Are we born with morals?


Before reading the post, click on the picture to see a video review of the book.

Thursday 20th March 2014

This high powered, energetically argued rejection of the common sense response that we’re born with a ‘moral centre’ is based on the evidence of the experiences of Shin Dong-hyuk who is the subject of a biography, Escape from Camp 14 – a story about his escape from a North Korean detention camp.

Philosophy would have us answer either yes or no to our central question and then present some sort of evidence to support our responses.  The answer for which we can provide the best available evidence would be the one in which it is most reasonable to believe.  But can’t we say both yes and no?  Here’s a suggestion.

On the one hand, it’s true to say that morals are invented by humans, which implies that we are not born with them.  While there are other species that display moral behaviour (a dolphin that supports an injured mate in the water while swimming; a dog with its tail between its legs; a horse that whinnies when it senses a predator), it seems that we are the only species that can openly talk  about morals, organise them into ethical codes and use these to guide our behaviour.

On the other hand, it can also be argued that we evolved to be moral through the process of natural selection; that is, certain moral emotions and behaviours were ‘selected for’ by nature to aid our survival as a species, so these are already built into us at birth.  Which emotions?  For example, a feeling of righteousness when we’ve done something good like helping an old lady cross the road; the feeling of guilt when we even think about taking a pound coming from our mother’s purse!  Which behaviours?  For example, the act of kin selection which helps to reinforce the bonds of our family unit; the act of altruism which shapes and strengthens the unity of our communities.  Of course this isn’t to say that a baby can immediately know what’s right or wrong or that it can immediately act altruistically.  However, the implication is that we are born with a brain architecture which supports a psychology which in turn supports our moral sense of right and wrong.  It is this that enables humans, above all species, to discuss and develop the values which we believe should shape our lives.

Of course, this makes an individual’s ‘moral centre’ extremely vulnerable both to internal and external influences.  On a psychological level, if our brains are damaged in specific ways, this can impair our moral judgements.  Presumably this is one cause of psychopathic behaviour.  On a social level, in order to fit into a group or society, we would do almost anything.  Thus, very often, our moral sense can be manipulated, twisted and shaped into something unrecognisable as human. And this brings us back to the clip about Shin Dong-hyuk, which ends with a thought-provoking idea: after everything he’s been through, Shin believes that ‘he is evolving into a human being’.

However, as we have tried to suggest here, he was always a human being, born with the capacity to be moral, but born in a place and time in which his society shaped his moral centre in a way that made him believe that acts of monstrosity were normal.

He isn’t the only one to have experienced this or to have had to relearn what it is to be a moral human being…

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