Thursday, February 02, 2012

Review of John Mikhail's "Elements of Moral Cognition"

At "Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews", Mark Phelan reviews "Elements of Moral Cognition: Rawls' Linguistic Analogy and the Cognitive Science of Moral and Legal Judgment" (Cambridge University Press, 2011) by John Mikhail

Review: "Elements of Moral Cognition"

In Elements of Moral Cognition, John Mikhail clarifies and attempts to vindicate John Rawls' linguistic analogy, according to which moral cognition is usefully modeled on Chomsky's account of linguistic cognition. In the first part of the book, Mikhail explicates key aspects of Chomsky's theory of language, shows how these have analogues in moral theory, and demonstrates Rawls' awareness of the isomorphism via key quotes from early works. In drawing out these analogies with linguistics, Mikhail suggests a new framework for moral theorizing. In the second part, Mikhail attempts to ground the empirical significance of this new framework by showing how it allows for a provisional description of "the mature individual's system of moral knowledge," and thereby explains a number of commonsense moral intuitions. In the third part, Mikhail shows how the new framework allows for forceful responses to some early criticisms of Rawls' linguistic analogy.

This book is both enlightening and frustrating. It is incredibly well-informed and, consequently, incredibly dense. Press reviews for the book -- from Noam Chomsky, Gilbert Harman, and Frans De Waal -- accurately note the conceptual depth, careful execution, and great erudition with which Mikhail's central claims are developed. The text includes twenty-three epigraphs and only ten chapters. I worry that many readers will find the book overwhelming and tedious, wonder whether defending an analogy Rawls drew early in his career is worth all the effort, and abandon it midway. To abandon or ignore this book on that basis would be a mistake.

I look forward to seeing his future work on the topic. Despite its limitations, readers will learn a lot from Elements of Moral Cognition.

See my previous post on John Mikhail's book here (with links to some of his papers).

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