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The Moral Instinct: an Exploration of Univeral Morality in Humans and Non-Human Species

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The study of morality has historically been relegated to disciplines such as philosophy, history, and literature. However, emerging trends in research suggest that the field of neurobiology would be a valuable addition to this list. Neurobiology research may offer needed insights into the biological underpinnings of social cognition, and particularly of morality. Precisely because the study is firmly grounded in a wide spread philosophical tradition, discussions about the neurobiology of morality shed light on many other aspects of the interconnectedness between cultural knowledge and scientific knowledge.

This form of research is of social importance as well as scientific importance, as morality has historically been invoked to justify inclusive and exclusive practices that selectively target groups of individuals. For example, in Western philosophical, social, and historical tradition, the notion of women as less rational beings, and by extension, less moral beings as compared to men, dominated for centuries (Mill, 1869; Lloyd, 1977). This reasoning was sufficient justification for denying women the right to vote, to education, and to hold property. Examples of how the presence or absence of a moral capacity can be invoked to justify actions against populations are not limited to the example of women, and can easily be found elsewhere. This discussion will focus primarily on the variations in morality across human populations, and how that variation affects culture.

Though this reasoning regarding female moral capacity no longer holds sway in the way it did even one hundred years ago, a similar debate is at work elsewhere. Some research, particularly morality research, challenges the centuries old philosophical tradition that rationality and with it, morality separates humans from other species. Considering the dramatic changes that resulted from a shift in thinking about female moral capacity, it is an exercise in creativity to imagine what the implications for calling animals moral beings might be. Considerations of moral capacities in animals can particularly inform a discussion of the evolutionary origins of morality, and in turn, answer questions regarding a universal moral capacity.
The abundance of neurobiology research on morality and its social implications are lengthy and extensive. For this reason, this paper will take direction from the topics that were most widely discussed in class: the universality of morality and animal morality. Discussion will then center on how morality research informs the broader field of study of consciousness, diversity, and other ongoing lines of inquiry. Central questions to consider include:


  • Does moral capacity extend to non-human species?
    • How does this understanding root inquiry in an evolutionary context?
  • How universal is moral capacity across humans?
    • How do we define universal morality?
    • Is such a definition necessary?
    • What can anecdote add to a discussion of neurobiology and morality?
    • How is variation accounted for?
  • How does an understanding of the neurobiology of morality contribute to other ongoing lines of inquiry?
    • … to an appreciation of diversity?
    • … to consciousness?

Universal Morality across Other Species
There is a wealth of information, both empirical and anecdotal, to suggest that human morality has many commonalities. Before that subject can be addressed, it is useful to examine how far these moral tendencies extend to non-human species and how much of human morality is evolutionarily derived. Certainly, human morality differs from any such capacity in animals by virtue of language, self-reflection, and conscious reasoning. However, the overlap between human and animal moral capacities, specifically that of social learning and various emotional states, seems to be greater than previously known.

Primatologist, Franz de Waals, had advocated a change in the way we relate morality to animals. His work on social living, the ability of primates to learn social rules, aggression, and empathy, particularly relates to this discussion. In an interview on this subject, de Waals says, “Human behavior derives above all from fast, automated, emotional judgments, and only secondarily from slower conscious processes … people object to moral solutions that involve hands-on harm to one another. This may be because hands-on violence has been subject to natural selection whereas utilitarian deliberations have not (in Wade, 2007)”. In saying this, de Waals all but suggests that brains of various species may have evolved in ways that have selected for certain behaviors. This line of thinking is echoed in other sources and forum discussions. The notion of a tripartite moral brain, one composed of an ancient “chimp morality” brain; a uniquely human, self-reflective, emotional moral brain; and a uniquely human capacity that understands “utilitarian deliberations” such as tax evasion (Radio Lab, 2008) or the honor code (aamen) without the deep emotional component. This understanding of different moral capacities sheds light on how the brain may work on a larger scale.

To look even deeper at the presence of moral attributes in animals, a reevaluation of the brain as a whole must take place. Media coverage of Marc Hauser summarizes his work as follows, “The brain has a genetically shaped mechanism for acquiring moral rules, a universal moral grammar similar to the neural machinery for learning language (Wade, 2007)”. This way of viewing the brain as a whole certainly accounts for characteristics displayed in some animals, like primates, of emotional social learning. Furthermore, it prompts the question, what separates primate brains from human brains, and how the language metaphor can shape this discussion.

Universal Morality… across Humans?
Discussion about a universal grammar of morality across populations of humans is intriguing, thought provoking, and controversial. To open up discussion on this topic, useful parallels have been repeatedly presented that borrow from Noam Chomsky’s work on language acquisition as a guide to understanding moral acquisition. Useful insights regarding this parallel were to be found in the forum area. Included among them were observations that both language and morality can be learned as “innate faculty (Andrea)” consciously and unconsciously, in school and by simple observation. If morality is “distinctly human” as much of the philosophical tradition would claim, then surely some moral faculty must be universal. The question then becomes, what neural processes constitute universal morality? However, before this question can be addressed, expectations must be clarified regarding a definition for universal morality as it relates to humans and appropriate methodologies of inquiry.

A question repeatedly voiced in the forum centered on whether we must define morality in order to study it or generate a meaningful discussion about it. Interestingly, this same concern surfaced multiple times throughout the year in discussions on the Neurobiology of Romance, Pain, and Consciousness, among others. Some contributors thought that defining subjects of research was an essential precursor to research. In contrast, another way of thinking about this question was presented in the quote, “Maybe interesting research/inquiry creates/revises definitions rather than requiring clear definitions at the outset (Grobstein, Alex Tuttle, Natsu).

