Folk grammar and morality

If you’ve spent any time with for­eign­ers learn­ing your lan­guage, you may have been in con­ver­sa­tions like this:

Mei: I’m a bit con­fused … what’s the differ­ence be­tween “even though” and “al­though”?

Albert: Um, I think they’re mostly equiv­a­lent, but “even though” is a bit more em­phatic.

Barry: Are you sure ? I re­mem­ber some­thing about one be­ing for pos­i­tives, and the other for nega­tives. For ex­am­ple, let’s see, these sen­tences sound a bit weird:”He re­fused to give me the slight­est clue, al­though I begged on my knees”, and “Although his car broke down on the first mile, he still won the rally”.

Peo­ple can’t au­to­mat­i­cally state the rules un­der­ly­ing lan­guage, even though they fol­low them perfectly in their daily speech. I’ve been made es­pe­cially aware of this when teach­ing French to Chi­nese stu­dents, where I had to fre­quently re­vise my ex­pla­na­tion, or just say “sorry, I don’t know what the rule is for this case, you’ll just have to mem­o­rize it”. You learn sep­a­rately how to speak the lan­guage and how to ap­ply the rules.

Mo­ral­ity is similar: we feel what’s wrong and what’s right, but may not be able to for­mu­late the un­der­ly­ing rules. And when we do, we’re likely to get it wrong the first time. For ex­am­ple you might say:

It has been sug­gested that an­i­mals have less sub­jec­tive ex­pe­rience than peo­ple. For ex­am­ple, it would be pos­si­ble to have an an­i­mal that counts as half a hu­man for the pur­poses of moral­ity.

But un­like gram­mar, peo­ple don’t always agree on right and wrong : if Alfred un­in­ten­tion­ally harms Barry, Barry is more likely to think that what Alfred did was morally wrong, even if both started off with similar moral in­tu­itions. So if you come up with an ex­pla­na­tion and in­sist it’s the defi­ni­tion of moral­ity, you can’t be “proven wrong” nearly as eas­ily as on gram­mar. You may even in­sist your ex­pla­na­tion is true, and ad­just your be­hav­ior ac­cord­ingly, as some re­li­gious fa­nat­ics seem to do (“what is moral is what God said” be­ing a quite com­mon rule peo­ple come up with to ex­plain moral­ity).

So: be­ware of your own ex­pla­na­tions. Mo­ral­ity is a com­plex topic, you’re even more likely to shoot your­self in the foot than with gram­mar, and even less likely to re­al­ize that you’re wrong.

(edit) Re­lated posts by Eliezer: Fake Jus­tifi­ca­tion, Fake Selfish­ness, Fake Mo­ral­ity.