Sunday’s Sermon Review: On Morality


Title: Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture, and Wisdom
Author: Darcia Narvaez
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 978-0-393-70655-0

Review by Bob Lane, Professor Emeritus Vancouver Island University

Narvaez writes, “Today there is often no logical grounding for morality and therefore no need to behave morally.” (249) In this interdisciplinary, well-researched, readable book she attempts to find, describe, and present arguments for that missing logical grounding with suggestions for the development of better people and better societies. The dozen chapters that comprise the book can be seen as either a paradigm shift or a sea change in moral philosophy. She advocates a care ethic based on a wide array of biological, environmental, and epigenetic factors.

Who doesn’t 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. Similarly, Narvaez argues that “(1) morality emerges from biology and embodiment – our lived experience; (2) our morality is multi-dimensional and arises from our evolved brain propensities. Through epigenetics and developmental plasticity…” we grow our moral sense.  (3) Cultures are malleable and can either “encourage or discourage our highest human nature.” (4) Humans can “self-author virtue and wisdom capacities” to change culture. As with language acquisition we come into world biologically prepared for the development of a moral sense.

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. 5–6-year-olds use false factual beliefs but not false moral beliefs to exculpate*.

Indeed, even animals have feelings of empathy and expectations of reciprocity.

The UMG can help to explain some universal and cross-cultural intuitive judgments in moral thought experiments such as the Trolley Problem (almost universal acceptance) or Fat Man and Surgeon (almost universal rejection). These universal judgments are best explained by the existence of stable and innate intuitions and tacit knowledge of rules and concepts because the judgments are quick, unreflective, difficult to justify and identical across demographic groups (including children).

Many people cannot articulate the foreseen/intended distinction [between these moral dilemmas] …, a sign that it is being made at inaccessible levels of the mind. This inability challenges the general belief that moral behavior is learned. For if people cannot articulate the foreseen/intended distinction, how can they teach it?

Drawing on recent research in biology, neurobiology, psychology and anthropology Narvaez presents a compelling case for emotion as a tool kit used “to organize and coordinate action.” She seems to agree with David Hume who famously observed, “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.” She brings nature and nurture, reason and emotion, individual and nature together again instead of splitting them asunder. She spends a fair amount of time writing about the positive aspects of our ancestors in their hunting and gathering societies where a care ethic seems to have been an essential part of survival. She is on the side of Rousseau and the noble savage as opposed to Hobbes and his description of pre-contract life as “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Throughout the book Narvaez emphasizes the importance of early childhood care and nurturing because “Early life sets up neuronal value systems – that is,  which emotional systems will dominate personality and social interaction.” (64) In short, we grow a language; we grow a moral sense. We grow a soul. And when that soul is properly nurtured – with love and care, safety and imagination, then that love and empathy will extend to other animals and to the Earth itself.

The book is filled with charts and drawings – each of the twelve chapters has its share of instructive figures as well as useful summaries at the conclusion of the discussions. But it also has some fine little stories to emphasize a point or provide a window into the heart and mind of the author. It will be an extremely useful textbook in philosophy, psychology, and interdisciplinary studies, as well as a good read for anyone interested in morality and its genesis. One concept she refers to often is “essence” which she seems to think is descriptive of the state we humans could achieve if we would only pay close attention to the early care of our children as we help them through loving care to develop not only a language but also a moral sense.

A flavour of the book? It concludes: When our cultures and imaginations rejoin the biotic community, we will cherish and care for the magnificence of our dearest friend, Nature. We will not only love it, but heal it. We will find our true essence in the loving and being with. The universe sings. Can we hear it? (307)


Bob Lane is Professor Emeritus in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.

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