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An Essay on the Roots of Morality

Where does morality come from? How can we know which actions are good and which are bad? How do we recognize a good person, a good life? Are there moral rules or standards that apply to everyone, everywhere, all the time? Or are moral standards merely rules of behaviour and customs adopted by a given culture, so that what is right in one society can be wrong in another, and vice-versa.

Since René Descartes and succeeding generations of rationalist thinkers, we have attempted to answer questions like these in terms of reason, which Enlightenment philosophers (aggressively rejecting many centuries of religious authority) insisted was the only true route to certain knowledge of any kind—more certain, even, than the senses, which sometimes deceive. What we can demonstrate to be an axiom in logic or mathematics, we can be sure is true, always and everywhere.

Rationalist moral systems can draw up lists of rules to be consulted and obeyed, or they can be focused on the outcomes of actions, which are to be calculated prior to acting. The first approach is called deontological (Gk. deont: being necessary) and it proposes that morally relevant actions are always either good or bad, regardless of their consequences, and further that it is possible to draft rules that have broad if not universal application. The second system, called Utilitarian (or consequentialist), deems those actions good which result in the greatest happiness for the greatest number. A third approach was adopted by Immanuel Kant, perhaps the most influential of all modern moral philosophers. Kant attempted to establish a handful of fundamental rational principles upon which all moral judgment could be based. In this famous “categorical imperative” he argued that “I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” In other words, the test of whether a moral precept is true or valid is whether we can assert it to be true in all imaginable circumstances. Only under these conditions can a rational person act in good faith.

Kant proposed a step-by-step process of moral deliberation or testing in connection with the categorical imperative:

1)   State the principle guiding your action (or proposed action).

2)   Then restate the principle as a universal law that applies to all rational people.

3)   Carefully and systematically examine the universal principle in the light of the best current knowledge about the world and its rational inhabitants. Move to stage 4.

4)   Ask the question: given the evidence, should I act on this principle?

5)   If the answer to (4) is “yes, then the action is morally permissible.

The Kantian categorical imperative bears an important epistemological relationship to scientific truth as it has been explored in the last century by philosophers of science. This is nowhere more striking than in the work of Karl Popper and his notion of “falsifiability.” For Popper, establishing scientific fact is a process of deriving a hypothesis and then repeatedly testing it against evidence in a continuous series of attempts to prove it wrong, or to falsify it. Our confidence in a scientific “fact” grows with our inability to prove it false. A corollary to this is that there is no absolutely certain knowledge in science, only degrees of confidence.

Rational moral knowledge is similarly capable of confirmation through the process of falsifiability, which is essentially the process Kant employs in his examples of moral dicta which can and cannot rationally be universalized— which do, and do not, meet the criteria for categorical imperatives. Kant’s categorical imperatives  (categorical because universal; imperative because they are commands) are written as demands for action: save the child! stop the murderer! help the weak! and so on. It is these demands that are to be tested against universal applicability, to see if they are falsifiable.

In current academic thought, this approach to establishing fact in the realm of the normative is called critical moral realism. The moral realist position implicit in what follows is broadly in agreement with the position taken on social constructionism by critical realists such as Roy Bhaskar and Margaret Archer, Andrew Collier, and Zygmunt Bauman among others. It has echoes of the pragmatist philosophy of William James, the moral implications of which are expressed eloquently in The Will to Believe and The Varieties of Religious Experience. Broadly speaking, critical moral realism proposes that reality is both socially constructed and objective (absolute). Society is a human product, but it is also an objective reality. People as individuals are products of that social reality. In other words, humans not only construct a social world, but we are also shaped and produced by what we and others have created. This is not a deterministic process, because if we are all co-producers of reality, then we cannot entirely be its passive creatures (or ideological dupes). Ours is a fate which we ourselves collaborate in producing. Nevertheless, social realities do become objective realities. They are our realities: stabilized, solidified, made “real” through ideology (systems of representation) and institutions (schools, juridicial processes, etc). Made real, in other words, through  everyday material practice.

