Morality arises from instincts

English: A 12-week-old red tricolor Aussie Pup...
A 12-week-old red tricolor Aussie Puppy demonstrates early herding instincts on a Golden Retriever. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is morality?  Look it up on Wikipedia or most dictionaries, and you’ll get something about whether acts or intentions are right or wrong.  But what is right and wrong?  Right and wrong for what?  The usual answer is right and wrong for values.

But what are values?  Look that up, and after glossing over all the definitions related to financial value, you’ll find references to ethical, cultural, absolute, and relative values.  Things that we value intrinsically, not because of their utility or for any calculated reason, but simply because we do.  Typical examples are fairness, freedom, or loyalty.

But where do these values come from?  Are they solely something we learn in society, conditioned responses we learn in early childhood?  Or are they innate to some degree?

There is good evidence from moral and evolutionary psychology, as well as primatology, that values arise from a combination of social learning and human instinct.  Another way of saying that is, values arise from human instincts, but those instincts often conflict with and contradict each other, and the resolution of those conflicts and contradictions are often prescribed in societal rules and mores.

We have many different instincts.  A good number are concerned about our own survival, making sure we have food and shelter, that our basic needs are being met.  Many are concerned about insuring these things for our progeny and kin.  When I say that values and morality arise from instinct, people often assume that this class of instincts are the only ones I’m referring to.

But we are social animals, and we have pro-social instincts that urge us into collaboration and cooperation with others.  This cooperation provides mutual survival advantages for all the participants.  It’s an adaptive set of traits that we evolved over millions of years.  Some of these traits are shared by our closest primate relatives.

It’s tempting to see these instincts as only enlightened self interest on our part.  That we don’t really feel an impulse to be cooperative, to be pro-social, that when we feel an urge to be altruistic or to help someone in pain, we’re only doing it out of enlightened self interest, that we are homo economicus, purely rational self interested actors.

Yes, these instincts do provide a survival advantage.  That’s why they evolved.  But that is separate and apart from what goes on in our heads.  We don’t do a calculation of our own benefit when we’re outraged by the cruel mistreatment of a child, or when we see a small animal suffering.  (At least the vast majority of us don’t.)

Now, of course, it’s possible to rationalize explanations for these impulses.  We can concoct a self serving explanation for why anyone does just about any act, but it’s unlikely to match what actually happens in the moment.  In the moment, people’s reaction tends to be influence by what feels right, by their conscience, which is simply another word for the balance of pro-social instincts and societal learning that they possess.

This is most often illustrated by the classic trolley car dilemma.  If you see a train bearing down on five people, but you have the opportunity to throw a switch and send the train on an alternate track where there is only one person in danger, most people, in an apparent utilitarian calculation, say they would throw the switch.

But alter the scenario where you’re on a bridge over the track, and the only way to save the five people is to push a large fat man off of the bridge into the path of the train, which will stop it, and most people won’t do it.  Pushing the large fat man feels wrong, and when asked for their reasoning why, for what’s morally different between the two dilemmas, people will concoct a number of reasons, but it boils down to an intuitive sense.

An important detail to understand here is that while most of us have pro-social instincts, the strengths of the different ones vary among different people.  This means that what seems obviously self-evidently right to one person may seem may seem obviously self-evidently wrong to another.  

This is a powerfully difficult concept to grasp.  It is in fact an incomprehensible concept for many people.  Still, it’s worth the effort to understand it.  Learning to see the world through the eye of others is the beginning of wisdom.

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23 thoughts on “Morality arises from instincts

  1. we pass on our habits through examples, and even worse, when it gets into the genetic pool, we pass it up the tree, but the great thing is, we can change the genetic makeup very easily, but practice of what is good. amen


  2. Excellent post; interesting ideas and well written, as always. That said, I disagree.

    In our past conversations on this topic I have noted that I think that if this view is true, it has implications for moral psychology and not moral ontology. That all these things are true – and you do make a good case for them – leads more to the conclusion that the reason why we decide to be moral is for instinctual reasons. That is entirely consistent with the possibility of a set of a priori objectively true moral propositions that are true regardless of our actual moral practices. The real virtue of this entry, for me, is that your writing has pushed me towards a different reason for why I don’t agree with this view.

    You write that, “There is good evidence from moral and evolutionary psychology, as well as primatology, that values arise from a combination of social learning and human instinct.”

    I interpret this as the postulation that human practices establish values. So, on this view, the reason why I think ‘mercifulness’ has value is because I have watched other persons exhibit this admirable quality, and they have done this due to evolutionary instincts. What this boils down to is: an action is valuable because it is done. But this seems backwards; I do actions because they have value, not the other way around. That actions create their own value seems cyclical, and would not seem to create any real value in an axiologically decisive sense. How could naturalistic processes create a non-natural and abstract concept? It doesn’t seem possible, so the consequence of the evolutionary instinct view seems to be that there are no real normative values. I think that there are real normative values, so, modus tollens, I think the evolutionary instinct view is false. But one man’s modus tollens is another’s modus ponens, so you might just conclude that there are no real normative values in the brute axiological sense. In other words:

    If SAP’s evolutionary instinct view is true, then there are no real normative values.
    There are real normative values.
    Therefore, SAP’s evolutionary instinct view is false.
    (If P then Q, not Q, so not P).

