Is our basic moral compass innate or acquired?

Where does our sense of justice, fair play, and morality come from? Is it acquired as a part of our culture or are the basic instincts innate?

There has been quite a bit of evidence from our closest relatives in other species like chimpanzees and from infants that evolution may have hardwired in our brains at least a crude sense of justice and fair play

But now come other studies (here and here) that seem to cast doubt on that earlier work.

This is bound to provoke further research and is going to be a fascinating field to follow.


  1. sailor1031 says

    I have read of a number of studies where chimpanzees and monkeys were quite aware of unfairness when they were the ones being treated unfairly. From what I remember of childhood this is about the same as a young child’s reaction to unfair treatment.

    As children get older I think they absorb a lot from the culture around them so that what they learn to be moral is what the culture considers moral, be that killing infidels or eating the brains of enemies or putting live women in body bags or whatever…..

  2. Stevarious says

    It seems so curious to me every time I see these questions presented as a dichotomy. What possible reason do we have to believe that it has to be one or the other? Is it possible that it’s a little bit of both? Is it possible that for some people, the innate is strong and the cultural is weak, and for others, the innate is weak and the cultural is strong? Is there a genetic or congenital component to the strength or weakness of a person’s innate morality, or does it depend more on the emphasis placed on moral lessons during childhood?

    These are the questions I’d like investigated – but instead, researchers seem to be stuck on a dichotomy that seems false to me.

  3. Mano Singham says

    The key word here is ‘basic’. The question is whether we are born with the instinct that culture then builds upon, or whether we are a blank slate when it comes to fairness questions and everything is created by our life experiences.

  4. Doug Little says

    Wouldn’t it suggest that because it is an important part of our culture that there must have been some impetus there to spark it otherwise the idea wouldn’t have gained traction in the first place.

  5. Glenn says

    Culture can only bring the natural into a full expression.
    Zebras cannot be trained to pull a plow and cats cannot be trained to herd sheep.

    We can be trained to kill because it is in the nature of the beast. We are fascinated by violence and give highest honors to those who hold the monopoly of violence, whether over ourselves, such as with the Stockholm Syndrome, or over others in wars of aggression.

    Wars eventually justify themselves in the mind of unthinking emotionally acting killer apes.

  6. Josh R. says

    I think ‘Tis Himself, and Stevarious have it right. Nature or nurture is a false dichotomy. It might be fair to ask which one has more of an effect on our moral compass, in which case I’d answer nurture, but even then I think it would be difficult to see where one ends and the other begins.

    I just thought of a thought experiment. Or an example, or… eh, call it whatever.

    So I’m assuming we agree that our thoughts come from chemical and electrical functions of our brains. Therefore, our thoughts and actions regarding morality are dependant on a squishy lump of gray matter nestled in our craniums. (cranii??? eh, Skulls.) Now on the innate side of things, millions of years of evolution have produced an organ that has certain built in structures that are the same (or at least similar) across the entire species. We know that there are dedicated parts of the brain to control emotions, memories, even things as specific as facial recognition. It’s possible, I’d even go so far as to say likely, that there are some facets of morality built into human beings at that level. Most people don’t go around slaughtering people or, in general, causing harm all willy nilly for no reason. Now before I even step into the “acquired” morality portion of this discussion let’s alter the innate side. Let’s talk about brain damage. There are brain injuries that turn people into sociopaths. There are chemical inbalances that convince people to do very bad things. Chemical addictions make physical changes to the brain that cause people to shift obtaining more of that chemical to the top priority slot in their minds. Even non-chemical addictions such as gambling or sex are thought to be related to the amount of Seretonin in your brain and how your brain handles it. So with regards to innate morality I’m just going to define that as referring to the “hardware” of the brain.(Chemical processes occuring in the phsical organ.) Whereas the acquired morality would be more the “software” part of the brain.(The thoughts and memories, and reasoning that results from those chemical processes.)

    Past a certain age, most behaviors, are learned behaviors. Children aren’t born knowing how to tie their shoes. I don’t believe children are born understanding subjective morality.

    I don’t ascribe an objective morality to any supernatural entity or phenomenon. I tend to think of objective morality more as the pieces of each individual subjective morality that overlap a high percentage of the time. One example: Pain. Pain hurts. Injury is painful. If I feel pain, I am safe to assume that others feel pain. If I do not like the sensation of pain, I can assume that others do not like the sensation of pain. I can then infer that causing pain to others is bad or wrong. Of course this is only mostly objective. (I’d like to call it Statistically Objective but I have absolutely zero authority on this subject.) There are masochists that derive emotional pleasure from physical pain. Even then, it’s contextual. I doubt there are many masochists that would gladly endure continuous torture or mutilation and still derive pleasure.(once again, I don’t know.)

    As usually happens when I respond to blog posts I’ve rambled on far too long, lost my train of thought, and am not quite sure where I’ve gone with all of this so I’ll try to sum up my original intentions.

    Innate morality, in my opinion, is similar to “The Golden Rule.” There are certain built in moral ideas that people just know. Acquired Morality is what is learned through experience or taught or proscribed by autority. I don’t think it’s a one or the other discussion.

  7. says

    Isn’t it obvious that the kind of behavior that would tend to encourage social groups that valued each other be of advantage from a evolutionary perspective? Why wouldn’t such behavior favor survival?

  8. Erista (aka Eris) says

    Are there really still people who believe that we are born as COMPLETELY blank slates? Because I was under the impression that this debate had long since been abadoned in favor of asking HOW MUCH is written on our slates before birth (by nature) and how much is written afterwards (by culture).

  9. Mano Singham says

    This is a tricky issue about the unit on which evolution works and is the long running debate of individual selection vs. group selection.

    The unit of selection in evolution is the single organism (or some might argue a single gene). It is this that is passed on to the heirs. While we can easily see how a group that is cooperative is more likely to survive and produce more offspring than a group that has a lot of infighting, the catch is that a selfish person within a cooperative group is more successful still, since he/she can benefit from the rewards while taking less risks. So that selfish person’s genes have a greater survival value and will thus end up predominating in the group.

    The challenge is to explain how altruism emerges even though selfishness seems to be advantageous on an individual level. The ideas of kin selection and reciprocal altruism are suggested solutions to this problem. Riachard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene explains this well.

  10. Mano Singham says

    You are right that the debate as you framed it is pretty much settled as you describe it. But that is not what is at issue here. While we are clearly not completely blank slates, we could be blank in particular areas. It may be that what kind of jokes we like or our taste in art are purely cultural acquisitions and have no genetic origins.

  11. Art says

    Truth, beauty, justice, fairness, and all morality, to the extent that they exist at all, are all projections or products of human consciousness or efforts. Humans can perceive patterns that we associate with virtue and morality, and we can seek to promote these patterns of virtues but the universe neither knows nor cares.

    Within that context I strongly suspect that the ability to perceive, and the tendency to value, the patterns of morality is innate in humans that are mentally and psychologically intact. Even primates have some concept of fairness.

  12. Glenn says

    The training of animals is always a two way street. Have you ever noticed how many schools exist for the purpose of training humans to train animals?

    The natural responses of both humans and their animals are based on the products of natural selection; training is a cooperative action with respect to stimuli of the present.

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