Is morality inherent?

Christopher asked:

Is morality inherent ? I ask because I think it is, and here is why.

Often people claim morality is relative due to the differences in what is and is not acceptable from culture to culture, person to person. I don’t believe that this ‘problem’ actually conflicts my belief except for one point. To me this seems to be mistaking the effect for the cause. There was a time when there was no civilization or even a ‘society’ outside of what we would consider to be family today. So these social customs and morals originated from us. We came up with these laws and they had to come from within us, because there was a time when there was no other social customs for us to borrow from or base ours on.

To use an example, Jesus said ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ because it came from his heart, not because he was taught it or was conforming to social customs. It was an inherent feeling that spurred this statement. Now I do not disagree that people have different moral beliefs, but the reason is that everyone’s morality comes from within and we are all different. A Christian may today adhere to Christian morality, but I believe it is because their inner nature already agreed with it. Christian morality is a reflection of what is within the person’s heart.

Answer by Craig Skinner

Your text suggests that by ‘inherent’ you mean innate, inborn, inherited. I will assume this.

Whether or not morality is innate is an empirical, scientific, question, especially for cultural anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists. It is a question for descriptive ethics.

Moral philosophy is not so much concerned with what we do (descriptive ethics) as with what we should do (normative ethics), as well as with matters such as moral realism, moral truths and moral facts.

I agree with you that human nature includes moral feelings and dispositions: roughly compassion, kin altruism and reciprocal altruism, being evolved adaptations conducive to survival in our ancestors as groups of social, child-rearing, cooperative primates competing with like groups.

If this be so, we would expect morality to be much the same in all societies at all times, and that cultural variation would be explained by different beliefs, circumstances and emphasis. And I think this is so. A few examples of such variation:

Beliefs. A society which believes its god demands human sacrifices might practice this. Less rare today, is belief that female circumcision eliminates all disposition to adultery.

Circumstances. Subsistence societies, in time of famine, may practice infanticide (it’s that or the whole family dies). But they love their children as much as we do.

Emphasis. Western societies tend to value individual rights/freedom over duty to family and community, and Eastern cultures vice versa.

In short, cultural moral variation can be explained by variation in belief, circumstance and emphasis. And all societies have moral codes meeting basic human needs (identity, security, affection, meaning), dealing with conflict, prohibiting lying, stealing, adultery and murder, and detecting/punishing freeloaders.

The main shortcoming of our innate morality is that is narrow or tribal, typically extending to family and friends, less to strangers, yet less to distant peoples. Aristotle was happy with this, seeing no need to extend concern beyond the city state: indeed enslavement of outsiders was fine.

Hume felt we could widen our sympathies by adopting some ‘common point of view’ and by agreeing rules governing our dealings with others. Kant relied on reason: as rational beings who are ends in ourselves, we freely self-legislate moral rules so that these apply to all rational beings. However all normative moral systems, including virtue ethics, Kantianism and utilitarianism, recognize the special concern we have for nearest and dearest.

Maybe the new Information Age , allowing us to share text, thoughts and images with anybody in the world who has a cellphone, will foster a global, one-tribe notion.

A few words about Christian morality. Jesus’ moral teaching was pretty conventional. A version of the Golden Rule (‘do unto others etc’) appears in Leviticus, written long before Jesus birth, and also appears centuries earlier in Confucianism, as well as being a feature in Hinduism, Taoism, indeed almost every ethical tradition, religious or otherwise. Jesus significance is not as a moral teacher, but as somebody believed by millions to be uniquely the son of God and thereby uniquely the way, the truth and the life. The Christian attitude to morality, innate or otherwise, is that without God’s grace we are hopeless sinners, and to rely on our own resources will be of no avail.


3 thoughts on “Is morality inherent?

  1. There was a time when our species could be described as more “animal” than “human” in behavior and “thought.” Rather than killing and eating other humans, we evolved a mechanism we now call “morality” that permits improved reproductive success for our species. It was different in different environments.
    If a new born baby could be raised by wolves, would the child then adult have inherent human-like morality or would it think, feel and behave like its wolf pack? I believe the latter – morality is learned. My open question is, “Why do organisms even “want” to survive in the first place? What is the point since there is no inherent purpose to life? Where does the survival and reproduction drive come from?”

  2. This answer goes off on a slight tangent in regards to the God aspect of morality, with the morality of practiced religion being no more than the psychological tools of human husbandry, an artifice for psychological control of large bodies of humans.

    Nevertheless, the answer given states that “morals are adaptions for survival”, which I completely agree with, however it then goes on to state that “we would expect these to be the same over all humanity”.
    This is a contradiction as the environment in which humans have evolved are different, and therefore explains; quite neatly, why humans have different inherent moral values. This view is also espoused by Hippocrates in his theory of “Environmental Determinism”, in his book “Airs, Waters, Places”.

    Really Christopher is quite correct in his supposition if Hippocrates is anything to go by.

  3. Ethics are conscience method my friend !
    To question authority is natural
    That being said your argument is contrary to your credentials.
    Morals are inherent
    Philosopher ?
    Talk about standing in the wrong place at the wrong time don’t make it right !

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