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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Defense of Ethical Intuitionism--Part Four

This is the fourth in a series on Ethical Intuitionism (part one, part two, and part three). In my view, moral intuitions are like axioms in mathematics. They are "givens," self-evident facts that serve as a starting point from which other statements are logically derived. One has to start somewhere. One must have certain assumptions that are deemed to be right morally before one can build a superstructure of moral theory. These "starting points," or "axioms," or "intuitions," are apparently something that we born with. We don't have to be taught them, we don't have to defend them, they are universally recognized as true or right. What does this particular theory of morals have to do with my de-conversion from evangelical Christianity? See this post for the answer.

While Christians would argue that these moral intuitions were implanted by God, I think that there is growing evidence that they are a result of evolution. Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and formerly a Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, argues for this in a New York Times article entitled, "The Moral Instinct" (Jan. 13, 2008).

1. We are born with a "moral grammar."

Pinker refers to Noam Chomsky, professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who argues that:

we are born with a “universal grammar” that forces us to analyze speech in terms of its grammatical structure, with no conscious awareness of the rules in play. By analogy, we are born with a universal moral grammar that forces us to analyze human action in terms of its moral structure, with just as little awareness.

2. This "moral grammar" is present in young children.

Research shows that these instincts are present in very young children (see the work of Paul Bloomof The Infant Cognition Center at Yale University). According to Pinker:

The stirrings of morality emerge early in childhood. Toddlers spontaneously offer toys and help to others and try to comfort people they see in distress. And according to the psychologists Elliot Turiel and Judith Smetana, preschoolers have an inkling of the difference between societal conventions and moral principles. Four-year-olds say that it is not O.K. to wear pajamas to school (a convention) and also not O.K. to hit a little girl for no reason (a moral principle). But when asked whether these actions would be O.K. if the teacher allowed them, most of the children said that wearing pajamas would now be fine but that hitting a little girl would still not be.

3. There is a neurological basis for this "moral grammar."

The instinctive knowledge of basic right and wrong seems to be a result of how a normal human brain functions. Pinker writes:

Though no one has identified genes for morality, there is circumstantial evidence they exist. The character traits called “conscientiousness” and “agreeableness” are far more correlated in identical twins separated at birth (who share their genes but not their environment) than in adoptive siblings raised together (who share their environment but not their genes). People given diagnoses of “antisocial personality disorder” or “psychopathy” show signs of morality blindness from the time they are children. They bully younger children, torture animals, habitually lie and seem incapable of empathy or remorse, often despite normal family backgrounds. Some of these children grow up into the monsters who bilk elderly people out of their savings, rape a succession of women or shoot convenience-store clerks lying on the floor during a robbery.

Though psychopathy probably comes from a genetic predisposition, a milder version can be caused by damage to frontal regions of the brain. The neuroscientists Hanna and Antonio Damasio and their colleagues found that some children who sustain severe injuries to their frontal lobes can grow up into callous and irresponsible adults, despite normal intelligence. They lie, steal, ignore punishment, endanger their own children and can’t think through even the simplest moral dilemmas, like what two people should do if they disagreed on which TV channel to watch or whether a man ought to steal a drug to save his dying wife. The moral sense, then, may be rooted in the design of the normal human brain.

4. Anthropologists have found common moral instincts in virtually all people.

When anthropologists like Richard Shweder and Alan Fiske survey moral concerns across the globe, they find that a few themes keep popping up from amid the diversity. People everywhere, at least in some circumstances and with certain other folks in mind, think it’s bad to harm others and good to help them. They have a sense of fairness: that one should reciprocate favors, reward benefactors and punish cheaters. They value loyalty to a group, sharing and solidarity among its members and conformity to its norms. They believe that it is right to defer to legitimate authorities and to respect people with high status. And they exalt purity, cleanliness and sanctity while loathing defilement, contamination and carnality.

In the next post in this series, I will examine these common moral instincts of mankind more thoroughly.


  1. Hi Ken,

    Have you read Dan Everett's book Don't Sleep, There are Snakes? I think you'd really enjoy it, both as a look at the ethics of a culturally isolated people, and as the story of a missionary (from SIL, no less) losing his faith. Fascinating stuff. One point brought up in that book (and in many other works of anthropology) is that ethics, while similar around the world, are based on a tribal system for many cultures. So, for example, killing other humans for one's own gain is wrong -- if those other humans are in one's own tribe. Helping another human is necessary -- if he/she his a tribemate. Any thoughts on this?

    I read your blog religiously (ha ha!), but comment rarely. Just wanted to let you know I really appreciate the work you're doing here. I wish I'd had the 'Net resources available now when I walked away from evangelicalism 12 years ago.

  2. Hi Becki,

    Thanks for the kind words. No, I haven't read that book but it sounds interesting.

    Yes, I think that primitive man tended to look upon those outside of their tribe as inferior, perhaps not even fully human. Thus, killing or enslaving such a person was not necessarily wrong in their minds.