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Where do we get our morals from?

andrelle's picture

We grow up hearing our parents telling us what is acceptable for us to do and what is not acceptable for us to do.  Therefore, we learn the difference between right and wrong from our parents.  But where did our parents get this notion from?  What exactly is morality?  Is it something that is part of our genetic makeup, or is it something that we simply learn?  Morality is definitely not an easy term to define because there are several aspect to it, but in the dictionary it is defined as a code of conduct put forward by a society or group (1).
      In trying to understand the behaviors, cultures, and how humans came to be the way we are today, through observation Charles Darwin came up with the theory of evolution.  Most people are only familiar with the part of the theory that discusses the physical aspect of species.  But, Darwin actually went further and even tried to explain how humans developed their moral sense.  We usually think of morality as such an abstract thing that it’s hard for us to think that there could be a biological explanation for the way that we think.  Darwin argues that “man is a social animal”, and that as social animals, there are rules and conducts that governs our social circles(2).  Furthermore, those rules are imperative for the survival of our specie, because if we have good relationships with one another, that would improve the fitness of our specie.  Thus, our sense of morality is a selected trait by evolution (2).
      If we are counting morality as a part of evolution, then what else can we attribute to evolution?  Some social Darwinists would have us believe that “everything we do we do because they provide some selective advantage to the individuals or the species.”(3) That is a very broad statement to make, because there are a lot of things that we do as humans that doesn’t seem to have any correlation with our ability to reproduce such as playing or arguing.  If our perception of morality can be explained through evolution, then what about our notion of beauty, where did that come from, and does that help us in reproducing?  Is it a selective advantage?  It is clear that applying the theory of evolution to social behaviors creates more ambiguity, rather than explain the human mind.  The human mind is so intricate and complex that it seems almost demeaning to reduce our thinking to such a rigid explanation.
      One evolutionist argues that “rape is a biological adaptation that allows undesirable males the opportunity to pass on their genes.”(3)  Humans, similar to any other animal do feel the urge to mate, although we don’t really think about it that way.  We usually think of ourselves making choices, and we make a choice of whether or not we want to interact with another human being.  By saying that rape is a biological adaptation takes away our ability to make choices and we then become like puppets in the hands of nature.  And this rule cannot be applied to all rapists, because there are people who rapes children that are not mature enough to reproduce.  If rapist were trying to pass on their genes, than they would have chosen people that are able to reproduce, not a child.
       It is more plausible to argue that humans are born with basic instincts, and that those instincts have evolved over a long period of time to help with our survival and reproduction(4).  People tend to care for others, and have compassion and that is due to the fact that most people don’t have too many offspring, and spends a longer time nurturing their young. (4) This instinct is not only seen in humans, but usually within hominoids as a whole.  As the human mind became bigger and more complex, we were able to develop moral judgment, and rationalize our decisions based on these instincts. (5)   At the same time we have some negative instincts such as jealousy that does not help us in our survival or reproduction.  However, the good instincts such as compassion foster a more productive society.
      Most people feel that morality evolves from the choices that we make everyday, and not because of some automatic response due to evolution.  If we account morality to evolution, then there is no clear way for us to define immorality. We cannot call someone immoral because it can be argued that they are simply reacting the way that they are suppose to in order to further enhance their “fitness”.  This morale takes away the very notion that makes us human, the fact that we are able to think and make decisions and defend our choices.  By attributing morality to evolution, we are reduced to non-thinking animals who are acting in a certain way with the sole purpose of passing on our genes. 
      Instead of evolution being a defining reason why humans have a sense of morality, it should be a combination of different reasons.  It does make sense that humans as social animals needs to have some sort of code of conduct and that through this code of conduct, it allows for that population to be more fit and therefore are able to reproduce better.  And as human minds become more complex, they decide what that moral conduct is.  But at the same time, morality is such a loaded word that it really cannot be boiled down to one definitive definition.  Morality can be a code of conduct for one’s self, a church group, or society as a whole.  And in all three categories it is defined differently and what is moral in one aspect might not be moral in the other aspect.  And so therefore, morality is more a question for philosophers and psychologist and not so much biologist.  



Austin Han's picture

Interpretation is skewed

This is the wrong interpretation to the theory of evolution and its relevance to morality. The mechanism of which an individual makes judgement is itself a product of evolution. The leniency to which an individual makes a certain type of decision can be viewed as a product of evolution. Example: Panda evolved from bears because it has lost its sensory receptors to feel pleasure from meat. Thus, it eventually became an herbivore. Of course, not all human decisions are purely influenced by biology. However, you are attributing too much of the "human choice" in the essence of human consciousness without noting that consciousness in general is a product of evolution. There may be differences in our decision making mechanism due to conditioning(learning) and variation(genetic variance). However, the mechanism in its entirety, is propagated due to evolutionary advantages.

Rachel.'s picture

You're fantastic.

You're fantastic.

Anonymous's picture

imagine a world with wrong

imagine a world with wrong morals. a ruthless world full of slaughter and hate. we would be a depressed and sad society. it would be a living hell. that's why god resides in heaven and if we want to live happy and free we most mimic heaven. no evolution created morals, but god.

Serendip Visitor's picture

Divine Theory

You need to read up on the divine command theory.

Paul Grobstein's picture

biology and "morality"

Is "morality" a product of evolution? a product of social convention? some combination of the two? And whatever it is, does it take away "the very notion that makes us human, the fact that we are able to think and make decisions and defend our choices". Your suggestion that it is a combination, one that allows us to use both our "instincts" and our own judgement is interestingly in line with a recent book The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. Is it a good story? What observations does it summarize? What new questions/directions does it suggest?