I’m working on another post with details about foundational moral instincts, but after some discussion on the ‘Morality arises from instincts‘ post, I realized that I failed to make a couple of things clear. So, I’m inserting this additional post to do that.
First, let me clarify that, in these posts, I’m being descriptive, not normative, not prescriptive. That is, I’m not discussing how I want things to be, but attempting to describe how things are. (At least according to mainstream evolutionary psychology.)
If I were to be prescriptive, it would be to recommend virtue ethics, that is, the philosophy of developing habits and qualities (virtues) that promote the good life, while avoiding or minimizing those habits and qualities (vices) that hinder it. I like virtue ethics because it takes into account human nature, and makes no bones about being geared for the betterment of the adherent.
However, as I’ve discussed with some of you, I’m not slavishly devoted to this view, and see some benefit to a pluralistic approach to normative ethics, checking an ethical proposition against all three of the big moral philosophies: consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics.
Now on to the main clarification. Let’s first consider two possible conclusions about moral values:
- Moral values are objective truths, similar to mathematical objects, that exist “out there”, independent of human thought, culture, or biology. With proper reasoning, introspection, or revelation, we can discover these objective truths.
- Moral values are arbitrary human inventions. As creations of human minds, they are culturally relative. Our deepest intuitions about what is right or wrong are simply indoctrination that we receive in our earliest years of development.
I actually don’t accept either one of these views.
The first doesn’t seem compatible with a review of all of the different human cultures that we know of, either today or throughout history. If objective moral truths do exist, we appear to have no mechanism to determine them, at least not in any manner that is compelling enough to generate a consensus.
The second, cultural relativism, in a descriptive sense, is a staple of anthropology. But it is a very uncomfortable conclusion for many people. And I think the very fact that it is so uncomfortable needs to be a factor in our evaluation of it. Why does it feel so uncomfortable? From where does our aversion to it come from?
The second conclusion has an implied assumption. An assumption that modern psychological research is discrediting. It’s the assumption that when we are born, our minds are blank slates, and that we are completely molded by our experiences. This might appear reasonable to anyone who has looked on a newborn, seeing how utterly helpless they are, unable to do much besides cry, suckle, and poop.
This utter helplessness is somewhat unusual in the animal kingdom. When we look at most animals, they are born able to move and navigate the world to some degree, in other words with some abilities and instinctual knowledge.
Human babies’ helplessness immediately after birth is thought to be related to the size of their heads. If human babies stayed in the womb to develop to the same degree that most mammals do before birth, their heads would be too large to fit through a women’s birth canal.
In other words, all human babies are born prematurely, at least compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. This makes the illusion of the blank slate seem plausible. But there’s no good reason to suppose that humans aren’t born with just as many instincts as most animals, although establishing what those instincts are can be scientifically difficult since cultural influences begin very early.
We are not born blank slates, but with powerful instincts, urges, desires, and motivations. These desires aren’t something we decide to have, either consciously or even subconsciously. We simply have them. We don’t decide to have them any more than we decide to be hungry or to feel pain.
These instincts, this basic evolved programming, is so central to our being that it is very difficult for us to imagine any intelligence that doesn’t possess it (which may complicate acceptance of AI sentience, but that’s another issue), or to fully grasp the fact that others may not have the exact same programming, the same balance between various urges and desires, that we do.
Morality arises from this basic programming. The vast majority of human beings have very similar programming, including prosocial programming since we’re a very social species. This prosocial programming heavily influences our moral inclinations. These inclinations aren’t voluntary. How we respond to them may be, but feeling them isn’t.
The programming in all of us is similar, but not identical. And these variances lead to the differences between what feels right or wrong among different people. But the majority of us are similar enough to enable the formation of societies.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t differences in values between human cultures, differences that can often be shocking. There is a reason why most anthropologists are cultural relativists. Hunter gatherer morals are different than farmer morals, which are different than urban morals. The morals of a desert community will be different than the morals of a tropical one.
Morals arise from deeply felt instincts, from evolved programming, from biology, and are adjusted for the environment. This answer, which is somewhat in between conclusion 1 and 2 above, is messy and complicated, but it reflects reality better.
Moral values aren’t absolute, but they aren’t arbitrary either.
- Morality arises from instincts (selfawarepatterns.com)
- Moral Relativism (episyllogism.wordpress.com)
- Can Morality Mean Something Other Than Absolutist Morality? (richarddawkins.net)