Chomsky and Moral Philosophy

The Cambridge Companion to Chomsky (J. McGilvray, ed., 2nd edition), Forthcoming

17 Pages Posted: 9 Apr 2016 Last revised: 2 Jul 2017

See all articles by John Mikhail

John Mikhail

Georgetown University Law Center

Date Written: April 6, 2016


Every great philosopher has important things to say about moral philosophy. Chomsky is no exception. Chomsky’s remarks on this topic, however, are not systematic. Instead, they consist mainly of brief and occasional asides. Although often provocative, they tend to come across as digressions from his central focus on linguistics and related disciplines, such as epistemology, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind. Perhaps as a result, moral philosophers have paid relatively little attention to Chomsky over the past sixty years.

This neglect is unfortunate. Chomsky’s insights into the nature and origin of human morality are fundamental and penetrating. They address deep philosophical problems that have shaped the aims of moral philosophy for centuries. They also reinforce many of the lessons Chomsky has taught about the nature and origins of human language. Elaborating upon these themes, this chapter begins by recounting two of Chomsky’s most extensive discussions of moral philosophy, each of which draws attention to the fact that, like linguistic knowledge, moral knowledge is an example of Plato’s problem: a complex mental competence characterized by a profound poverty of the stimulus. The chapter then places these remarks in a broader context by providing a brief discussion of mentalist, modular, and nativist theories of moral cognition from Plato to the present. Finally, the chapter responds to one prominent criticism of Chomsky’s naturalistic approach to moral philosophy, that of the late philosopher, Bernard Williams. I argue that Williams’ “Wittgensteinian” skepticism about moral rules is no more convincing than a similar skepticism about grammatical rules.

Keywords: Chomsky, Plato, Cicero, Aquinas, Grotius, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Darwin, Wittgenstein, Williams, Kripke, moral competence, moral grammar, Universal Grammar, UG, UMG, mentalism, modularity, nativism, poverty of the stimulus, conscience, synderesis, conscientia, natural law

JEL Classification: D63, D64, K00, K13, K14

Suggested Citation

Mikhail, John, Chomsky and Moral Philosophy (April 6, 2016). The Cambridge Companion to Chomsky (J. McGilvray, ed., 2nd edition), Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

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