The role of subjective experience and anecdotal accounts must be discussed here too. Similar to the definition problem, this methodological concern has been central to many discussions, including neurobiology of Romance and Consciousness. One student pointed out that a possible result of anecdotal accounts is that of self-reflective, comparative learning (Elliot). Though this result is certainly useful and productive in a discussion of morality and cultural norms, perhaps these accounts do not provide answers scientists are looking for. Another viewpoint specific to the topic at hand, was that a moral sense can remain quite fixed and rigid, even after exposure to personal anecdote (Natsu). However, as ebitler points out, perhaps subjective experience and personal accounts are not merely appropriate in, but central to a discussion of morality since subjective experiences, especially self-reflective language, contribute to distinctly human morality.

In the forum, two camps presented themselves: the moral relativists and the moral universalists, however consideration of de Waals’ contributions and Jonathan Haidt’s work, suggest that there is a middle ground between these two understandings. According to de Waals’ research, it is possible that a universal moral nature in humans can be attributed to conserved brain functions that happen to be more developed in humans. To borrow from Hauser, de Waals’ conservation suggest an evolved capacity to learn emotionally-laden, reinforced social rules. This understanding may suggest that moral capacities of various kinds extend to other species and are in some sense universal in humans. A greater understanding of the unity and variation of human moral capacities is warranted.

Jonathan Haidt and colleagues have specifically focused research on morality in human subjects. Initially, through brain imaging studies, Haidt found that medial prefrontal gyrus, posterior cingulate gyrus, superior temporal sulcus, and inferior parietal lobe were active in consistent patterns when subjects were presented with moral dilemmas (Haidt, 2002). Though another line of research, Haidt has classified morality into five universal categories: Harm/Care, Fairness/Reciprocity, Ingroup/Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purtiy/Sanctity (Pinker, 2008). Haidt argues that these five moral categories are expressed across social groups, though he accounts for variation by recognizing that each social group may value these five categories differently. Testing this hypothesis in American liberal and conservative political identities in surveys revealed that these political social groups indeed weigh these five categories differently in predictable ways (Wade, 2007;

This work on the universal aspects of human morality as well as the diversity of human moral senses can inform our understanding of diversity and pluralism in particular. The opinion was voiced in the forum that the diversity of morality across humans is sufficient to exclude a universal moral sense (Stephanie). To the contrary, perhaps a more useful way of approaching this debate is to recognize that the universal aspects of morality are that many diverse groups of people are capable of having a moral sense, and that in many cases, these moral senses can be defined by Haidt’s five categories. Once this universalism is acknowledged, experience and environment can easily account for the great diversity of moral sense seen in the human population (Felicia, Jenna). Indeed, in keeping with our discussion of diversity, this variation of moral senses both between individuals and across cultures could perhaps contribute to greater productivity in any settings that involve creativity, problem solving, or learning.

Morality Reserach and the Bigger Picture
This research, taken together with discussions about education, diversity, sex/gender, disability, placebos, and especially consciousness, suggest a trend of appreciating how emotionally guided and culturally influenced decisions are. The evolutionary roots of morality and the presence of a moral capacity in animals inform a much broader discussion centering on consciousness. Instead of the previous understanding that morality itself separates humans from other species, a more complex understanding that takes into account self-reflection as a factor that separates humans from other species seems appropriate (Jenna and especially Emily Alspector echo this sentiment as well). In other words, human morality may be defined by the realization that more than one course of action exists, both in accordance with or in conflict with a “gut feeling” in a given situation where a moral dilemma, a suggestion quite similar to Temple Grandin’s account of consciousness (Grandin, 1988).

In her hypothesis, Grandin advocates a new understanding of conscious behavior that centers on unpredictability and the awareness of options (Grandin, 1988). Perhaps the puzzlement, bewilderment, and struggle humans experience when confronted with moral dilemmas such as Haidt’s trolley problem, incest problem, and flag-burning problem bolster the claim that moral sense in itself is not sufficient evidence to separate human cognition from animal cognition, but the awareness of more than one possible course of action, the ability to question emotionally driven impulses, and the capacity for self-reflection, are. More research is needed to elucidate the interplay between Grandin’s account of consciousness and understandings of human and animal moral capacities.



Andrea “The analogy to language, and morality in the brain”

Ebitler “Animal Morality”

Ellioit “Morality: Initial Thoughts”

Emily Alspector “Morality as a universal”

Felicia “Moral Diversity?”

Grandin, T. (1998). Consciousness in Animals and People with Austism. available at

Green, J. and Haidt, J. (2002). How (and where) does moral judgement work? Cognitive Science. p. 517-523.

Grobstein “the relation between definition and research/inquiry”

Jenna “Morality”

Lloyd, G. (1979). The Man of Reason. In Cudd, A. E. and Andreasen, R. O. Feminist Theory. Blackwell Publishing, Ltd. 2007.

Mill, J. S. (1869). The Subjection of Women. In Cudd, A. E. and Andreasen, R. O. Feminist Theory. Blackwell Publishing, Ltd. 2007.

Natsu “How are our sense of Morality formed?”

Natsu “Some more thoughts on consciousness”

Pinker, S. (2008). The Moral Instinct. The New York Times. January 13, 2008.

Stephanie “some thoughts on morality”

Wade, N. (2007). Is “Do Unto Others” Written Into Our Genes. The New York Times. March 19, 2008.

Wade, N. (2007, 20 March ). Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior. The New York Times. March 20, 2007.