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  • Writer's pictureKarthik Sunil

Are We Born Ethical? The Origins of Morality

Written by Karthik Sunil

Illustrated by Dev Jariwala © Renesa - SVNIT

You hear your doorbell ring one day. You aren’t expecting anyone, so you’re quite surprised. You find an Amazon delivery boy at the door, talking on the phone, who hands a package over to you and leaves in a hurry.

As it turns out, the package wasn’t meant for you; it’s been delivered to the wrong address. After reading the label on the box, you realise that it’s the expensive iPhone 12 that you’ve been dying for. Do you keep the package or run after the delivery boy and attempt to return it?

Questions and moral dilemmas like this have baffled people studying ethics and human morality for centuries. They have attempted to dissect the concepts of ethics in order to understand what separates good from evil, right from wrong, and justice from crime. Renowned Scottish philosopher David Hume first questioned morality with his ‘is-ought fallacy’. He argued that just because something is a certain way doesn’t mean it ought to be that way. For example, it’s a known fact that drinking poison can kill you. So, you ought not to drink it. We can also say that it is morally wrong to poison someone else, so we ought not to do it. However, it is logically impossible to come to this moral conclusion from the fact alone. This is known as Hume’s guillotine as it severs any direct connection between real-life facts and values.

Moral values are supposedly based on natural facts, but Hume’s guillotine forbids this connection. So where did these values come from?

If forced to make a choice, should the train track operator direct the train towards the group of people and save an important individual? Or should he let the train run over the important individual and save multiple lives? How can one man’s life be more important than multiple people?

Many moral theories exist which might give us an answer. The most popular one is utilitarianism. It works on the principle of utility — we should always act to produce the greatest good for the greatest number. According to utilitarianism, we instinctively do good things because they have good consequences. ‘Good’ here means anything that brings us happiness. The principles of utilitarianism don't work because happiness is subjective. My source of happiness could be to poison others, and yet, utilitarianism would deem it morally right to indulge in it. Even though ethics feel so natural and well-established in today’s modern society, we don’t have concrete evidence on how it came to be. If it is truly an instinct, nature’s creator might be the answer.

According to some theories, God built everything natural, so, Italian philosopher Thomas Aquinas stated that God hardwired us with certain values which we follow no matter what, using just our intellect. It doesn’t matter which religion you believe in or whether you believe in God in the first place, because God created us nevertheless. If this were the true origin of morality and ethics, then no one would ever commit crimes. This is because if being morally right all the time was automatic and engrained in everyone’s brains, nobody would ever do anything immoral. The answer should be simple: I prefer not to do anything wrong because I don’t want people to hate me. But why do we want people to like us?

We care if people like us or not because we are social animals — we can form connections with large masses over long distances and in fact, our survival depends on our social skills. Using this logic, Thomas Hobbes put forward the ‘contractarianism theory’ in the 1700s, which is the closest to a solution we have. He said that morality was something that is made up when a group of free, self-interested, and rational individuals comes together. If we all lived selfishly, there would be no law nor security. Being rational beings, we came up with a system where we can trust each other — a kind of a moral contract we agree to. This gave rise to laws and systems that benefit us more than if we weren’t in the contract. Contractarianism seems like a viable answer, but one field that has rarely failed to give answers is science; so what do scientists think?

Good vs evil, right vs wrong, and justice vs crime. What separates these from each other and who decides that?

The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, tackled morality from a psychological perspective. He hypothesized that a person’s psyche is made of three different personalities: the id, ego, and superego. The id is the animalistic part that lies in our subconscious mind whose primary goal is to survive and reproduce. The ego is the conscious part of our mind that keeps the id in check according to real-world rules. By the age of five, children develop the superego, the part of the mind that tells us how we ought to behave. It is the self-evaluative and moralistic part of a human that is formed by parental and societal rules. The purely biological id wants us to live like cave dwellers, but the superego wants us to live like saints. The realistic ego strikes a balance between the two and tells us how to act in our daily lives. However, recent studies conducted with three-month-old babies show us that they can make moral decisions. These studies imply that humans are born moral to some extent and our morality does not purely depend on our surroundings (like how Freud suggested with superego).

Neuro-philosopher Patricia Churchland tried to use evolution as an explanation. Millions of years ago, when the first warm-blooded creatures surfaced, they had a bigger brain than their cold-blooded counterparts. This bigger brain helped them hunt more efficiently, but the downside was that infants couldn’t fend for themselves and their parents had to take care of them. This meant that the infant’s parents had to sacrifice a large portion of their own time and dedicate it to the nurturing of their child. According to Churchland, this is the closest thing to a scientific explanation of morality — the idea of putting someone else above yourself even when doing this can jeopardize your survival. However, she mentions that this isn’t the only factor. Through years of natural selection, the genes that cared for each other in their social groups survived and made it here. As humans created bigger groups, more complex social relationships also helped build what we call morality today.

Yin and yang is the Ancient Chinese concept of dualism, symbolizing the good present in evil and the evil present in good. This describes how seemingly opposite forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent and may give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.

(Source: Ted-Ed YouTube video - The hidden meanings of yin and yang - John Bellaimey)

Morality has been one of the main pillars that helped in the development of our society and we still don’t have a clear idea of its origin. It seems like we don’t have a definite answer yet, but we know that we are born with a ‘moral compass’, as Carl Rogers said. The American psychologist stated that humans are inherently good and are only corrupted by a poor image of themselves. If this is true, does morality have an origin at all? Was it something we made up or something critical for our survival? Maybe this act of putting others before oneself helped us become who we are now. But if it was something we made up for a more comfortable living, we’re still in the dark.

Junior Editor


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