Is Morality Taught or Inborn?

September 18th, 2011
Do we have a natural moral compass?

“Two things fill my mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe: …the starry skies above me and the moral law within me.”  - Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 1788.


David Brooks had an interesting column in the New York Times last week about the findings of sociologist Christian Smith's research study of young people’s moral values. Brooks is discouraged over the subjects' confessions that they give little thought to moral decisions. Brooks summarizes Smith's conclusions (outlined in the new book, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood) saying, "you see the young people groping to say anything sensible on these matters. But they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so."

As one participant admitted, “I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.” To me that’s a telling sign. He didn’t convey that he merely thinks about such matters.

The researchers contend they “found an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism . . . they’ve not been given the resources – by schools, institutions and families – to cultivate their moral obligations.” 

Brooks maintains “Many of these shortcomings will sort themselves out as these youngsters get married, have kids, enter a profession or fit into more clearly defined social roles.”

Will they? Is that how we learn morals these days? I might have been partially affected by families, institutions, and cultural codes of conduct, but I’m not sure I wrestled significantly with ethical concerns until I entered into deep conversation with individuals who were candid and somewhat vulnerable about how they honestly feel about a moral issue. (People who perhaps had the "vocabulary" Smith says many young people today lack.) I didn’t get much help at home or in schools as far as I can remember. My parents, teachers, and mentors mainly modeled for me how to think about my fears, anger, and lust, but there was little if any mutual sharing of deep feelings. Come to think of it, the topic of lust got skipped.

Brooks ends on a hopeful note from my perspective. He states “Morality was once revealed, inherited, and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.” I assume he’s referring to what we inherit from our families, faith communities, and culture. From my view, Brooks relies too heavily on the influence of familial and communal nurturing and not enough on what we might have stored within us as individuals.

In general, Smith found that his young subjects did not seem to be less moral than adolescents of other times (adolescence being a time of risky behavior and short-sighted decision-making in general), so perhaps reliance on an inate, God-given sense of right and wrong isn't necessarily so inferior to the more cognitive passing on of rules and values.

Two other research findings can also speak to how we deal with moral matters. I may be putting too much stock in them, but scientists are making a case that early primates come equipped with a moral compass. Marc Hauser, an evolutionary biologist suggests in his book Moral Minds “that the brain has a genetically shaped mechanism for acquiring moral rules, a universal moral grammar similar to the neural machinery for learning language.” In addition, neuroscientists suggest that the risk to trust immediately is “probably augmenting an extremely rich model (we) come equipped with.” (Source: "A Study of Social Interactions Starts with a Test of Trust," by Henry Fountain.)

The first finding supports what is often known as "natural moral law" and discussed by Paul in Romans 1-2. The latter findings offer the promise that there will be individuals out there, maybe total strangers, willing and able to risk running deep with us in an instant, sparking the conversations that enhance our moral thinking as we learn to articulate the inate moral feelings within us.

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