From the perspective of the early 21st century, the Enlightenment contention that reason alone can provide reliable knowledge about the world, and that there is no limit to that knowledge, is no longer tenable. As Popper understood, science itself does not accept this claim. Nor should it, given the 20th century discoveries of Kurt Gödel and Werner Heisenberg (among others) who established that science and mathematics, as formal systems, are in principle unable to know everything there is to know. Twentieth century physics and mathematics has taught us that it is axiomatic that there will always be knowledge that is true, to which reason has no access. We are condemned by our finite intelligence to lives lived in the midst of rationally inaccessible mystery.

But this does not mean that our moral lives need be lived without anchors. One such anchor, I would suggest, is what Zygmunt Bauman calls “the moral impulse,” and what earlier generations of moral philosophers have variously referred to as conscience and moral sense.[1] It is the innate human impulse to what Emmanuel Levinas terms “being-for-the-other.” How this impulse is interpreted in the construction of both value systems and social institutions (to the extent that these are value-based) is only in part socially contingent; social contingency cannot fly in the face of this fundamental reality of human existence.

The other anchor is also, apparently, a fact of our psychological existence as homo sapiens. Some of the strongest academic support for the existence of an intrinsic moral sense has come from the American linguist, social critic and philosopher Noam Chomsky, whose hypothesis of the existence of an innate grammar in humans that permits them to learn language has been widely (though not universally) accepted. Chomsky’s ideas have effectively displaced earlier earlier behaviourist theory across a wide spectrum of interests.

In his famous review of B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior, he pointed out that much of behaviourist ‘science’ was meaningless at its core. Rather than explaining phenomena it examines, as it claims to do, it merely names them. To describe a painting, for example, as a ‘controlling stimulus’ that evoked an individual’s ‘verbal response’ tells us nothing useful, since the individual might respond in an almost infinite number of ways, his response being determined as much by internal disposition as external stimulation. It was similarly absurd to claim that behaviourist stimulus-response-style training, rather than native endowment, was the key to language development. Children of varying intelligence and cultures acquire language at much the same rate, Chomsky observed, despite the fact that few of them are systematically taught, or rewarded. Furthermore, children use grammar in ways that suggest they are following rules, rather that merely imitating what they hear. Virtually all English-speaking children, for example, initially make the mistake of generalizing the grammatical rule that to form a plural one adds ‘s’, saying ‘foots’ and ‘sheeps’ instead of ‘feet’ and ‘sheep’. Nor could even the richest learning environment account for the apparently unlimited variety of wholly novel sentences small children are able to devise on their own, and understand.

Chomsky has concluded that if it is the case that the human mind is in a sense hard-wired with basic grammatical information, it is likely that it is also equipped, at birth, with other fundamental structures of thought through which it interprets the world. Among these, Chomsky believes, may be an ethical sense. As have other moral theorists, Chomsky sees an analogy between aesthetic sense and moral sense: “Work of true aesthetic value follows canons and principles that are only in part subject to human choice; in part, they reflect our fundamental nature. The result is that we can experience deep emotion—pleasure, pain, excitement, and so on—from certain creative work, though how and why remains largely unknown.” The aesthetic sense also, necessarily, excludes some possibilities. But those limits on artistic creativity, Chomsky says, should be “a matter of joy, not sorrow, because they follow from the fact that there is a rich domain of aesthetic experience to which we have access.”[2] The same is true, he says, of moral judgment:

 What its basis may be we do not know, but we can hardly doubt that it is rooted in fundamental human nature. It cannot be merely a matter of convention that we find some things to be right, others wrong…..The acquisition of a specific moral and ethical system, wide ranging and often precise in its consequences, cannot simply be the result of  ‘shaping’ and ‘control’ by the social environment. As in the case of language, the environment is far too impoverished and indeterminate to provide this system to the child, in its full richness and applicability. Knowing little about the matter, we are compelled to speculate; but it certainly seems reasonable to speculate that the moral and ethical system acquired by the child owes much to some innate human faculty. The environment is relevant, as in the case of language, vision, and so on; thus we can find individual and cultural divergence. But there is surely a common basis, rooted in our nature.[3]

When faced with moral problems, people are able to call on a basic ethical grammar within which to construct and articulate solutions. Unethical actions are thus performed against the grain of individual insight. One could speculate, on the basis of observation, that this is usually for institutional reasons: human instincts favour moral behaviour, but social institutions, structures, and contingencies sometimes provoke anti-human behaviour. An optimistic, though not unreasonable, corollary is that if we change the institutions, we can permit basic human moral instincts to prevail. Where the moral sense comes from, as Chomsky confesses, remains a mystery. But that need not undermine its claim to authenticity. Chomsky himself suggests that there may be absolute limits to human understanding, just as there are limits to human physical potentialities.[4] We cannot become birds; it may be that we are incapable of understanding or solving certain intellectual problems simply by virtue of being human and limited by inbuilt human capabilities.

