Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Is morality genetic?

  1. Nov 19, 2012 #1
    Thought this was an interesting piece on 60 minutes last night:

    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 12, 2013 #2
    Hi, unfortunately the link you provided is not available in the UK but for what it is worth... I think it is more than likely morality has an evolutionary basis, ancestors that learned to treat each other well and act in a 'good' way are more likely to survive... (although someone with a background in evolutionary biology might qualify that a little better) and hence genetics, and subsequently socialisation are likely to play a definitive role in how you think and feel about the world and hence govern your morality.
  4. Apr 21, 2013 #3
    The Definition of Morality, retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-definition/, April 21, 2013.

    The term “morality” can be used either

    1) descriptively to refer to some codes of conduct put forward by a society or,
    some other group, such as a religion, or
    accepted by an individual for her own behavior or
    2) normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.

    Morality is not genetic. It is conceived from the interaction of people. The common idea from above's definitions is people. Human beings are social animals. Check this link for more information: http://www.wiringthebrain.com/2011/06/where-do-morals-come-from.html
  5. Apr 21, 2013 #4
    I think that morality is both learned and genetic. If you send any time around animals it is pretty clear they have a moral code. It seems obvious that ants and bees have a generic moral code.

    The ant/bee moral code is simple and not learned. In the case of dogs it is a bit more abstract -- loyalty to the group and all that -- and partly learned and partly innate. With humans it is even more abstract and more is learned and less is innate, but the basics are in there. Loyalty to the group is important. The question is, what is the group? Everyone has a different concept of the group, so that complicates things. Unlike ants, two groups may develop moral codes that are quite different. But I think that the basic moral principles are more or less the same for the great majority of people.

    When I was at Harvard the ideas of BF Skinner dominated the psychology department. Basically it was that everything was learned. I thought that was a crock. Later the idea fell from favor, largely due to the work in linguistics of Noam Chomsky, who convinced most that the basics of language are innate.

    I don't really know, but think Chomsky won like this. Marvin Minsky and the artificial intelligence people wanted to do automated understanding of language. They went to the then-orthodox Skiinner faction and were told that there were no innate rules and everything was learned by trial and error. Minsky tried that and it didn't work. He then went to Chomsky, who was also at MIT, and they figured out what the innate laws of language were. That worked.
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  6. Apr 21, 2013 #5
    I didn't watch the whole thing but noticed something fishy. When they offered the babies a choice of the good guy or bad guy they only held them both equidistant from the baby in the case of the first baby shown. With the babies after that the good guy was always held closer to the baby than the bad guy, making the good guy an easier reach, a fact they obscured with a tricky camera angle.
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  7. Jun 6, 2013 #6
    I consider that the developmental stages each has its specific morality, meaning the everybody has the spectrum within them. The one that is followed is learned by experience.
    One specific level of morality that must be mentioned is that those who live by rational thought and abstract concepts are the only ones capable of altruism beyond those that they meet on a daily basis. Knowledge, objectivity and rationality are central to the concept of psychological assertiveness and considering the outcomes of their actions. Those that have learned to live by their emotions and the emotions of others have not reached this level of morality.
    Well that just about explains the state of our society.
  8. Jun 6, 2013 #7
    I don't like when people say things are because of "genetics". Sure it may play a role in some things but a lot of people write it off as "meant to be" and "no control over it".

    I think morality is learned and how you were raised such as parents, media, school, environment, etc.
  9. Jun 6, 2013 #8
    Genetics is used as the ultimate excuse but so to an extent is learning. What about free will, especially when it comes to a subject like morality. Once you are an adult, you are largely able to choose your environment and learning experiences.
    The only problem with free will is that choices are clustered in a similar way to the Locus of Control.

    Internal Locus of Control - Knowledge and rational decision making are clustered with doing good deeds for the common good and also honest self-evaluation and taking responsibility for self-improvement and self-confidence. Assertiveness, which boils down to forethought about outcomes, is dependent on objective, rational and informed decision making.

    External Locus of Control - Ignorance, subjectivity, emotional decisions, self-adoration, passive aggressivity and co-dependency. If there is one objective evil in the world, it must be co-dependency, destroying a person that you allegedly love and care for for the sake of blind egoism.

