Origins of Morality: Innate or Learned?

Right and Wrong: Are we born knowing one from the other?

Obviously there is a built-in response for sensory stimuli. We naturally avoid or protect ourselves from things instantly understood, such as hot/cold, very loud noises, offensive smells, sour tastes, and extremely bright light. We don’t need to think about these because we get instant feedback. And avoiding or respecting these sensations is something we thereon continue to do when we are aware of what caused them.

These responses differ from reacting to more subtle stimuli (those not immediately obvious) such as seeing rustling in the nearby bushes at night, hearing a weird sound coming from the basement, smelling perfume when no one is around, or tasting fish when you’re eating a grapefruit. Without a ready explanation we may avoid these places or things until they are no longer phenomena (things not yet fully understood). Having evidence of what caused them reduces our fear or suspicions.

So it is right to avoid or be suspicious of the instant and subtle events in cases mentioned above, until we discover or understand their cause. Our reactions to them do not need thinking about; they are just there and usually immediate.

Wrong is to persist; right is to avoid. So much for the reactions to our senses.

Morality however, has very little to do with singular sensual experiences and much more to do with social and intuitive experiences. It has to do with behaviour in the context of others.

Oxford (2002) defines morality as “principles concerning the difference between right and wrong”, and “the extent to which an action is right or wrong.” And “the branch of knowledge concerned with moral principles” is called ‘ethics’. This clearly sets the stage for grounding morality in social contexts. If for amusement I shot a bird in the forest, and no one was around to see me do it, and I didn’t tell anyone else that I did it, is it still an immoral act? Clearly not, as there are no grounds to develop principles or sanctions around the act from the reactions of others. Its immorality (experienced through guilt or remorse) or not, would reside only in my mind, being defined by me and me alone. This leads the discussion to the conclusion that all moral or immoral acts are social by definition. They cannot be otherwise. Hence, society has rules to guide behaviour that is social, from simple local norms (standards of behaviour from customs, folklore) to legal norms proscribed through legislation, e.g., the Criminal Code of Canada). Moral behaviour (all behaviour, in this context) has a range of regulating influences, some supportive (where altruism is rewarded), some tolerant (such as the legal right of women in Canada, like men, to go topless in public), others not (prison or worse for homicide). So, in the context of social human behviour, is morality innate (born with it) or learned (through socialization)? Are we innately altruistic, or destructive, or both?

The notion that morality is biological or innate, is cleverly argued by Hauser (2006). He states that “Underlying the extensive cross-cultural variation we observe in our expressed social norms is a universal moral grammar that enables each child to grow a narrow range of possible moral systems. When we judge an action as morally right or wrong, we do so instinctively, tapping a system of unconsciously operative and inaccessible moral knowledge.” In other words, “we have evolved general but abstract principles for deciding which actions are forbidden, permissible, or obligatory.” Convincingly countering the biological/genetic arguments against innateness of morality, and the religious/legal arguments, Hauser expands on the idea that human behaviour is not fixed, rather changing throughout one’s life. “The child’s moral repertoire is not a parental clone.” Through being socialized as adults, all children learn to adapt to most workable norms but to keep unique views of morality within themselves throughout their adult life, to emerge in new circumstances where applicable. e.g., to decide to become a nudist/naturist, pot-smoker, Conservative, tattoo artist, breeder of parrots, or polygamist. We can’t teach our children what we don’t know. Their social life, although conformist in most functional ways, may embody privately shared norms we as parents are unaware of. As a process, socializaton is never a total process. Moral individuality can remain latent or invisible as well as manifest or obvious. Others only see what individuals are willing to share.

Parents, peer groups, and schools, are the primary socialization agents that inculcate a moral sensibility that prepares us for life. At one time religion was primary in this role of painting us all with values for the ‘truly moral’ self to emerge, but religions have become increasingly suspect across the world for this function, in the past three or four decades. As Pinker (2002) points out, “The alternative, then, to the religious theory of the source of values is that evolution endowed us with a moral sense, and we have expanded its circle of application over the course of history through reason (grasping the logical interchangeability of our interests and others’), knowledge (learning the advantages of cooperation over the long term), and sympathy (having experiences that allow us to feel other people’s pain).”

Morality is acquired both through an innate proclivity provided us through evolution, and through the nurturing of society’s institutions and social groups. Moreover, it is constantly changing. The trick of course, is to identify and practice universalizable and salient social norms (a-la-Kant), while recognizing and allowing for the expression of individual rights and freedoms.

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