Tor Wennerberg: One idea that I find extremely interesting and fascinating is the notion that just as our language capabilities are genetically determined, so is our capacity – as human beings – for moral judgement. What do you see as the implications of the idea that our moral capacity is innate?
Noam Chomsky: Well, for one thing, I don’t think it can really be much of a question. (That’s not to say we understand anything about it.) But, the fact of the matter is that we’re constantly making moral judgments in new situations, and over a substantial range we do it in a convergent fashion–we don’t differ randomly and wildly from one another. Furthermore, young children do it, very quickly, and they also converge.
Of course, there are cultural and social and historical effects, but even for those to operate, they must be operating on something. If you look at this range of phenomena, there are only two possibilities: one is, it’s a miracle, and the other is, it’s rooted in our nature. It’s rooted in our nature in the same sense in which language is, or for that matter, having arms and legs is. And it takes different forms depending on the circumstances, just as arms and legs depend on nutrition, and language depends on my not having heard Swedish when I was six months old and so on. But basically, it must be something that flows out of our nature, or otherwise we’d never use it in any systematic way, except just repeating what happened before. So, it’s got to be there.
What are the implications? One implication is, we ought to be interested in finding out what it is. We’d learn something important about ourselves. You can’t hope at this stage that we’re beginning to learn anything from biology. Biology doesn’t begin to reach that far. In principle it should, but right now it deals with much tinier problems. It has a hard time figuring out how bees function, let alone humans.
But I think we can learn things by history and experience. Take, say, the debate over big issues like slavery or women’s rights and so on. It wasn’t just people screaming at each other. There were arguments, in fact, interesting arguments on both sides. The pro-slavery side had very substantial arguments that are not easy to answer. But there was a kind of common moral ground in which a good bit of the debate took place, and as it resolved, which it essentially did, you see a consciousness emerging of what really is right, which must mean it reflects our built-in conception of what’s right. And that’s something that we learn more about over time, we get more insight into what’s coming out of our nature. The implications are very substantial, to the extent that we can understand them. It’s better to have a conscious understanding of what’s guiding you, to the extent you can, than just to react intuitively, without understanding. That’s true whether you’re a carpenter reacting to how to form wood artifacts or a moral human being reacting to how to decide between behaviors toward others.
LATER IN THE INTERVIEW…
The prospect of war is much less, but for other reasons. Europe is, in modern history at least, the most violent part of the world. One of the reasons why Europe conquered the world is that it created a culture of war, based on centuries of mutual massacre and slaughter – both a culture of war and a technology of war. But that largely came to an end in 1945, and for a very simple reason. Everybody could understand that the next time we play this game, we’re all dead. The techniques of destruction had reached such a point that war is simply not an option for rich and powerful countries. If they try it once more, that’s the end. Now, somebody may be irrational enough to do it anyway, but within anything remotely like the domain of rationality, where you can at least begin to talk about prediction, there isn’t going to be war among the powerful countries. And this is understood.”
I have since responded to Noam Chomsky with my theory on how Neural Myelination is passed on in the form of cellular memory through epigenetics. Which is also why he is wrong in the last paragraph.