    You (perhaps):
    If my view is true then there are no real normative values.
    My view is true.
    Therefore, there are no real normative values.
    (If P then Q, P, so Q).

    Constructivism, whether individualistic (egoism) or societal (cultural relativism) is entirely implausible because values cannot be created. This leads you down the path of metaethical nihilism. It is worth noting that one may, consistently, hold nihilism as part of their metaethics but subscribe to a non-nihilistic normative theory, perhaps influenced by evolutionary instincts. But metaethical nihilism is still an ugly beast.

    Again, I greatly enjoyed this entry, I think you make a great case for your view.


    1. Wow. An excellent comment. Thanks!

      “I interpret this as the postulation that human practices establish values. ”
      Not quite. There are a wide range of possibilities for human values, but it’s not completely anything goes. For example, no society that I know allows killing of its citizens for fun (although who they exclude from citizenship may shock and disgust us).

      I’m planning one more post in this series, which will discuss Haidt’s Moral Foundations theory, which I adhere to (at least currently), and will give more details on how I see values arising.

      On meta-ethical nihilism, first I would say that I’m writing from a descriptive stance, not a normative one (well, except for the last couple of sentences). I would consider meta-ethical nihilism to be that moral values are grounded in nothing. But I think they’re grounded in instinct, which I would think makes me something of a meta-ethical naturalist, at least in a descriptive sense.

      Speaking normatively, I’m an adherent of virtue ethics. I used to be for virtue ethics in personal relationships and utilitarianism in public policy, until I realized that I couldn’t figure out at what level the switch should happen. So now I’m pretty much just a virtue ethicist.

      Again, thanks for a comment that made me think!


      1. My pleasure, your entry spurred my comments so the credit is entirely with you.

        I must admit, though, that I am a tad confused by this response:

        “‘I interpret this as the postulation that human practices establish values.’
        Not quite. There are a wide range of possibilities for human values, but it’s not completely anything goes. ”

        I’m confused because I agree with it, that this is the case is what shows, I think, that our concept of value is incompatible with the notion that “values arise from instincts”. If value arises from instinct, then if our instincts were different then our values would be different. But when we have an intercultural disagreement it’s not the case that we think that the murderers are morally right because their values are right as their instincts are different. No, we think that if they do have different instincts, then they have been lead to the wrong values; those instincts don’t make them the right values. That this is true logically implies that values are independent of our instincts such that values do not arise from instincts.

        As for metaethical nihilism: I wasn’t attempting to saddle you with normative nihilism, but descriptive nihilism in the sense you imply. Normative nihilism is roughly the view that there is no moral right and wrong so you can do whatever you want without moral consequence, metaethical/descriptive nihilism is a little more nuanced, it allows for J.L. Mackie’s error theory, the idea that moral propositions are cognitive propositions, such that cognitivism is true because moral propositions can be true or false, but the properties they refer to don’t exist, so all moral propositions are, on a metaethical level, false. That doesn’t mean we can’t have normative theories built on top of an error theory, and this is what I see your appeal to virtue ethics as being rooted in. If all values are, or could be, are creations of instincts, but values cannot be created by instincts, (as I have been arguing in this comment and the last) then there are no values, so an error theory would be true. So I still by my claim that you are heading towards nihilism. Though your view is certainly naturalistic in that sense, and also in the sense that it attempts to locate the foundations of ethics in scientific theory.

        A very interesting final note on virtue ethics and utilitarianism. I myself have been interested in developing theories for a layered morality, but came to similar conclusions about the difficulty of separating the tiers. I personally favor pluralistic deontology instead of virtue ethics though.


        1. Ah, I think the difference then may be in how we define a ‘value’. You seem to be saying that if a value isn’t true for everyone, then it isn’t a value, which seems very consistent with your preference for deontology.

          I see values as something each person possesses. And yes, a key part of this idea is that not everyone has the same makeup of instincts, and so not everyone has the same values.

          A murderous psychopath’s values are radically different than most peoples, and we call a psychopath’s values wrong. They are certainly not prosocial values, so I think there is justification to describe their values as wrong. A whole society of psychopaths doesn’t seem like it would be a functional one. In any case, the vast majority of us will have strong feelings of instinctive revulsion against allowing a murderous psychopath to do what they want, even though they may be doing what might be instinctively natural for them.

          I actually have some sympathy for pluralism. None of the normative frameworks are perfect, so in a moral dilemma, I can’t see that it hurts to do checks with the major three. Would it be virtuous, provide good or bad consequences, and would it be a categorical rule we could live with if applied against us? But notice that we still judge the results of those deliberations. How do we judge them? With our pre-existing values. Where do these pre-existing values come from? My answer is from instinct, from our evolved programming.