Chomsky’s speculative insight invites the further conjecture, that behaviourist approaches to morality suffer the same flaw as Skinner’s approach to language. It would suggest that the notion that ethics is constituted by observable bodily behaviour—by actions—is mistaken. To shift the conceptual framework slightly, we can say that in the same way that behaviourism errs in failing to understand that Mind is not merely a word we use to talk about physical actions, but has a real existence and a real location, ‘in the head,’ so to speak, behaviorist approaches to ethics fail to acknowledge that the ‘moral sense’ is real. In Chomsky’s terms, they fail to acknowledge the existence of a hardwired ethical grammar common to all (healthy) human beings, which provides a syntax within which moral choices and decisions can be made.

Similarly, to argue that an individual’s moral responses are dictated by the external stimulus of institutional and cultural rules is to ignore the rich variety of those responses—many of which will find solutions entirely outside the structure of institutional rules. (The saintly, as Emmanuel Lévnas observes, typically respond in ways that entirely transcend local cultural standards of Good.) Further, the fact that ethical behaviour occurs within given social structures in no way proves that the behaviour is caused by the structures. It could as easily be the case, as Chomsky argues, that ethical behaviour stems from innate impulses, though it may be shaped by cultural constraints.

In short, human activities are no doubt deterministic to some degree, meaning that our evolutionary biological makeup, along with the constraints imposed by our cultural institutions, mechanically determine what actions we take in any given circumstance. But as Stuart Kauffman has put it, the biological world is a world of doings as well as happenings. Even very simple living organisms make choices, exhibit agency, or a freedom to act. And with agency, preferences emerge (preference being the choice between one thing or another), and with preferences, value—that which makes one choice preferable over another. And “with value comes meaning…in the sense of mattering to some entity.”[5] At every level of life, but in particular in human beings, agency, intentionality, free will, exist and help to determine actions and their outcomes.

One might also call upon evidence from sociology and psychology, citing psychopathy as an example of ‘missing’ moral sense, or the work of child psychologists in locating the origins of ethical behavior. The distinguished child psychologist Jerome Kagan, for instance, has been quoted as saying that his own research on children in diverse societies (American, Vietnamese and Fijian) has led him to conclude that there is an innate moral sense. “I did not begin my research with that in mind, but it was imposed on me after examining the data.”[6] However it is not clear whether these scientists are talking about morality or evolutionary strategies. Chomsky himself prefers to leave the question open.

There are other approaches to deriving the real existence of moral values. For example, Robert Kane proposes a comprehensive approach to establishing, as an absolute value, a variation of Kant’s categorical imperative that people should be viewed only as ends, never as means. Kane sees absolute values as a form of “objective worth.” To help define objective worth he proposes a mind experiment in which we are asked to imagine a painter who has been ill and depressed because his work is not selling. A wealthy friend and benefactor plots a scheme to have agents purchase several paintings from the gallery and high prices and in the name of knowledgeable and respected collectors. The painter mistakenly believes that his paintings have been recognized for their worth and his spirits rise. Kane now asks us to imagine another world in which circumstances are similar, including the painter’s depression and the fact that he considers himself to be a great talent. In this world, legitimate collectors actually do recognize the merit of his work and purchase his paintings at high prices. Finally, we are to imagine that in both worlds, the painter dies a happy man, in the belief that his talent has been recognized and acknowledged. But only in the second world is his belief correct: in the first, he was deceived. The notion of objective worth begins to come into focus, Kane says,

 when we ask whether it would make any difference to [the painter] which of these two worlds he lives in, given that he believes he is a great artist in both and does not feel less happy subjectively in one world than in the other. To say that there is an important difference in value in the two worlds for [the painter] even though he would not know it and would feel equally happy in both, is to endorse the notion of objective worth.[7]

Kane suggests, correctly, I think, that the painter, if asked, would certainly prefer the world in which he is not deceived. The reason is because there is objective value to the worth of genuine artistic merit, which he is able to recognize. One could also argue that the objective worth resides in truth versus falsity. In any case, the painter’s judgment does not rely solely on his subjective impressions, but takes into account objective values.

