September 29, 2008

Tracing Moral Sensibilities

Moral Sense
By Anna Wierzbicka

The concept of ‘moral sense’ plays an important role in books on philosophy, psychology and popular science written by authors who write in English and who take the English language for granted. For example, in his recent book The God Delusion Richard Dawkins states that “we have a moral sense which is built into our brains, like our sexual instinct or our fear of heights”. Yet there is no expression like moral sense in other languages, not even European ones like Spanish or German, let alone non-European ones, like Chinese. Nor was there any moral sense in English before the phrase was invented by so-called “British moralists” – Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Hume. This paper traces the origins of the modern Anglo/English concept of ‘moral sense’ in the influence of Locke’s empiricist philosophy on the eighteenth-century ‘British moralists’, and through them, on the language of British natural scientists, and especially Darwin.

Thus, the paper argues that when contemporary scientists of the English language like Dawkins, Hauser, and others write about the ‘moral sense’ and present it as a panhuman characteristic evolved through biological evolution, they are looking at “human nature” and “human morality” through the prism of the English language. Seeing the phrase moral sense, and the discourse based on it, in a cross-linguistic and historical perspective can help us to stretch our imagination as to different possible conceptions of “morality” and to go beyond the culture-bound vision of what Dawkins calls “moral sense” and Hauser, a “universal sense of right and wrong”.

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