Tuesday, February 24

Origin of Morality

During our class today I was pondering on the question of origin of morality. How does one know/learn about the good/bad, right/wrong ? I thought this was one of the chicken vs egg question but as I thought more about this I got some ideas on answering this question. Share your thoughts and let me know what you think about it.

We all agree that we are taught fundamental moral issues(don't do this/that, this/that is bad etc) when we are a kid (and as we grow up) from parents, teachers, religion, basically from the environment. But how do we (or they, the people who taught us) know/realize that some moral stance are right while others are wrong ?

I think the first stage of moral development is the above but whether we believe them and hence apply them is determined by the agent/subject (individual). This is where I am hypothesizing that morality is linked with biology because whether we apply a moral stance or not is based on the biological outcome (real or realized/simulated). For example, a person A does not slap/club another person B (in a normal everyday scenario) because A knows that if he was at the receiving end himself he would feel physical pain, bruise/wound, tears etc… which are biological manifestations of the body. Though the example is simple minded (and hence could be more sophisticated), it tells us that the main incentive for taking a particular moral stance is biological mechanisms (both physiological and its psychological manifestations such as emotions etc). Therefore, though there may be some exceptions (individuals), in a random population of a particular society the majority would also base their moral standing on this biological incentive and hence these would form the moral ground/code of the society.

On conclusion, I think the first stage of moral development from environment provides a road map and selection of which road to take depends on biological incentives (just as given the choice most people take the asphalt road over the road with gravels, assuming both are of same distance not short-cuts, and you are not in a hurry ;-)).

PS:- I am interested in "Global Warming" topic, let me know if you are interested too or if you have already made a group.


  1. Sharma -- I think group organization is best conducted in the Blackboard discussion forums. It'll get too diffuse out here on the blog.

  2. I am unsure if you can say that the first stage of moral development is based on the environment/experience, and then that biological mechanisms or incentives guide us in what moral stance to then take. I do agree that both play an important role in our moral development, but I think that they are much more intertwined then you make note of.

    First of all, in respect to our introduction to moral principles and issues, when we are young the environment in which we are learning and developing primarily consists of individuals that hold authority positions. We are taught by and learn to watch these individuals to determine what is right and wrong—our moral development begins. This process of being taught and observing continues on past childhood allowing moral development to continue and allowing for change in moral principles. However, our ability to comprehend and apply what we are taught and experience is very much dependent on biological mechanisms—like the development and plasticity of the brain. Therefore, maybe it is the biological mechanisms that allow us to enter into the first stage of moral development, and the environment shapes the first stage. However, I have a hard time thinking that these are the only two steps involved and that it is this simple.

    As for biological incentives guiding us in what moral stance to take, I do not think that you can say that some of the processes, and as you say “manifestations,” are purely biological. When an individual is trying to decide what moral stance to take, I would assume that some level of reason and rational is used. Also, maybe some emotions are also used in the process (e.g. happiness or fear). But saying that emotions and especially reason are biological based I think raises some concerns. Does this mean that researchers will someday find the mechanisms and codes for emotions or reason (which is what several prominent individuals in the artificial intelligence movement believe will happen)? Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t it known that external factors greatly influence one’s emotional development and how one displays/uses their emotions? Maybe I am just being naïve about these processes, but in the end, I again think there is a combination of environment and biological mechanisms used in taking a moral stance.


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