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The Nature of Morals: How Universal Moral Grammar Provides the Conceptual Basis for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

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I argue that theoretical developments in the study of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) should occur alongside progress in moral psychology, particularly moral cognition. More specifically, I argue that Universal Moral Grammar (UMG), a model positing an innate, regulative, and universal moral faculty characterizable in terms of rules and principles, fulfills the role of the foundational model needed to usefully conceptualize the UDHR. As such, I provide a detailed account of UMG against competing models in moral psychology. Furthermore, I combine UMG with Talbott’s Historical-Social Process of Moral Discovery and Rawls’s reflective equilibrium to show how the UDHR represents a major development in moral exploration, one indicating a more penetrative look into the inner moral nature of humans that attempts to reach, but does not attain, one interpretation of reflective equilibrium tied to cognitive moral psychology.

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  1. Under UMG, norms are not innate, and convergence on norms does not indicate the innateness of norms and social rules (Dwyer 2008, pp. 409–411).

  2. For an explication of Rawls’s “linguistic analogy” see Mikhail (2011).

  3. Marks has argued that “research [into human nature] will enhance our understanding of human rights and human nature if pursued rigorously (Marks 2013, p. 118) and McCauliff notes that “The recognition of the gap between cognition and consensus in the thought of philosophers Maritain and Rawls also finds expression in cognitive science” (McCauliff 2009, p. 436). Though, neither of these authors argue for the priority of UMG over alternative models.

  4. This counter-intuitive but helpful structure was recommended by an anonymous reviewer.

  5. This useful objection was raised by an anonymous reviewer.

  6. See Chomsky (2015) for brief remarks on this supposed tension within linguistics.

  7. Prinz accepts that “moral rules contain representations of actions, and these representations may take the form of prototypes of exemplars (e.g., a typical murder)” (Prinz 2008, p. 168). However, it is not clear that Prinz understands the depth of complexity even of a “prototype” of a “typical murder.”

  8. This objection was raised by an anonymous reviewer.

  9. “These systems are not responsible for generating representations of actions, intentions, causes, and outcomes; rather, they are responsible for combining these representations in a productive fashion, ultimately generating a moral judgment” (Hauser et al. 2008, p. 173).


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This paper has benefitted from the continuous support of and feedback from Adam Lusk, Michael Thompson, and Alan Preti. Special thanks go to David Traven whose comments to an unknown undergraduate have made this project possible. Further gratitude goes to William Talbott for his words of encouragement. I would also like to thank the Editors at the Human Rights Review for a chance to submit these revisions, as well as the two anonymous reviewers for their constructive feedback.


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Correspondence to Vincent J. Carchidi.

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Carchidi, V.J. The Nature of Morals: How Universal Moral Grammar Provides the Conceptual Basis for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hum Rights Rev 21, 65–92 (2020).

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