    Clustering means that unless you choose knowledge, rationality and objectivity, and the difficult process of honest self-evaluation and taking the blame for your part in life's problems, you will be co-dependent. The problem is that in the world of ratings, sales and facebook likes, what sells is the myth that you can have your cake and eat it. People are being told that they can be irrational, overemotional, ignorant and subjective and be independent and empowered. They can have self-confidence that is independent of others rather than a brittle shell of egoism. They can be moral.

    So their free will is corrupted in a society filled with myths and lies. Their decision making process is corrupted.

    That appears to be the major influence of learning on morality.
  10. Jun 19, 2013 #9
    I do not know for sure if morals are genetic, but it does not seem to me to be otherwise. Sure, there might be free will, which, by the way, might not even exist, but how would so many cultures choose basically the same set of morals? You do not see anyone killing anyone else because they believe it is "right." In fact, pretty much our whole society has adopted the same set set of values. Ask almost anyone and they will almost certainly say that killing is wrong. I find this much too coincidental to even be a learned behavior. Sure, there are cannibals, but even they do not eat everyone. And, what about the moral of self-preservation? You may not consider it a moral, but if the idea that one should not die has somehow survived the ages, then how else could it have been passed down if not for genetics? Sure, there are depressed persons in society who choose suicide over self-preservation, but they make up the minority by far. Self-preservation prevails in every culture, and I do not even see how it can even be a learned behavior. For example, if a little kid tries to ride his/her tricycle without a helmet, his/her parents might say to him/her, "Wear a helmet, it is dangerous to go without one." The kid immediately understands that it is bad for something to be "dangerous" (this does not mean that they won't still argue, though) even though the parent has never specifically stated that the kid should be worried about self-preservation. Even if you find a way that self-preservation is learned somehow through imitation or something like that, then how would the behavior be accepted? Why would the behavior be learned? Even if the parent specifically said to the child, "Remember self-preservation!" then why would the child listen to the parent? How would understanding and listening to authority be a learned behavior, as well? If the child learns self-preservation through imitation, then why would the child be imitating things? And finally, what about feelings? Have you ever seen people say that they don't like happiness, besides goths (I hope I'm not being stereotypical by saying that goths don't like happiness, but that is my understanding of them), which are, once again, an insignificantly small minority? Happiness is not a learned behavior, yet almost 100% of the population experience and like it. Even if it was a learned behavior, then there would have to be some behavior in society that is passed down from generation to generation so that the set of morals adopted by each person in our society was so similar. Otherwise everyone would have a completely random set of values, or, more likely, none at all, which obviously isn't the case for our self-preserving, imitating, happiness-loving, and curious society.
  11. Jun 19, 2013 #10
    This does feel like familiar ground that gets covered on a fairly regular basis, but I must confess that this is at least a different angle on it. A couple of responses to what has already been said here – throughout the development of life there have been repeated examples of co-operation overcoming the basic programming of self-interest, from the first genes collecting together on chromosomes, and the first multi-cellular organisms, through to the development of animal societies and ultimately the complexities of modern human society. But the underlying reason why that has happened at every level is not because of nobility or morality, which are entirely intellectual constructs, but simply because ultimately co-operation is more effective than self interest in achieving the primary goal, which is not just self-preservation, but actually maximum self-replication.

    But the drum that I beat every time, and this is where it feels like so familiar ground to me, is to recognise that human beings, utterly uniquely, have a capability to act against mere instinct, against mere genetic programming. Though our genes undoubtedly influence our behaviour to a very deep degree, it is entirely mistaken to search for genetic explanations for a great deal of modern human behaviour. And pompous as this probably sounds, the very easy examples I would have to point to are the various humanitarian organisations around the world whose actions are excellent examples of humanity using its intellect to overcome its basic genetic programming. Of course there are plenty of obvious if more mundane examples of that kind of thing in everyday life. A much darker example of the same point is to say that when a male lion kills the cubs of the rival male it has just defeated, it would clearly be ludicrous to hold that lion criminally responsible for its behaviour. When a human step father maltreats the existing children of a new partner, it is right to hold him criminally responsible because it is reasonable to expect much more of a human being. That is not because of his genes and is entirely because of his ability to recognise and to understand the harm that he does, and therefore to expect him to choose to behave differently. The lion doesn’t have that choice.
  12. Jun 19, 2013 #11
  13. Jun 20, 2013 #12
    exfret - My previous comment was not aimed at you in particular but was just a general contribution to the discussion as I perceived it. And there is the rub, clearly you and I perceive it very differently. There has been a previous, very lengthy thread discussing the issue of free will at a level that was generally way above anything that I could contribute to, but the general basis was to doubt, if not to utterly reject the notion of free will. My personal, entirely unscientific response to that is to powerfully dislike, nay to despise the notion that we are merely chemical machines governed ultimately and entirely by the quantum interactions of the fundamental particles of which we are made. You will have to go some to convince me that a human being is not far, far more than merely the sum of its parts.

