Is Moral Reasoning Innate or Learned?

Like many debates concerning the relationship between "nature" and "nurture," there is a tendency for people to either adopt a partisan position on extremes or a muddled and vague position somewhere in the middle. This presentation will begin with an overview of the modern development of nature versus nurture debate, before moving on to the evidence of moral innateness and the comparison with the morality as a learned skill, before coming to hopefully useful conclusions on the matter.

The initial problem often comes from philosophers, because of course philosophers do tend to develop hypotheses first before they're actually tested, and people are attracted to the logical coherence and brilliantly pithy statements, rather than the subsequent evidence that is slowly developed over many years of stuffy journal articles that are boring but important. John Locke, for example, could exclaim in "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding" in 1689:

"Let us suppose the mind to be, as we say, a tabula rasa, void of all characters, without any ideas. How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store, which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it, with an almost endless variety? When has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from experience."

Such an opinion has been popular for over three hundred years. The psychological school of behaviourism, grounded in evidence, was particularly strong in its advocacy. Founder John B. Watson famously claimed in Behaviorism (Revised edition, 1930):

"Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors."

It is very much worth noting, however, that Watson was wise enough to continue: "I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years."

An even stronger point of view was presented by anthropologist Ashley Montagu in 1968:

"Man is man because he has no instincts, because everything he is and has become he has learned, acquired, from his culture ... with the exception of the instinctoid reactions in infants to sudden withdrawals of support and to sudden loud noises, the human being is entirely instinctless."

Now these strong "tabula rasa" positions that suggested the perfectibility of humanity through curated experiences have been tempered somewhat by the evidence which, I am sure, an empiricist like Locke would have swallowed that pill. It turns out if you like that one of the "experiences" of the human condition is inheritance. A particularly powerful statistical body of evidence has been monozygotic twin studies, especially in that smaller subset where twins are raised separately. Nobody is particularly troubled when twins exhibit similar physical characteristics, such as height, of course. However, widespread studies such as the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart, which was initiated in 1979, suggested that matters of psychological dispositions and traits were also heavily influenced by heritability.

Thus with contemporary knowledge one will find general claims that schizophrenia has 70-80% heritability or, with somewhat greater variation, that Borderline Personality personality has between 40-70% heritability. There are even competing studies that argue that a trait like "happiness" has anywhere between 40-80% heritability. Of course, expressed as percentages there is a tendency for people to read these values as a bit of a roll of the genetic die, so to speak, when really it's the relative influence of a particular vector. The issue becomes murkier still when considering the influence of epigenetics, the environmental influences on genetic expression (e.g., diet, temperature, oxygen levels, light cycles) or the influence of the environment on fetal development. There is, on the evidence, so much deal of influence between environment and genetics to suggest that the claims of the biological determinists and naturists are both quite far from reality, which indicates that genetic and environmental influences on behaviour are pervasive.

The relative innateness of morality is criticised from a very literal point of view by like evolutionary biologist George C. Williams who considers it: "an accidental capability produced, in its boundless stupidity, by a biological process that is normally opposed to the expression of such a capability". Such remarks have been described by the primatologist Frans de Waal as veneer theory, the suggestion that humans are actually innately quite vicious creatures and culture provides a protective layer against us becoming rampaging monsters of the id. Others, like developmental psychologist Jean Piaget where moral development is a constructivist process through stages of cognitive and neurological development. The evidence seems to apply a bit from either end of the argument and certainly, observation of animals has indicated that they too appear to have an innate sense of altruism. Primatologists have long noticed that chimpanzees to bonobos, our closest genetic relatives, there is the capacity for empathic behaviour and self-sacrifice, although this comes with the caveat that the chimp, in particular, has a higher degree of tribalism.

Within humans, there is a fascinating collection of studies, available in "Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil" by Paul Bloom of Yale University, indicates that even human babies, who do not have the capacity for language or anything approaching what we would call reasoning, do seem to have an innate moral sense, along with a basic disposition of what one can roughly call "goodness", based on notions of sharing and preferences to associate those who help rather than hinder. Nevertheless, there are some worrying limitations to this moral sense, and again it comes down to familiarity; both in terms of physical features such as skin colour or sound effects like language, babies do show a preference towards that which they are already familiar with, assuming that it is a positive experience. "In-group" versus "out-group" preferences determine the moral feeling that humans have even toward their fellow humans for which is there is enormous and ongoing evidence.

