Do You have Moral Principles Wired into Your Body ?

nature vs nuture

nature vs nuture

Morality has been a topic for philosophical, religious and scientific discussion. This current discussion is a quick philosophical and scientific perspective. People have claimed that morality is an illusion or a social construct. That there are no fundamental moral principles. That the moral principles are mostly social and cultural in origin and can be changed from one context to another.

I’ve been of a similar opinion in the past. Without trying to identify what these principles are it now seems obvious to me that there is an innate morality in humans. Noam Chomsky in his arguments on the limits of understanding makes perfect sense of this. Humans are organic creatures and no matter what environmental changes are made a human embryo does not develop to become a cat. Humans like any other creature have an innate tendency to develop into humans and have the innate ability to do what humans can do e.g. use language, walk on two legs etc. matter what environmental changes are made a human embryo does not develop to become a cat.

In a similar sense, we must also have innate moral principles which are ingrained in our biology. We are definitely not excluding the effect of culture and environment, in general, can have in shaping these principles. But it is to recognize the fact that the environment cannot shape us into something we don’t already have the capacity of becoming. Yes, there will be differences in between humans as well like with any biological characteristic. But there would be a limit to those differences e.g. a human cannot be 40 feet tall.

You could argue only humans have moral principles. Assuming that we agree then it means that only humans have the biological capacity to have moral principles. Since it is a biological capacity there will be a scope and limit to what it is.

We have to differentiate here, this does not imply that there are fundamental moral principles that are transcendental and apply to everything. A cat may have a different scope and limit to its morality equivalent. Similarly, an alien may have different moral principles given it has the capacity to have these.


Do you agree that basic moral principles are biologically ingrained to some extent? Or are they only a social construct and humans are fundamentally amoral creatures?



  1. Fizan,
    I have a great deal to potentially say against moral realism, since I seem to go well beyond moral anti realists positions in the field of philosophy, or at least those that I’ve come across. But your post seemed too safe to let me get into this. I can’t disagree with what you’ve said here so far. I don’t need for you to state principles like the Ten Commandments, but rather just some conceptual definitions. Tell us what you mean by “moral”, “immoral”, and “amoral”?

  2. Hi Eric,
    I didn’t want to get into too many details because I’m not too literate on moral philosophy. And I’ve only come to grips with this concept very recently, previously my belief was that moral principles were only socio-culturally formed ideas.
    I think if we get into meanings of these terms then we would have to clarify the meaning behind whatever words we use to describe them. Simply I will consider ‘moral’ as a metaphor for something we intuitively understand.

    One thought that comes to mind is that this would not imply that there are some fundamental moral principles that apply to all humans which are always true. What it probably implies is that for any individual person their morality will have some scope and limit defined by their biology. No two humans are biologically alike so these cannot be immutable across humans. For example, psychopaths have a diminished ability to feel empathy and some of the biological requirements behind this ability has come to light. Yet humans are very much alike so they should for the maximum part overlap in this. And as we evolve so should these principles.

    1. Fizan,
      In your provided definition for morality, or “a metaphor for something we intuitively understand”, perhaps you presumed that I knew the rest and so didn’t quite complete your definition? Perhaps you meant “a metaphor for something we intuitively understand regarding the rightness and wrongness of behavior“? Otherwise you might instead have been referring to the field of epistemology. Anyway I’m fine with “an intuitive morality” definition. Furthermore a given subject’s intuitions of rightness and wrongness should naturally be based upon both biological and environmental realities — the standard nature/nurture dynamic. Of course since humans are quite similar in a biological sense, though often exist under very different environmental circumstances, I suppose that moral intuitions should mainly fluctuate by means of environment. Since I suspect that we’re pretty square with that, I’ll now get to what I mainly wanted to say.

      As I understand it philosophy is divided into three branches — metaphysics, epistemology, and value. Furthermore its value branch has specializations of aesthetics and ethics. Apparently for two and a half millennia of formal western philosophy, ethics has been all about the rightness and wrongness of behavior, or what’s “moral”. Observe that morality serves as a social tool from which people judge each other — if you are judged negatively here (immoral) then you should tend to be punished by others for this both implicitly and explicitly. Conversely being on the favorable side should thus provide various social benefits.