Again, however, we are left with the unanswered question: what is it that enables him to recognize these absolutes?

It seems to me that a partial solution to this puzzle can be found in the moral impulse, which is both a necessary and sufficient condition for proving the existence of moral absolutes, that is, values that are applicable in all cases, at all times, in all places. (Or, alternatively, values that are recognizable from all social, cultural and temporal perspectives.) The very fact of the existence of the moral impulse certainly denies the validity of moral relativism as a coherent philosophy. The knowledge that we all possess a moral consciousness or impulse (empirically verifiable, I would argue), and that, in its authentic voice, it speaks to each of us in much the same way, would certainly seem to be strong evidence that there must be some acts that are universally ‘good’ and others that are universally ‘bad.’ The taking of an innocent life is one such universal; others deal with respect for human dignity. Even terrorists, who make a career of killing the innocent, consistently justify their actions with the argument that their victims only appear to be innocent, and are actually complicit at some level in objectionable policies of the offending group or state. Alternatively, or sometimes in the same breath, they claim that the taking of innocent life was necessary to advance some greater normative good. These are of course moral arguments, that implicitly recognize the sanctity of innocent life.

Kane proposes as a fundamental moral precept what he calls ‘the ends principle,’ which is Kantian in its origin and which he describes this way: “Treat every person as an end and not as a means (to your or someone else’s ends) whenever possible. When it is not possible, strive to sustain this ideal to the degree possible, by choosing those actions that will best restore and preserve moral spheres (in which everyone can be treated as an end).” [8]

Zygmunt Bauman’s description of the moral impulse as the innate disposition to be ”for the Other”, can be seen as a thumbnail version of this precept. How can we know what is required of us in being “for the Other?” Our own experience informs us. In its prescriptive form this knowledge is expressed in a number of moral constructs, including the following:

Christianity: “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do you even so to them: for this the Law and the Prophets.” (Mathew 7:12)

Judaism: “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow men. This is the entire law: all the rest is commentary.”(Talmud, Shabbat 31a)

Hinduism: “This is the sum of duty: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.” (Mahabharata 5:1517)

Buddhism: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself find hurtful.” (Udana-Varga, 5:18)

Islam: “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.” (Sunnah)

Confucianism: “Surely it is a maxim of loving kindness: Do not unto others that you would not have them do unto you.” (Analects, 15:23)

Taoism: “Regard you neighbour’s gain as your own gain and your neighbour’s  loss as your own loss.” (T’ai Shang Kan Ying P’ien)

Zoroastrianism: “That nature alone is good which refrains from doing unto another whatsoever is not good for itself.” (Dadistan-I-dinik, 94:5)

The suggestion is sometimes made that these examples of the so-called ‘golden rule’ are merely expressions of an innate selfishness, in that they are a behavioural means to avoiding personal harm. The empirical/historical evidence does not seem to support this position. We might well ask why there is no hint of reciprocity in any of these precepts; why, for example, in the Christian context the rule is not “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, so that they will do the same.” Or, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, unless there are large gains or small costs in doing otherwise.” The entire purpose of these prescriptions for behaviour is to eliminate the prospect of such reciprocity from behavioural motivation. Clearly, the ‘authors’ thought this was a realistic possibility at least some of the time for some people, and most of us would agree, based on our personal life experience.

