Where Do Morals Come From?

We evolved a conscience. A conscience is at work in the behaviors of chimpanzees and rhesus monkeys in the example that follows.

Some animals are surprisingly sensitive to the plight of others. Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others. Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days.

(Taken from Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior)

We are born with a conscience. Yale psychology professor, Paul Bloom conducts experiments on infants to discover what morals if any, babies are born with.

Not long ago, a team of researchers watched a 1-year-old boy take justice into his own hands. The boy had just seen a puppet show in which one puppet played with a ball while interacting with two other puppets. The center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the right, who would pass it back. And the center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the left . . . who would run away with it. Then the two puppets on the ends were brought down from the stage and set before the toddler. Each was placed next to a pile of treats. At this point, the toddler was asked to take a treat away from one puppet. Like most children in this situation, the boy took it from the pile of the “naughty” one. But this punishment wasn’t enough — he then leaned over and smacked the puppet in the head.

(Taken from The Moral Life of Babies)

Unfortunately, some people are born without a conscious. They are called psychopaths. Luckily, they only make up 1% of the population.

Based on his own cross-cultural research into adult morality, moral foundations theorist, Jonathan Haidt describes six categories of morals that were found in every culture he and his colleagues studied:

  1. Care/harm: cherishing and protecting others.
  2. Fairness/cheating: rendering justice according to shared rules. (Alternate name: Proportionality)
  3. Liberty/oppression: the loathing of tyranny.
  4. Loyalty/betrayal: standing with your group, family, nation. (Alternate name: Ingroup)
  5. Authority/subversion: obeying tradition and legitimate authority. (Alternate name: Respect.)
  6. Sanctity/degradation: abhorrence for disgusting things, foods, actions. (Alternate name: Purity.)

(Taken from Moral Foundations Theory)

From Bloom’s research, he hypothesizes that we are born with a rough draft of the six moral foundations above. Experiments haven’t yet been performed to test Haidt’s hypothesis.

I recommend Haidt’s book. It’s a fascinating read.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion: Jonathan Haidt: 9780307455772: Amazon.com: Books

You can take tests and learn about your morals and how they influence your politics at Haidt’s website: YourMorals.Org

Here is a link to an article about the neuroanatomy of morals: How does morality work in the brain? A functional and structural perspective of moral behavior

©2016 Stephen L. Martin

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