          1. Hmm yes that’s certainly a fair way of stating the disagreement, but my point is less that values apply to everyone but rather that values are abstract concepts and can’t be created by human practices themselves, which it seems to me your view entails. I think this seems to be the root of our disagreement, as the fact that values are abstract concepts given to us by reason are what make brute moral propositions knowable self-evidently, due to their being a priori. The systems of knowledge in our respective metaethical views are similar, the difference seems to be that what I take to be a priori self-evident moral propositions you take to be self-evidence due to self-givenness in instinct. Your view is certainly one I can respect.


          2. I think we are getting close to the actual distinction. I perceive though that there are three options here.
            1. Values are absolute platonic concepts that exist, awaiting our discovery, and are true across all of time and space.
            2. Values are creations of human minds and cultures, and are therefore completely relative.
            3. Values arise from biological evolutionary desires that affect, but are not voluntarily created by, the human mind. The relationship between the biological desires and moral precepts are complicated, giving rise to the illusion of 2.

            I fall in 3. I don’t think we decide values, but I also don’t see them as absolute either. I hope that clarifies rather than muddies.


          3. My apologies for commenting here, but I can’t seem to figure out how to directly reply to your last comment.

            Your point certainly clarifies the idea you are after. But it almost seems now that you are saying that the process of evolution itself creates values. I can get more on board with this mind-independence-type idea. Would this be fair to say of your view, though?


          4. No worries at all. FYI, if you have email notices turned on for this thread, you can reply to any comment, even when we’ve hit the indent limit, by just replying by email. It’s how I’m replying to this one.

            That’s a good way to put it, although we have to be careful about over simplifying. Evolution creates the framework, the foundation, for which values arise in. It constrains them but still leaves room for considerable variance. Considerable, but not infinite. The next post (which I hope to get out this week) might clarify further.


          5. Thanks for the tip! It looks like I can also reply from the notifications drop down menu, but it’s a little difficult to see the whole of the comment that I’m responding to, so I’ll have to try out the email way that you mention.

            Simplifying can be dangerous. I think the best course of action, for me, will be to await your next post, to see how you fill in some of the smaller details. This interesting discussion might best be carried on from there.


  3. Yes, these instincts do provide a survival advantage. That’s why they evolved.

    I think, it is a common fallacy in understanding of evolution. There is an unspoken premise that that whatever traits living organisms possess, have evolved and, therefore, must provide a survival advantage. To think this way is to assume that all changes in living organisms are driven by the purpose of survival. There is no such purpose. Unless we assign a moral agency to nature, nature does not seem to care whether we live on this planet. There is nothing wrong with lifeless planets like Mars or Venus. Therefore, it’s a fallacy to seek a survival advantage in every trait and feature.

    It appears to me that the evolution rather works in negative direction: organisms with traits that lead to extinction, well, become extinct. It is a wrong question to ask “why species A exhibits trait B?” Evolution will not answer that. Evolution can only answer “why species A does not have trait C?” — “Why not?” rather than “why?” Consider how many useless features human bodies have: painful birth, constipation, and appendix are just few examples. Why do strong emotions cause tears to flow? What’s the advantage to survival in that? What’s the survival advantage of people peeing their pants when scared? Just because we have an instinct or an unconditional reflex, does not seem to mean that it helps us survive. It simply means that it has not caused extinction (yet).

    This seems to undermine the theory that we have values because they help us survive.


    1. Perhaps, what I said is not entirely true either. Evolution would not answer “why people cannot fly” although it might not have lead to extinction. And some traits do have advantage to survival in some environments and circumstances. This question “why?” seems to be a useless question to ask, in most cases. Most things just happen to be the way they are, “for no particular reason”, quoting Forrest Gump.

      It may be perceived as a discouraging conclusion, but it’s only discouraging if we refuse to accept reality because we think reality ought to be different than it is.


      1. I agree. It’s actually quite difficult to talk about evolution without falling back on teleological language, even if you don’t mean anything teleological about it. I certainly didn’t. But short of going into paragraphs of explanation every time I need to talk about adaptive traits, I’m not sure how to avoid it.


  4. Well said and I agree – a great closing too!

    I found this on searching the phrase “all social animals have had to modify or restrain their behaviors for group living to be worthwhile” from the ‘Evolution of morality’ wikipage:

    ‘Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior’

    … and in spite of Kahneman and Tversky putting Homo economicus to rest:

    ‘The role of reason in moral reasoning’


    I’m looking forward to the next post you mention above.


  5. Relevant to your #3 above in reply to ‘ausomeawestin’:

    I’m only 60 or so pages in but in ‘Self Comes to Mind’ Damasio talks about “biological value” and how it relates to “basic homeostasis” on one end and “sociocultural homeostasis” on the other.

    ‘Self comes to mind: constructing the conscious brain’, Damasio 2010

    Click to access self-comes-to-mind_damasio.pdf

    (it might be easiest to use ‘Find’ and search “value” for the good parts 🙂


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