Good And Evil In The Crib

I have to tell you that I like the cliche headline grabbing way this title hangs on the top there ;)

It’s not about evil babies no matter how much I would like to write that article. I just read a post at selfawarepatters.com  dealing with the innateness of morality in babies. Yes, human babies. The cute helpless mini-alien looking things that people get at hospitals.

Hurt mommy and I'll kill you!

Hurt mommy and I’ll kill you!

I know that everyone has the cutest and smartest baby in the(ir) world. I’m not here to argue that. The post in question discusses whether morality is innate in humans and provides some good references to follow. I’m not going to critique the post but I wanted to mention it because it is the inspiration for this one.

One of the things that I believe people forget or overlook when discussing a topic like this is the mechanisms on which morality functions. I don’t mean philosophical things, rather I mean the neurons and brains and stuff in our heads where all the decisions on a moral scale are made. I think that our brains have a lot to do with morality as we perceive it.

Morality In Mammals

We can spend a few minutes on the Internet and find examples of many mammals showing moral actions, actions of empathy, and generally displaying what were previously thought to be human only actions. All you have to do for this is search for ‘animal saves’ and you’ll get plenty to look at. Clearly they are not limited to humans so it is fair to conclude that what makes us moral beings is probably more to do with our ancestors than some built-in moral mechanism or programming. Not one religion that I’m aware of teaches that animals are moral beings capable of moral action. PETA is not a religion despite what you might think.

Logically we should look at what humans and other mammals have in common. An ancestor! Genetic commonalities. Wait for it …. a brain.

Why would having a brain make you a moral species or a species that is wont to be moral? Another clue is that we find many of the animal stories mentioned above are about social animals or animals that generally are not loners. Ah, so a clue is that social mammals seem to generally exhibit moralistic behavior. Only one species reads holy texts or even seems to give a damn about morality, humans. We can rule out reading and holy texts and even discussing the idea of morality as being the cause.

Coming full circle, that would mean that we should be able to eliminate adulthood in humans as a requirement for moral thinking and action. It appears that all social mammals seem to have the ability for moral action and that includes humans. Nurture is out, so it must be that human babies have the ability for moral action as well whether they can demonstrate it or not. Hopefully this establishes a firm reason for thinking that humans are born with the ability to act in morally good ways.  I don’t want to include the entire argument so for the sakes of this discussion let’s take as granted that morality is based on the law of reciprocity… the golden rule in its many forms. In adults this can be easily argued as a survival strategy and it even supports social group survival strategies. We can see this in other mammal species as well. Why would the law of reciprocity seem to be prevalent across the mammalian species?

Balance Is Survival

In a general sense, the survival point on a scale between harm and no-harm is in the balance point. There will be times of giving and receiving harm and no-harm, but survival goes to those that maintain the balance more often. This can be reduced to a calculation, the kind you find on actuary tables. It’s not a heart warming calculation and it involves leaving the dead and wounded behind as often as not. In this grotesque calculation of survival we can see that over time, any no-harm that you can achieve will help in the fight against harm in order to maintain balance. It’s a calculation that your brain can do.

Social animals protect their in-group and self. This is demonstrably true. Evolution made sure of this because those that did not simply didn’t survive at a rate high enough for us to count them today.

In our complicated world of hairless apes, our brains have far more information than what will kill you and what is good to eat. The balance between harm and no-harm is far more complex now. We have to think and consider what is harm to self and harm to in-group and what is not. Morality is born of this equation for it is only the most complex set of equations to find balance, to find survival. Morality is innate _because_ we are social animals and it serves as a basis for survival for pre-modern humans, modern humans, and in fact all social mammals.

I don’t think that you’ll be able to find a moral act by either humans or any social mammal that can not be understood in this way.

Survival is innate. Morality is a survival strategy in its most basic expression.

When surviving becomes more complex, the expression of that survival strategy becomes more complex and can even be stretched to the point of ludicrous tensions.

Is it okay to murder Hitler?

Watch a child, I bet they would if they could.

Hurt mommy and I’ll kill you!

That is morality in it’s most raw form.

  1. We have to be careful and aware that there is a danger in using the term ‘innate’ because that means there should be a genetic component that is heritable.

    But we’re not talking about genes; we’re talking about behaviour in general and preferences we call moral… and we know we (and some other critters) are aware at very early ages how certain behaviours (but not others) fall on a metric of preference (that of itself may very well be a heritable trait but I don’t know anything here to suggest one way or another). That preference (which is what we’re really talking about) may then be applied to a kind of biological neural blueprint that then makes us feel more or less comfortable with a behaviour, cause more or less anxiety, instigate more or less arousal, and so on, and so we prefer one feeling over another and behave to show that preference… which is then expressed by a behaviour that only appears to be itself innate and falls into the category of what we call ‘moral’.

    It’s a tough but fascinating area of study, deserving of far more research and interest (under the auspices of the biological and neurological sciences rather than metaphysical musings in whatever philosophical or religious garb it may be wearing) than the average person might give to it. All I know is that if we want to know anything about morality, then we need to understand as a baseline how biology works to inform the physical processes behind moral considerations. All the rest is just fluff with no means to be able to evaluate and judge the wheat from the chaff.

    • Indeed, and I believe that morality is an expression of the brain’s ability to balance an equation, the most important one being survival. That is the avenue I intend to explore.

  2. Well said!

    BTW, thanks for the link!

    • Thanks for the good posts and inspiration

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