Jesse Prinz: rejecting moral nativism

“They are the successive perceptions only, that constitute the mind;
nor have we the most distant notion of the place, where these scenes
are represented, or of the materials, of which it is compos’d.”

David Hume asserted that our moral judgments originated not in reason but in the passions, what metaethics now terms “moral sense theory” or “sentimentalism.”

There is a fashion for Humean ethics, with moral philosophers advocating “sentimental” theories of the structures of human morality. Their metaethical interest is in the mechanisms of our ethical capacity rather than in the normative contents of moral codes.

One of these metaethical writers, Jesse Prinz, was introduced last time. Here, I want to look at his non-nativist ideas in more detail, relying on two longer articles, “Is Morality Innate?” and “Against Moral Nativism.”

Prinz argues that morality is not innate. He differentiates three versions of the nativist argument, what he terms “immodest”, “modest,” and “minimal.”

The “immodest” argument claims that there are universal moral norms, shared in different manifestations by all viable human cultures. Prinz makes short work of this position, pointing out effectively that there is large and sometimes contradictory cultural variation in moral prescriptions and prohibitions. If human morality were in fact universal, these variations either would not exist or would not be significant.

For example, Prinz suggests that even if there were once innate rules against harm, or at least against harming the innocent, the development of rational capacity gives us the means to overpower or ignore any predisposition:

I would surmise that our default tendencies are to be pretty pleasant to each other. The difficulty is that humans, unlike squirrels, can recognize through rational reflection, that violence can have positive payoffs. With that, there is considerable risk for nastiness, and that risk, not biology, drives the construction of harm norms.

Prinz also rejects the “modest” nativist claim that while there may not be a single normative morality, there are “universal domains,” innate “mental modules”  into which specific moral rules naturally fall. This view, prominently suggested by Jonathan Haidt, identifies four major moral domains: harm (suffering), hierarchy (authority), reciprocity, and purity. In this view, as Prinz summarizes, “the moral domains do not furnish us with a universal morality, but rather with a universal menu of categories for moral construal.”

Prinz argues that for “universal domain” theory to be true, moral domains would need to be universal, unlearned, and “essentially moral.” He points to the variable stress put on different domains by different cultures as evidence against universality. He also suggests that the well-founded association of moral capacity with emotions points to a way in which moral domains may be learned, rather than being necessarily innate:

Are the four domains necessarily innate, or is there an alternative explanation of how they emerge? One alternative is suggested by the fact that the domains are associated with different emotions. Let’s grant that the emotions mentioned by Haidt and Joseph are innate. We are innately endowed with sympathy, respect, anger, disgust, and so on. These innate emotions may be sufficient to explain how moral domains emerge.

Prinz relies on the same evidence to reject the idea that moral modules are essentially rather than functionally moral:

The four domains that Haidt and Joseph postulate may not be essentially moral. They may be outgrowths of universal emotions that evolved for something other than moral judgment. Each of the emotions they mention has nonmoral applications.

The four moral domains may be byproducts of basic emotions.

The third form of innate morality, “minimal” nativism, acknowledges that there is no universal moral code; it accepts that the emotions are the basis of moral capacity. At the same time, “modest” nativism claims that there is a “divide” between moral rules and conventional rules. Even this is not enough for Prinz, who raises three barriers to acceptance. He argues:

Moral rules are said to have three defining characteristics: they are considered more serious than conventional rules; they are justified by appeal to their harmful effects on a victim; and they are regarded as objectively true, independent of what anyone happens to believe about them.

Prinz discusses cases in which one or more of these criteria for moral rules is present in non-moral situations, including the example of someone “gratuitously sawing off one’s own foot,” in which case all three criteria are met, but there is no moral context. (At least, not for the actor, although anyone who stood by and watched him do the deed would be very likely to feel moral compulsion to intervene!)

Prinz believes that moral rules are not different than other rules; rather, there is one kind of rule, with different components. These components, or dimensions, do not require universal rules, universal domains, or even a universal moral awareness. In his view:

I would say that the moral dimensions of rules are the dimensions that are psychologically grounded in moral sentiments. On my criteria, any dimension of a rule enforced by emotions of self-blame and other-blame and directed at third parties qualifies as a moral rule.

He points out that different cultures consider the same rules differently. What we may consider merely conventional another culture may consider moral, and vice versa. This is especially evident, Prinz writes, with regard to purity rules.

Finally, Prinz considers the “linguistic analogy,” which compares innate moral capacity to innate language capacity, as proposed by Chomsky. Prinz argues that an innate “moral module” would have to be both functionally and anatomically modular. That is, it would have to have developed for the specific purpose of enabling a moral sense. Instead, Prinz proposes that morality, like religion, appears everywhere not because it is innate but because it is “a nearly inevitable consequence of other capacities”:

(1)   Nonmoral emotions. Emotional conditioning (the main method used in moral education) may allow us to construct behavioral norms from our innate stock of emotions.

(2)   Metaemotions. In addition to our first-order emotions, we can have emotions about emotions.

(3)   Perspective taking (theory of mind). Nonhuman animals can be emotionally conditioned to behave in conformity with rules, but they usually do not respond negatively when third-party conspecifics violate those rules.

(4)   Nonmoral preferences and behavioral dispositions. In addition to our innate stock of emotions, there may be some innate social behaviors that lend themselves to moralization.

The universal need to achieve social stability guarantees that some system of moral rules will be devised.

For Prinz, then, morality is not universal, nor is it in any sense innate. It is, rather, “the result of a general purpose conditioning mechanism”  and “a new use for systems that evolved to serve other functions.” In short, “Morality is a byproduct of other capacities.”

What are the implications for us if Prinz is correct? In the “Appendix” to “Against Moral Nativism,” Prinz attempts to answer the question. The following passages outline the key ideas of the Appendix:

Moral norms are products of nonrational enculturation, not deliberation and deduction from shared first principles. People moralize different things because they are inculcated into different value systems—systems that have emerged though cultural evolution under the pressure of social and ecological conditions that may be specific to a particular group.

The biological underpinnings of morality cannot be used to adjudicate between competing values. This amounts to a strong form of descriptive moral relativism. As a matter of descriptive fact, the are cultural differences in morality that cannot be resolved by appeal to shared moral norms.

Cool reason can no more do that than it can resolve debates about whether Bridgette Bardot is better looking than Marilyn Monroe. If I am right about that, then cross-cultural moral disputes cannot be rationally adjudicated.

Metaethical moral relativism is the view that there is not a single true morality. Different moral codes can have equal claim to being right.

The truthmaker for moral claims lies not in Plato’s heaven, Kant’s deductions, or Darwin’s descent, but in us.

Moral convictions are cultivated by human societies, and moral facts are determined by these convictions. This means that morality is a work in progress. Perhaps we can play a role in revising morality to suit various non-moral needs.


Next time, we’ll examine Simon Blackburn’s criticism of moral relativism. After that, I’ll wrap up this series on morality by highlighting John Teehan’s recent book, In the Name of God. Finally, I’ll present my own thoughts on the best way to understand morality, using some of the ideas from this series.

If you’re enjoying this series on contemporary moral thinkers, thanks go to a very well-read friend of mine who has been feeding me book titles and author’s names for several weeks.

If you’re not enjoying it, blame me for not making it more engaging.