The Linguistic Analogy: Motivations, Results, and Speculations


should be sent to Susan Dwyer, Department of Philosophy, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742. E-mail:


Inspired by the success of generative linguistics and transformational grammar, proponents of the linguistic analogy (LA) in moral psychology hypothesize that careful attention to folk-moral judgments is likely to reveal a small set of implicit rules and structures responsible for the ubiquitous and apparently unbounded capacity for making moral judgments. As a theoretical hypothesis, LA thus requires a rich description of the computational structures that underlie mature moral judgments, an account of the acquisition and development of these structures, and an analysis of those components of the moral system that are uniquely human and uniquely moral. In this paper we present the theoretical motivations for adopting LA in the study of moral cognition: (a) the distinction between competence and performance, (b) poverty of stimulus considerations, and (c) adopting the computational level as the proper level of analysis for the empirical study of moral judgment. With these motivations in hand, we review recent empirical findings that have been inspired by LA and which provide evidence for at least two predictions of LA: (a) the computational processes responsible for folk-moral judgment operate over structured representations of actions and events, as well as coding for features of agency and outcomes; and (b) folk-moral judgments are the output of a dedicated moral faculty and are largely immune to the effects of context. In addition, we highlight the complexity of the interfaces between the moral faculty and other cognitive systems external to it (e.g., number systems). We conclude by reviewing the potential utility of the theoretical and empirical tools of LA for future research in moral psychology.