    A better picture of my viewpoint on this is the idea – most definitely not my original idea – that humanity’s basic, genetically programmed behaviour is essentially barbaric, that civilised behaviour is entirely something that is learned, but is a very thin veneer that is very easily stripped away, exposing the unedifying reality that lies beneath. Guilt is a very interesting case in point. It is well established that guilt has nothing to do with the actual act, and only everything to do with our sense of how others perceive us because of it. Conscience is a sense of how others judge us, not directly a sense of right and wrong about our actions, although such a sense does inform our understanding of the judgements of others.

    And to me, the point about this being something uniquely human is so glaringly obvious as to make me doubt the prospect of common ground. If we don’t agree on that point then I think we can safely assume that any consensus between us is impossible.
  14. Jun 20, 2013 #13
    I do not oppose the idea of free will completely. I did make a small comment that I wasn't trying to take sides. I was only writing about free will because the previous replies to the thread seemed to disregard the fact that humans could be without free will. Also, the possibility of being without free will isn't something to despise. Whether or not we are without free will doesn't change what happens in the Universe, so if it is then it is and if it isn't then it isn't. It's like despising Newton's law of gravity. Despise it if you want, but my stance is that free will may exist, but then again, it may not.

    Why do you believe that the ability to make choices is so uniquely human? Do you believe that as we developed from apes that this ability suddenly popped up out of nowhere? I think that you have to give the lion some responsibility, even if their ability to make choices (if they have this ability) is nearly nonexistent. I would believe that we can process information better, but I think that lions and humans would still have the same chance of being without free will. After all, the lion still has a brain, which is thought to be the same organ in which thoughts are carried out in the human. What would be different about the human that would not be in a lion?

    What I really wanted to emphasize is that there is no right or wrong, and if you have found out what is right and/or wrong through logical thinking, then I would be happy to hear it. (I say this quite literally, actually. It is a gloomy stance to take). Morals have to come from genetics, because we wouldn't produce them ourselves, and even if they did (I feel like I have repeated this multiple times before), everyone's morals would be completely different. Everyone's morals aren't different, though. Almost everyone has the same set morals. This is a fact only explainable by genetics.
  15. Jun 20, 2013 #14
    The commonality in human morality is because of the common function of that morality – to make society work which is ultimately in the greater interest of every individual within it. Let’s not get dragged off on a discussion about whether or not society is in the greater interests of the individual – the current point is about common purpose. I do not accept your premise that if morality were not genetic then everybody’s morals would be different. Clearly, such a situation would serve no purpose at all, and morality exists for a purpose. Slightly at a tangent, I recall reading an excellent piece on this issue about the conflict between the principles of personal freedom in a liberal society and the need for restrictions to personal freedoms to make that society work, and how, for the most part, liberal societies work because of the restrictions we impose on ourselves with our own perceptions of our roles within that society, rather than restrictions imposed from above by a higher authority within that society. That is a tangent, but it perhaps helps to reinforce the point about how function drives the common themes in a morality system.

    It is very good of you to invite me to continue with my feeling about the notion of a human being a prisoner of its make-up – believe me, I intend to continue with that viewpoint, whether or not you perceive any reason for it.

    And I do not believe that an ability to make any choices at all is uniquely human, but the kind of intellectual capacity required to act against genetic programming is. Doubtless some will point out to me other animal societies that also only work because of something identifiable as a form of morality – most obviously those of other great ape species – but that those systems are far cruder than the one that governs human society is a glaringly obvious point to me. The lion kills the cubs of its defeated rival entirely because it is genetically programmed to do so. It is not good enough to excuse human criminal behaviour on that basis. It would be pointless to imprison the lion for its actions because it would not attach its loss of freedom to its previous murderous act. Again, I am finding it difficult to believe that I am actually having to present this argument…
  16. Jun 20, 2013 #15


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    Unfortunately this has devolved into a purely philosophic thread, as had been feared.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook