Title: Moral Imagination
Author: David Bromwich
Publisher: Princeton University Press
David Bromwich is Sterling Professor of English at Yale University who has written widely on language and politics, language and power. The epigram to the current book comes from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “Th’abuse of greatness is when it disjoins/ Remorse from power. That seems to strike the perfect tone for the dozen essays that follow. Remorse, of course, means deep and painful regret for wrongdoing; and is an internal emotion, a strong feeling based on a sense of right and wrong. We are learning in this century that feelings of right and wrong may indeed be like other innate faculties that we are born with, e.g., language acquisition.
Remember the work of Noam Chomsky in the field of linguistics and language acquisition? Chomsky taught us that there is a universal grammar and pointed as evidence to the fact that even very young children seem to have the ability to apply grammar rules that they obviously haven’t been taught. Kids know more about language than we can explain by pointing to what they have been taught.
During the first half of the 20th century, linguists who theorized about the human ability to speak did so from the behaviourist perspective that prevailed at that time. They therefore held that language learning, like any other kind of learning, could be explained by a succession of trials, errors, and rewards for success. In other words, children learned their mother tongue by simple imitation, listening to and repeating what adults said.
This view became radically questioned, however, by the American linguist Noam Chomsky. For Chomsky, acquiring language cannot be reduced to simply developing an inventory of responses to stimuli, because every sentence that anyone produces can be a totally new combination of words. When we speak, we combine a finite number of elements—the words of our language—to create an infinite number of larger structures—sentences.
Moreover, language is governed by a large number of rules and principles, particularly those of syntax, which determine the order of words in sentences. The term “generative grammar” refers to the set of rules that enables us to understand sentences but of which we are usually totally unaware. It is because of generative grammar that everyone says “that’s how you say it” rather than “how that’s you it say”, or that the words “Bob” and “him” cannot mean the same person in the sentence “Bob loves him.” but can do so in “Bob knows that his father loves him.”
Even before the age of 5, children can, without having had any formal instruction, consistently produce and interpret sentences that they have never encountered before. It is this extraordinary ability to use language despite having had only very partial exposure to the allowable syntactic variants that led Chomsky to formulate his “poverty of the stimulus” argument, which was the foundation for the new approach that he proposed in the early 1960s.
In Chomsky’s view, the reason that children so easily master the complex operations of language is that they have innate knowledge of certain principles that guide them in developing the grammar of their language. In other words, Chomsky’s theory is that language learning is facilitated by a predisposition that our brains have for certain structures of language.
But what language? For Chomsky’s theory to hold true, all of the languages in the world must share certain structural properties. And indeed, Chomsky and other generative linguists like him have shown that the 5000 to 6000 languages in the world, despite their very different grammars, do share a set of syntactic rules and principles. These linguists believe that this “universal grammar” is innate and is embedded somewhere in the neuronal circuitry of the human brain. And that would be why children can select, from all the sentences that come to their minds, only those that conform to a “deep structure” encoded in the brain’s circuits.
In a similar move in moral philosophy some recent work in experimental philosophy suggests that we may grow a morality in a way similar to the way we grow a language.
Do children have an innate pre-disposition to make certain sorts of moral judgement? Is there such a thing as a universal moral grammar? John Mikhail of Georgetown University suspects that there is an innate basis to our morality analogous to Noam Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device. This theory is similar to the linguistic claims made by Chomsky about universal grammar and about the fact that even very young children seem to have the ability to apply grammar rules that they obviously haven’t been taught. Analogously, we know moral rules without having learned them, and this knowledge is universal across cultures.
For example, 3–4-year-old children use intent or purpose to distinguish two acts that have the same result. They also distinguish ‘genuine’ moral violations (e.g. battery or theft) from violations of social conventions (e.g. wearing pajamas to school). 4–5-year-olds use a proportionality principle to determine the correct level of punishment for principals and accessories.
The work done in this area of philosophy and psychology serves to underpin much of the material that Bromwich discusses in his essays. Bromwich demonstrates that moral imagination allows us to judge the right and wrong of actions apart from any benefit to ourselves, and he believes that this ability is an innate individual strength, rather than a socially conditioned habit, much like the language that we employ.
These essays are wide-ranging, addressing thinkers and topics from Gandhi and Martin Luther King on nonviolent resistance to the problems of multi-culturalism and identity politics. Throughout the work Bromwich emphasizes the relationship between language and power and language and the corruption of power. He insists that moral imagination allows us to judge the right and wrong of actions apart from any benefit to ourselves, and he suggests that this ability is an innate individual strength, rather than a socially conditioned habit. I use the words “insist” and “suggest” because this is not a philosophy book on the nature of morality with arguments and counter arguments developing a theory of morality.
In a discussion published in Prospect Magazine Bromwich reflects on his notion of moral imagination:
But the phrase “moral imagination” comes from Burke, from a passage in the Reflections on the Revolution in France. He’s talking about the “wardrobe” of moral imagination and it’s knowing, so to speak, how to use clothing from that wardrobe that allows us to know that the Queen of France ought not to be subjected to humiliation. I think the best sentence that I can find to define the moral imagination comes from Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry”, where he talks about what he calls “love”: “a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own.” It’s that identification of ourselves with something quite radically not our own that I take as definitive of the moral imagination—as opposed to what people now like to call empathy (I feel for you because you’re just like me and I’ve been there) or what I call energetic fantasy, the idea that you and yours, your people, are out to do good for the world and therefore ought to be supported. This sort of fantasy is, I think, deep in the doctrine of American exceptionalism, which has stolen on my country over the past twenty years with a grip that now baffles and disturbs me very much.
Chapter 10 “What is the West” is a sophisticated review of Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest which can serve as a model for criticism. Bromwich assesses the book thusly: “ Civilization: The West and the Rest is a rich, undercooked, and finally inedible gumbo.”
Bromwich’s book of essays is rich, well-cooked and a most satisfying dish.
Bob Lane is a Philosophy Professor Emeritus at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.