of actions. The empirical support for the universality of moral grammar seems to be found in three main lines of research on moral dumfounding (e.g. Haidt, 2001), non-reversibility of social authority (e.g Turiel, 1983), and trolley dilemmas (e.g. Hauser, et al., 2007). In “moral dumbfounding” it is stated that people cannot come up with justifiable explanation for their moral choices. They may condemn a morally objectionable action or be willing to change their initial judgments of the actions without being able to tell why, the same thing as happens in justifying their grammatical judgments. In “non-reversibility of social authority”, it is believed that moral rules behave differently from conventional social rules, which depend on the acceptance of some social authority and are reversible at the authority’s request. Conversely, moral norms are not reversible at some authority’s request. And in “trolley dilemmas” it is believed that like grammatical judgment, moral judgments are also complex and unconscious. They are believed to involve similar deep surface hierarchies encompassing language-like underlying structures as well as potentially-inconsistent “superficial description of an action” (Mikhail, 2007). For example, people may accept saving the lives of a group at the expense of wasting the life of one by moving a switch but not pushing one person into the path of a trolley to save the life of others.
The Universality of Biofunctional<>Psychological Cycle of Moral Understanding
The proponents of UMG explicitly state that universal moral grammar is computational and modular in nature. UMG processes take place statically within hierarchically organized and linear higher-order or underlying structures. From this perspective the individual develops some sort of connectionist or associative schema stored in the brain and mentally represented to support judgments of right or wrong. However, developments in biofunctional research point to an alternative perspective (Iran-Nejad & Zengaro, 2013). According to biofunctional theory, the development of morality and moral decision making is dependent upon the “dynamic and ever-changing” activity of the nervous and bodily systems (Alldredge et al., 2000). Unlike what is claimed in UMG about computational transformations in mental or moral structures, changes at the psychological level may be necessary but insufficient. Also in question is the very nature of stored underlying structures. Rather, in it its universal manifestation, morality is first and foremost is a biofunctional-understanding process that occurs below the level of dynamic intuitions or intuitive knowledge which by itself is influenced by the cyclical reorganization of nervous system functions to provide qualitative difference in moral judgments (Iran-Nejad, 2013).
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The only area that both universal moral grammar and biofunctional moral understanding may have something in common is the reference both make to biology. However, the biological layout in universal moral grammar hypothesis is determined in biological modularity even at the level of the universal genotypic level. By contrast, biofunctional theory holds that modularity is mostly phenotypic in nature (Iran-Nejad, Clore, and Vondruska, 1984). In this fashion, biofunctional moral understanding offers a dramatically different perspective of filling the gap between representational modularity and nonrepresentational universality (Iran-Nejad, 2000). Consequently, modular moral behavior becomes the function of dynamically distributed nervous and bodily systems with the mediatory role of self-regulating bodily nervous systems but not the consequence of some innately inaccessible set of finite structures stored in the head alone. The self-regulatory process of moral behavior occurs at two active and dynamic levels (Iran-Nejad, 2000). Dynamic moral self-regulation occurs at the level of biology as the result of natural biofunctional-understanding processes (Iran-Nejad, 1990). And active moral self-regulation happens as the result of effortful psychological-understanding processes (Iran-Nejad & Chissom, 1992). These types of self-regulation processes work hand in hand in the process of moral judgment when there is a moral dilemma. In such cases dynamic self-regulation serves to bring different sources of understanding available in relevant external social contexts or internal emotional and affective states. Likewise, active self-regulation strives to guide the physical nervous system’s figure-ground navigation system (Iran-Nejad, 2000) to the specific content and its structure where moral dilemmas occur in context.
Biofunctional Moral Development
As mentioned earlier a UMG-based moral decision is the result of purely structural and computational processing of of moral rules and principles. However, the development of morality from a biofunctional perspective relies on the universal nature of the biofunctional <> psychological spiral of understanding (Iran-Nejad, 2013). This spiral by itself is formed through the dynamic nature of the self-regulatory interaction between the two types of understanding alongside two types of knowledge as thematic or intuitive (immediately biofunctional) and categorical or taxonomic (immediately psychological) knowledge. For example as stated earlier the case for “trolley dilemmas” has been excessively used to support the UMG. What is supported here is the idea that moral knowledge or moral competence is modular in its structures, rules, and principles which are independent of the type of moral knowledge and their explicit justification (Dupoux & Jacob, 2007). This is exactly the same logic followed in universal grammar which sees the finite innate grammatical rules independent of meaning. On the other hand, there is no apparent way as to how moral performance by analogy to linguistic performance can integrate the role of emotions and affective states in the process of moral decision making and moral competence. In defense of such a stance Hauser (2006) contributes emotions to the moral performance. Such a kind of dichotomization is reminiscent of the “affect primacy” (Zajonc, 1984) and “cognition primacy” (e.g. Lazarous, 1984) debate first in the 1980s and again in the 1990s (Lazarus, 2000; Zajonc, 2001). According to the affective primacy the repeated mere exposure to the external stimuli (i.e., familiarity) is the source of affect (Zajonc, 1984; 2000) without the mediatory role of cognition. The premise is that, upon receiving environmental stimuli, these capacities are first evaluated to determine appropriate reactions (evocative vs. inhibitive). The limbic system then ascribes affective valences to the received stimulus and this valence ascription affects all aspects of cognition such as attention, memory and information processing (Panksepp, 2007). Moreover, there are some evidences which support the argument that moral knowledge and emotional responses are linked to each other and violation from moral norms provokes emotional responses (Blair, 1995; Blair et al., 2006).
Summary and Conclusions
Research on moral psychology has strived to provide a detailed account of the underlying mechanisms of human moral judgment. Universal Moral Grammar hypothesis provides a modular and computational description of human moral understanding and judgments rooted in innate pre-organized moral faculty. Such kind of moral faculty requires receiving and processing discrete inputs independent of emotional responses and valences to these stimuli. The point here is that unlike what UMG claims, valences associated with an action cannot be treated as a function of the discrete constituents of an action. Valences and emotional responses are qualitatively continuous which cannot be fully explained and conceived from a binary principle-and-parameter approach acquired by UG and hence UMG (Dupoux & Jacob, 2007). However, biofunctional theory of moral understanding posits that the functional, bodily and nervous systems inclusive of the brain and mind are involved in the integrative interplay of making moral decisions. There are two levels of functioning at biological and psychological levels respectively (Iran-Nejad & Zengaro, 2013). At the level of biology, diverse aspects of morality such as moral knowledge or moral emotion–competence as a whole–are mutually inclusive and non-modular ongoing biofunctional activity in the nervous system, to which the computational metaphor does not apply in any direct sense of the term. Likewise at the level of psychology, moral performance or the representation of moral decision is the product of mutually exclusive momentary constellation firing of the nervous system (Iran-Nejad, Marsh, and Clements, 1992). These two types of activity push the representation of two types of qualitatively different self-awareness namely as thematic knowledge and categorical knowledge which make use of multiple sources of learning (internal and external) through an integration with the active and dynamic sources of self-regulation and facilitate the re-construction of intuitive moral knowledge base.
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