Thomas Nagel’s response to the reductionist, behaviourist position that denies the existence of genuine moral motivation is as follows: it might be argued that racism is an innate, biological disposition among humans. Or scientific research might claim to show that one race is intellectually superior to another. We must then ask, should racism thus be exempt from moral criticism? And if “of course not” is the obvious and correct response, where does this idea come from? It cannot determined by biology—that would be contradictory. As Nagel says, moral thought cannot be escaped in reductionism. Nor can its existence be denied. It remains mysterious, but (like gravitational attraction) no less real for its inexplicability. Kant wrote: “Two things fill the heart with renewed and increasing awe and reverence the more often and the more steadily that they are meditated on: the starry skies above me and the moral law within me.”[9]

It seems a mystery that is in principle unsolvable. Religion provides one answer in affirming that humans are made in (a moral) God’s image. The American cosmologist Brian Swimme, bases an ethical theory on the most up-to-date scientific knowledge.[10] Swimme observes that we can now reconstruct the evolution of the universe in considerable detail, from the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago to an expanding, homogenous broth of hydrogen, to star clusters and galaxies, to the emergence of life, consciousness, and with human life, self-consciousness. Noting that humans are made up of the same constituent material as everything else in the universe and are thus literally one with the universe, he draws a fascinating conclusion: we are the universe thinking. If that is the case, what sort of ethical thought might we be expected to exhibit?

Swimme notes that the universe appears to be consistently evolving in the direction of increasing complexity.Or, as Aristotle might have said, the universe and its constituents are flourishing. For Aristotle, it is in that flourishing (Gk. eudaimonia) that we can locate good. A careful observer of natural world, whom some call the first biologist, Aristotle believed that the undeveloped or immature in nature is best explained in terms of the developed or mature. The adult is prior to the child, the oak tree is prior to the acorn (and, yes, the chicken comes before the egg!). It is an entirely reasonable point of view, for how can we explain the undeveloped if not by understanding its relationship to the thing that it is to become? In Aristotle, ethics is embedded in science in every entity, in every process. To study nature was in a very real sense to study ethics, since in growing, moving, becoming what it truly is, reaching its full potential, each entity in the world is approaching good. It is as if good were a kind of gravitational force, causing all natural motion, drawing everything toward it the way an object of love attracts lovers.

Knowing what science now tells us about the evolving complexity around us, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that ethical behaviour consists in supporting this fundamental trend in all things. Why? Because it is impossible to believe that the observed behaviour of the universe is wrong, or bad. Could it be simply morally neutral? Well, it could be, but Swimme, like Kant, like Aristotle, finds this impossible to square with his own, and other humans, sense of awe and wonder in the face of nature’s evolving power and beauty.

In the end it requires a leap of faith to arrive at the conclusion that nature and its processes are in some essential way, good. But having arrived there, the world makes a good deal more sense. Ethically, it becomes clear that acts that favour complexity, or flourishing, are good, and those that thwart it, bad—a morality we might expect of “the universe thinking.”

An elaborate prescription for both social behaviour and conduct toward the natural environment can be drawn from this single precept: to honour diversity and to encourage flourishing.


[1] Johnathan Glover notes that the attribution of a moral impulse or “ethical disposition” to people as an element of their “humanity is only partly an empirical claim. It remains also partly an aspiration.”  Johnathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (London, Pimlico, 2001), 25. A.W. Wood asserts that there must, however, be some connection between the positive and the normative: “[E]thics must be grounded in a knowledge of human beings that enables us to say that some modes of life are suited to our nature, whereas others are not.” A.W. Wood, Hegel’s Ethical Thought (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990), 17. Bauman proposes a link in the “moral impulse.”

[2] Noam Chomsky, Language and Problems of Knowledge (Cambridge, MIT Press, 1988), 152. And later (p 161): “The evidence seems compelling, indeed overwhelming, that fundamental aspects of our mental and social life, including language, are determined as part of our biological endowment, not acquired by learning, still less by training, in the course of our experience.”

[3] Ibid., 152-3.

[4] Ibid, 156 ff.

[5] Stuart Kaufman, Reinventing the Sacred (New York, Basic Books, 2008).


[6] Kagan, Jerome, “Interview with Jerome Kagan,” by C. Hall, Psychology Today, July1982, 55-6.

[7] Robert Kane, Through the Moral Maze: Searching for Absolute Values in a Pluralistic World (New York, Paragon House, 1994), 74-5.

[8] Compare to Kant: “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.” (Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785)

[9] Critique of Practical Reason (1788).

[10] Swimme Canticle of the Cosmos and other works, published in a variety of media.

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