On the physical level, there is the suggestion that particular neurological structures - mirror neurons - provide a capacity for empathy. The principle behind a mirror neuron is that it fires when a human or non-human animal acts or when the observation of the same action is performed by another, that is, the neuron replicates or mirrors as if the observer was engaging in the action. Found throughout several brain regions, suggesting multiple types of mirror neurons. The role of mirror neurons is under a great deal of scrutiny but with no definite model of its process in cognitive functions, but with suggestions that they are involved in skill acquisition, language acquisition, the understanding of motivations, and an empathic sense. For the latter it has been shown that particular brain regions are active when people experience emotional and when they witness another person experiencing an emotion and further studies with my favourite empathic beings, rats and mice, show that there is a first-hand neurological experience of pain when pain is witnessed, providing causal evidence for a link between pain mirror neurons and moral behavior. From the University of California, noted professor of psychology V. S. Ramachandran, has tied mirror neurons also to self-awareness; a sense of self and the sense of others is combined. It's like the quote attributed to Ramana Maharshi when asked "How are we supposed to treat others", he responded "There are no others".

Much of the debate of moral innateness versus learned morality, at least to me, seems to replicate to a large extent another debate that occurred in the twentieth century on a different expression of human social behaviour, and that is language. It should be fairly clear that knowledge of specific languages is hardly something that is innate and is instead acquired by cultural experience, although mention must be made of what Shattuck has described as "The Forbidden Experiment" of historical claims were children were raised without human contact to determine what their "innate language". Fortunately, the veracity of these experiments is improbable but well-documented was the "Pit of Despair" conducted on rhesus macaque monkeys at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1970s where newborn monkeys were raised either in total isolation, a machine that modeled abusive mothers, and toweling-covered cones. To say the least, the monkeys raised in such an environment were seriously psychologically damaged; two even starved themselves to death. One may also refer to the child "Genie Wiley" who was kept in isolation from the age of 20 months to 13 years. After being released from captivity, attempts were made to educate her. Whilst she did show nonverbal communication skills, she never acquired language, and her behaviour remained that of an unsocialised person.

It would seem evident that whilst a particular language is certainly something culturally acquired, the capacity for competence in a language is something where innateness does exist - and one may reference the classic criticism of Chomsky over Skinner in this regard. Likewise, similar comments may be made about a person's religion. I think it highly improbable that a person has an innate predisposition towards a particular religion, although it does seem plausible that "religiousity" is something that is innate and can vary between individuals. One can even say the same thing about intelligence; a generalised intelligence quotient - with all the caveats about environmental effects noted - does not imply practical intelligence. As David Perkins from Harvard suggests by analogy: "A high IQ is like height in a basketball player. It is very important, all other things being equal. But all other things aren't equal. There's a lot more to being a good basketball player than being tall, and there's a lot more to being a good thinker than having a high IQ."

The same can be said about empathy; unlike the claims of Locke, the brain is not a tabula rasa. It is bounded, and it does come with its own component regions and as much as the capacity for practical intelligence, the capacity for linguistic expression, the capacity for depression or emotional dysregulation exist prior to our developmental experience is a reflection of predisposition and potential rather than necessarily what actually occurs. Further, the brain does have a remarkable level of plasticity; if one becomes aware of their predispositions that they are unsatisfied with, they can can change them for behaviour. Whilst we are a long way from determining say, the heritability of moral behaviour, one must be aware that given that there is a physiological basis for morality that it too will be some degree a heritable trait.

It is nevertheless fair to say moral reasoning is not innate, but the capacity for moral reasoning is, and that there are behaviours that suggest that capacity makes itself manifest unconsciously even in toddlers. It is in our nature to be moral and how that is expressed consciously becomes part of our experiences, our learning, and their application. One very well-known model in the development of moral reasoning is that related to Piaget's cognitive stages developed by Kohlberg with further substantial gender improvements by Gilligan. In this model a child undergoes cognitive-moral development starting at a pre-conventional level, where the emphasis in on the needs of the self, then to a conventional level, common among nearly all adolescents and adults which emphasises social integrative and normative behaviour and finally to a postconventional level where principles of ethics and care may conflict but have priority over social laws and norms. Using the classic typology of sociological deviance from Merton, those with postconventional moral reasoning often find themselves in the "rebellion" type; seeking new means and new goals from what society currently provides.

By way of conclusion, a question is therefore raised. What is the aggregate moral development of a society? An underlying problem is that human moral reasoning is amplified by our technological capability - which can be positive or negative. If you like the moral reasoning determines the mathematical sign, our own actions are a number, indicating the force of the action, and technology is a multiplier (enhancing) or divisor (restricting) or actions. Over time it becomes possible for a person to engage in actions well and truly above their personal ability to the extent that certain psychopathic and immoral individuals have an increasing capacity for mass murder, especially if a set of social institutions actively encourages them into leadership positions a the triad of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. That, however, is a subject for a different presentation.

Presentation to the Sea of Faith in Australia (Melbourne), May 28, 2022

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