‘Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more seriously reflection concentrates upon them: the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me’. -- Immanuel Kant, in Kritik der praktischen Vernunft (1788)

By John Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.) What follows was originally written in December, 2004 and updated in September 2007 but I have subsequently improved my analysis of some points below. See here

Although moral philosophy is a field in which I have made some very minor academic contributions, I have never taken it very seriously. So although my own account of the nature of morality is in my view at once factually correct, useful and not dependant on religious assumptions, I have been content merely to outline it rather than defend it in every detail. And I believe that to be a very conservative thing to do. And in making that claim I am also saying that there is a substantial opposition between what philosophers generally do and what conservatives generally do. And I should make clear that in talking about philosophers, I am talking about real students of the world and of discourse about the world -- not the psychiatric cases and comedians (Derrida etc.) who so often pass as philosophers in Europe.

There are two things behind what I have just expressed: 1). My belief that morality is largely inborn and, 2). A thoroughly conservative distrust of theory carried to extremes. That really constitutes the whole of what I want to say on the matter but let me spell it out a bit more anyway.

Because the standard psychological measures of moral attitudes (e.g. Kohlberg's) are profoundly contaminated by the Leftist assumptions of their authors, I have not even tried to look up inheritance data about morality in the behaviour genetics literature -- though there is some supportive evidence mentioned here and here (referring to the work of Hauser and Haidt respectively) and the idea is to be found in the work of various well-known writers -- e.g. Steven Pinker and James Q. Wilson. So suffice it to say that most important human characteristics seem to show very substantial genetic inheritance (See e.g. here and here and here, and some work on a genetically-coded social abnormality reported here, here and here). If morality were an exception that would be most surprising. And from the viewpoint of evolutionary biology, it would be even more surprising. Man is both a social animal and an animal that falls very readily into conflict with his fellow humans. So ways of regulating behaviour to enable co-operation and forestall conflict must necessarily be of foremost importance. And that is largely what moral and ethical rules are all about. To forestall conflict there HAVE to be rules against murder, stealing, coveting your neighbour's wife etc. And that is why there are considerable similarities between the laws of Moses (ten commandments etc) and the much earlier Babylonian code of Hammurabi. The details of moral and legal rules are of course responsive to time, place and circumstances, but there are some basics that will almost always be there. And given the importance of those basic rules for social co-operation, it should be no surprise that such rules became internalized (instinctive) very early on in human evolution. So many if not most of our social instincts are in fact moral or ethical instincts. Ethics are the rules we need for co-operative existence.

Obviously, however, the rules are not so well entrenched as to produce automatic responses. We have broad tendencies towards ethical behaviour but that is all. This is probably due to their relatively recent evolutionary origin. Most of what we are originates far back in our evolutionary past whereas the social rules that we use became needed only with the evolution of the primates.

Additionally, we are the animal that relies least on instinct. So all our instincts can be both modified and defended by our reasoning processes. Just because a thing is instinctive to us it does not mean that the behaviour concerned is emitted in any automatic way. We think about why we do what our instincts tell us and generally conclude that our instincts are thoroughly commendable! And we do generally explain our rules of behaviour in a thoroughly empirical and functional way -- generally starting with: "If everyone did that .... ". And moral philosophers are of course people who specialize in such talk. But, as Wittgenstein often pointed out, all such talk is largely epiphenomenal (an afterthought). It is predominantly their set of inherited dispositions that make people behave ethically, not any abstract rationalizations.

And that realization does explain why philosophers so often back themselves into absurd corners. You might guess what is coming next at that point: Peter Singer. Peter Singer is undoubtedly a very able and influential philosopher and in good philosophical style he starts out with a few simple and hard-to-dispute general rules from which he logically deduces all sorts of conclusions that are greeted with horror by normal people -- his view that babies and young children may be killed more or less at will, for example. As a theoretical deduction, his views are defensible but seen in the light of the biological basis of morality, they are counterproductive. A society that killed off its young more or less at will would not last long. And, just by the by, Singer's work would seem a good example of what Wittgenstein battled so hard against: The tendency to produce unviable abstractions rather than simply attending to the social rules at work in everyday language. I hesitate to call my thinking on the matter Wittgensteinian, however, as the one thing Wittgenstein seemed most sure about was that no-one really understood him.

So we come back in the end to the good Burkean principle that theories are to be distrusted and and continually tested against whether or not they lead to generally desired outcomes. Philosophers judge an argument on its consistency, elegance and comprehensivesness. Conservatives judge it on its practical outcomes. And Leftists judge it on whether they can use it to make themselves look good.


A reader had a rather interesting comment on the above. He commented on my note that when ordinary people debate whether an action is ethically right or not, the Kantian critierion "If everyone did that .... " is very popular. My reader commented that Leftists would not be able to accept that criterion because it would make homosexuality wrong. But as Leftists themselves often tell us, they think there is no such thing as right and wrong anyway (except when convenient) so there is really no problem for them.

I might mention that there is a post on Gene Expression that also looks at morality as a product of evolutionary biology.


As it seems particularly interesting, I reproduce below a press report of the genetically encoded social abnormality I mentioned above:

Nature wins in nurture debate

Scientists have raised new questions about free will, with some of the first evidence that the way people behave towards each other can be controlled by their genes rather than their environment and upbringing. They have found that people with a rare genetic mutation known as Williams syndrome have brains that work abnormally in social situations, producing erratic and inappropriate behaviour. The finding implies that humans' social interactions are pre-programmed to some extent and that external influences - "nurture" in contrast to "nature" - may be less important.

The researchers, at the National Institute of Mental Health in America, will publish their findings today in Nature Neuroscience. The institute's director, Thomas Insel, said: "Social interactions are central to human experience and well-being and are adversely affected in psychiatric illness. This may be the first study to identify functional disturbances in a brain pathway associated with abnormal social behaviour caused by a genetic disorder."

The researchers compared brains of people with Williams syndrome with those of healthy volunteers. People with Williams syndrome are missing about 21 genes on chromosome 7, a deficit that makes it hard for them to judge how to respond to social situations. They are impulsive in their behaviour towards others, often starting conversations with complete strangers and acting in an over-friendly fashion. Conversely, they often become anxious and agitated in non-social situations where there is no real cause for alarm.

Researchers have suspected such behaviour is linked to abnormalities in the way information is processed in the amygdala, which lies deep in the brain and plays an important role in governing social behaviour. In the normal volunteers, researchers found a complex neuron network through which the amygdala was controlled. For people with Williams syndrome, by contrast, these networks had been disrupted. One implication of the study is that genetic testing could pick out children with Williams syndrome.

(From "The Australian" of July 16, 2005. The original journal article is here)

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