Where does Morality come from?

There is intrigue about morality. Unless there is a psychopathic disorder, everyone has a moral sense. It seems to be a universal ability but why do we need morality, perhaps a unique trait in the world of living things?

In our search for morality as a human condition, we must omit those moral behaviors that are induced by groups. This will be hard to do because many “moral” actions by more than one person, for example religion, charities, corporations, mobs, the military, in fact, any group action that has a predetermined purpose for its moral behavior, does not accurately measure the source of morality. Group acts are salted heavily with cultural conditioning and prejudice. So clouded are the definitions that even one person’s apparent behavior is heavily salted.

The mariner would like to press beyond surface definitions such as, “virtue,” “conformity to ideals of right human conduct” and “since each person is raised differently with very diverse experiences, each person has a unique definition of morality and ethical beliefs.” More directly, it is the personal ability to possess morality rather than the behavior that is measured socially. What inside an individual enables morality?

Just as secular groups have prejudice and predetermined expectation of behavior, religious organizations do as well. Religious groups have taken the position that morality is related to Godliness in some way or can be acquired by following rules of behavior cited in religious literature. While the objectives of religion promote goodness more than secular groups, still having preset objectives means that religious organizations are prejudiced.

It was author Graham Greene who said, “Christians can’t steal all the virtues…. Even the caveman wept to see another’s tears.” His comment suggests that moral ability has been part of our species for a long time.

If morality is not based on cultural prejudices, what is left?

Dachel Keltner, The director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory, who recently published “Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life,” suggests that compassion and empathy are genetically embedded in our genome and are the reason Homo sapiens morality is a central element to the success of the human race. If the reader wants further information without buying the book, Keltner talks about the content of his book on the Internet at


Keltner builds a case against the common position that depends heavily on Freud and Kant, which says human behavior is a negative, defensive response, one that is motivated to avoid bad things and that this drives the human psyche rather than positive behaviors like empathy and compassion.

We are left with a decision to accept Keltner’s examination of compassion and empathy as a genetic role that is the salvation of humanity versus the idea that human behavior is a reactive defense system designed to optimize success.

Interestingly, this choice seems familiar. In capitalism, success is a negative action that takes advantage of a situation where someone else will pay the price that assures success. This proves to be a successful economic strategy across the planet. However, just because the capitalistic model works for some, does that means it is good for the survival of the species? This is a deep question. The reader should note that the capitalist model concentrates wealth for the few while the population gives up its capital to assure that wealth.

Is wealth of the few a guarantee for the evolving human race? History suggests that the accumulation of uncontrolled wealth eventually leads to a breakdown of society. Cyclical breakdowns of society indicates an unstable function among the species. A less selfish model for sharing resources, that is, a model based on compassion and empathy as Keltner suggests, may in the end, lead to an improved human species.

Let’s leave it there for the moment. Ponder the powerful short term advantages of a negative reactive behavior, which has its financial merits, versus a positive behavior driven by compassion and empathy, which has long term stability.

Ancient Mariner

3 thoughts on “Where does Morality come from?

  1. Bravo!! Very astute connection. I’ve heard it suggested that altruism is possibly a recessive trait. Hmmm…That would explain so much of human behavior. But as
    with with the bulk of human behavior, it could be overcome with awareness and
    conscious choice.What do you think, Great Mariner?

  2. Altruism cannot be recessive, being associated with several variations of egoism (Freud). According to several sources, pure altruism does not exist. The ego and alter ego are first responders to an individual’s personal wellbeing. However – and this is the battleground between compassion and self-interest – by which perspective will the species survive?
    Common examples of altruism are the mother protecting her child against death-threatening circumstances, or the robin covering its young under similar circumstances. Survival of the species, driven by genetic rules going back to the bacterium that is the source of all creatures, is clearly an act that has an element of altruism. The act also is an act of self-interest, that is, the mother and robin have their own desire to keep themselves alive as well as their progeny for survival of the species. The opposite of compassionate altruism is the kangaroo mother who abandons her offspring in the midst of a severe desert drought for the same cause: survival of the species. Self-interest is a personal objective rather than a collective objective.
    The thought that altruism is recessive may arise from the heightened anxiety brought upon us as the world moves toward a significant paradigm shift. As you suggest, objective awareness of issues that drive our society today will help reduce some of the fear. Which will be the greater influence – compassion or self-interest? Which is better for the long term survival of the species?
    Ancient Mariner

  3. I vote for compassion. If we all look out for one another, some of us might survive. It only takes some of us to preserve the species. If we only look out for our own self interest, survival of the species might look pretty grim–like a world in which baby joeys die in the desert.

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