22 October 2020

Is morality innate or learnt?

Is morality innate or learnt? topic by Norma

What are the advantages of being born with an innate moral system, especially for infants? How would a moral system help infants who cannot talk, walk or reason survive in their environment?

What we are born with is the ability to make value judgements and a set of emotions and feelings. I grant you that these abilities are at the rudimentary level when we are born, but they function well and have served neonates and infants well. Hence having an ability to moralise does not mean we inherit this ability innately. Indeed I would go further and say morality is the end product and consequence of having an ability to make value judgments and react to our emotions.

One of the main issues for an innate morality is that morality is always done in a given context. And indeed infants and babies do exercise their skills of value judgements when they feel pain, or are hungry or when they are entertained. This means that they are using these innate abilities to manipulate and react to their environment. But an infant cannot postulate whether eating vegetables or eating meat is right or wrong. Nor can a baby postulate of the morality of being offered milk powder or natural mother’s milk as nature intended it to be.

Presumably by virtue of being human we will encounter very human problems and issues, but does this mean that we have innate ethical rules and moral principles? The universal components are, as I have already suggested, innateness to make value judgements (as a consequence of emotions and reasoning) and the universal factor of being human.

In a way our morality is based at the basic level on the consequences and issues we encounter in our environment. We can then move up a level and try and accept any solutions that solve our problems. I would argue that morality is a form of problem solving. Unfortunately our local issues might not appear throughout the human domain which should imply that our moral needs are not the same. Morality is very localised but there is no reason to suppose that some moral issues are not also issues that affect everyone: for better or for worse we are at present in a global pandemic that is affecting everyone or potentially affecting everyone.

We might also argue that what we learn is not morality but our version of morality that addresses our issues and concerns within our environment. Thus a religion that requires the manipulation of people’s beliefs to survive might clash with people who value freedom of speech and personal freedom. If we had to have an innate morality we wouldn’t possibly have conflicting opinions about what morality ought to be. But there is a difference between empirical issues (pandemic) and dogmatic issues (respect your god). We can fix, so to speak, an empirical pandemic, but how do we go about fixing a god? We cannot because there are only empirical issues.

The debate on morality and ethics has mainly focused on establishing morality on some a priori principles thus making the moral and ethical systems universal by virtue that they are not based on empirical criteria. But as I said already, if this is the case we do not expect to see contradictions in the ethical rules and moral principles. But if morality is based on the circumstances we find ourselves we certainly forego the universal aspect of morality but we can compensate for this with the nature of an evolving morality.

In effect we can try to solve empirical issues and thus come up with some moral and ethical code, but there is no way of solving conflicting issues based on dogma: the only solution here is to change our mind.

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