      I submit that the social tool of morality has had such a strong influence over humanity, that academia has not yet begun to theorize what’s ultimately valuable. It has refrained, I think, because if we were to formally acknowledge such a thing about ourselves, this would naturally compete with the morality tool by which we are encouraged to seek the favors of others. (I find it ironic when something about us encourages us to deny the more fundamental dynamic that causes us to be that way in the first place.)

      I nevertheless do theorize the nature of value. Furthermore I’ve developed an extensive set of models on the basis of this neither moral nor immoral premise. With this model I mean to both help straighten out philosophy’s woeful branch of value, as well as to help harden up our still soft mental and behavioral sciences.

  3. I think it’s true that there is a human nature. Or more accurately, each of us has a nature, and there is enough overlap between most of our natures that it’s possible to form societies. So more accurately, there is a consensus range of natures.

    The problem with saying that any of that pertains to morality is that every society has norms that require people to override deeply felt innate impulses. For example, young men often have an innate desire to drive very fast, but that’s immoral due to the danger it represents. We expect them to override their desires in this area. And no one consider’s a psychopath’s desires, innate or not, to be moral.

    And morality seems to be heavily affected by the environment. The morality of a hunter gatherer tribe may require that you strangle your parent when they can no longer keep up with the tribe, while a farming community requires that you take care of them in their old age.

    All of which is to say, I fear the quest for an objective morality is a lost cause.

    1. I do somewhat agree with you. From developmental psychology, I remember that a theory (which I agreed with, can’t remember the name) suggested that morals are usually internalized in children when they identify with the ‘Big Other’ (culture/ law/ society etc.) and this is mostly via the father figure. This forms the super-ego. And the super-ego is that critical voice inside us telling us what ought to be done.

      However, from this, it seems that sometimes it is the ability to inhibit innate desires which might be moral. I think looking at the biology of an organism can give us some insight into their potential moral capacity. As with people without empathy, if there was a society of psychopaths you could then develop some vague ideas of the scope morality might take for them. Similarly, a society of autistic people may have a different scope to their morality.

      In your example of innate desires in young men, I think those innate desires are also a biological capacity. Their ability to predict/anticipate likely consequences of actions is another capacity. Their ability to experience pain and suffering and their ability to comprehend the suffering of others is another capacity. Their ability to inhibit actions is another one etc. All of these different biological capacities have something to say about the morality of their actions. For example, a person with frontal lobe damage may not have the capacity to inhibit innate impulses as much as a normal person.

      I do appreciate morality is a fairly complex issue.

  4. Yes, I’d say there are various moral constrictions baked into us/our neurology. That’s why soldiers get training on shooting targets that leak red paint when shot, to normalise the behavior. Ie, to break against their standard moral constrictions. Showing that constrictions can be over ridden – we’re not at default amoral (except perhaps for sociopaths, who do seem to be free of moral constrictions), but we’re not impossible to break either.

    So you have default moral constrictions baked in, then cultural constructs which sometimes are aligned with the default and sometimes override the default. For example, we don’t think of cutting our babies with knives – but we’ll go and have a thin needle stabbed into them. Possibly anti vaxxers just aren’t able to override their default moral constrictions on the matter – all their arguments are just rationalisations, when rather like robocop being unable to attack an OCP employee, the anti vaxxer just can’t bring themselves to have their child stabbed with a thin metal tube.

    I’d always assumed the ‘morality is a social construct’ idea was informed by the idea that the social construct is largely informed by naturally occuring human constraints on behaviour. People really believe that without social constructs we’re utterly amoral? Sheesh! I’d pay that the build in morality can be conflicted and go against its own interests. Just badly designed. That can look amoral.

    1. Thanks Callan for taking the time to share your thoughts.
      Humans aren’t blank slates at birth and infact nothing in nature is. Everything is already a pattern of some sort and this automatically means limits.
      It makes evolutionary sense as well to have wired in principles that promote gene survival in indivduals, groups and specieis. For example it makes sense not to kill babies if you want to propagate your genes. Animals with language ability (humans) can then give such prinicples a name and take them into abtraction.

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