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.


BLASPHEMY: What does it mean? Is it still relevant?

Giddens (1992) has pointed out that “In pre-industrial Europe, the most serious crimes, which received the highest penalties, were religious in nature, or were crimes against the property of the ruler or the aristocracy.” (p.146) He goes on to list heresy, sacrilege, and blasphemy as religious based events that were “for a long time punishable by death in many parts of Europe.” (op cit)

Transgressions like fishing, hunting, picking fruit, or cutting down trees or bushes on the lands of the king or aristocracy by the common people, were also capital offenses (not always carried out). “The murder of one commoner by another was not generally seen to be as serious as these others crimes. The culprit often could atone for the crime by simply paying a certain amount of money to the relatives of the victim.” (p. 147)

Blasphemy – speaking irreverently about God or sacred things – (Oxford, 2007), is, in contrast to early Europe, an insignificant or minor offense in Western/European societies today. It occurs in everyday speech as part of normal conversation. Sacred persons’ names are often ‘taken in vain’. “Jesus Christ!”, “For Christ sake!”, “My God!”, “Holy Christ!”, “Mother of God!”, etc., are examples of expletives to draw attention to a circumstance the speaker wishes to emphasize. Some people do not use these terms of course, but many do, mostly men apparently. The repercussions from such usage are, if any, reputational only. And perhaps if asked, an apology often suffices. Sometimes science discovers new information about sacred things or persons that go against traditional beliefs. One anthropologist a few years ago had claimed that Christ lived to be 70 and had three children. More recently, a highly respected British historian claimed that Christ was a myth perpetuated by the Romans to secure compliance among the Jews.

In other parts of the world consequences of blasphemy may entail public lashing, stoning, imprisonment, threats of death, or even beheading. Where tradition or controlled opinion, not facts, is power, and compliance in society is extracted mostly by fear or guilt (a technique of religious leaders), strong reprisals for blasphemy will occur. Enlightenment to the point of having a critical conscience that’s expressible in society without fear of punishment, is one main offshoot of access to higher education. Irreverent comments are treated as hate crimes, which in Western cultures, irreverent comments are treated quite differently.

Blasphemy sanctions may however, extend to non-religious, civil actions to this day. Publicly criticizing a political leader’s family for example, may be construed as a form of blasphemy and even libel, leading to certain fines or brief imprisonments. Freedom of speech has its limits. Note that such freedom varies tremendously to this day throughout the world, and one can only hope that fair and objective consequences of ‘blasphemous’ comments will prevail, as in most democratic regimes today.

Internet Journalism and the Freedom To Speak Your Mind

There are things I cannot say or I would get quickly arrested.
There are things I cannot say or I would lose my job, my customers, or be abandoned my close friends, or be rejected by some or all members of my family.
There are things I cannot say or I would be less respected and perhaps severely censured in the media.
And that’s here in Canada.

BUT, what makes this of interest to me at least, is that along with a handful of similar countries throughout the world, I still have the greatest degree of freedom of expression in my writings compared to the majority of countries who apply stricter rules for researchers and journalists.

So, since all events are a function of time, place, and circumstance, Canada is one country that I should be able to speak my mind by paying close attention to the timing of what I say, where I am saying it, and with whom, how and why I’m saying it. And do this without too much worry.

Lately in the news, there has been much discussion about internet security and rights of self-expression. The relationship of course between security and expression is not always obvious. Suffice to note that one’s security may be mitigated by one’s publicly expressed beliefs. History is replete with examples of death, torture, imprisonment, deportation, and shunning that have befallen those who chose to speak their minds in public. How many journalists have been shot, tortured or even beheaded in the past few years? In many cases it’s not because of what they have said but because they belong to a profession that investigates and reports their findings. So bad things happen to good people, even if by association.

Saying that a) organized religions have a poor record of promoting and salvaging peace, b) nude is not lewd, c) all aberrant behaviour is explainable through science, d) many Vegans have low red blood cells, d) proportionate representation is the only truly democratic way to vote, or e) sexual preference has no bearing on civic responsibility – might get me in trouble with some people. And these are what I would term ‘mild’ propositions.

Yet, the public media is guided by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada, and several federal and provincial Laws, that guarantee certain parameters within which, luckily, an author can function from a wide base of interests to state his or her case. I am able to write about nipples, and penises, and racial prejudice, and political corruptness, and poverty among the elderly, and the shoddy rehabilitation of criminals, and child abuse, and how 80 individuals control most of the world’s wealth, outmoded education systems, and so on. And few people know, or perhaps want to know, that there is a law in place in Ontario that allows women to bare their chests in public, provided it is not done in an obvious sexual way, such as cutting the lawn. So there’s a topic that could be written about without fear of legal sanction, but one might have to deal with cryptic bolts of rebuke by some ignorant readers.

Speaking your mind is your right. How you say it, to whom, where, why, and when, may be predict the kinds of responses you get. Nonetheless, the world’s a better place, I feel, from the presence of authors of all kinds, who seek truth, fairness, an informed public, and a desire to improve the human condition.

TL Hill, PhD
February, 2015