In the A2 Crime module we study Morality and Crime and study if morality is innate or something that is learned from those around us. Some psychologists (Kohlberg) have also developed theories of moral development which predict that we will progress through, and become more moral as we grow older in a linear fashion (test yourself with some of his moral dilemmas).
Recently, there have been a few different perspectives on this which have caught my eye: first, a study investigation if morals based on facts and knowledge, or are they grounded in emotions?
The choices made by patients with prefrontal cortex damage were compared with those made by healthy controls and by patients with damage to parts of the brain not associated with emotion.
The groups didn’t differ in how they made impersonal moral choices and non-moral decisions. Crucially, however, the patients with prefrontal cortex damage tended to answer more ruthlessly than the other participants when it came to 13 out of 21 personal moral decisions. These decisions tended to pit the welfare of the majority against the participant having to commit deliberate harm to others. Repulsion at committing such deliberate harm caused the control participants to sacrifice the well-being of the majority, whereas the patients with prefrontal cortex damage tended to make more ‘utilitarian’, logical choices, harming one person to save the many.
These findings indicate that, for a selective set of moral dilemmas, parts of the prefrontal corxext are critical for normal judgements of right and wrong. The findings support a necessary role for emotion in the generation of those judgements. This therefore suggests that if morals are learned they are stored in a particular part of the brain, other interpretations of this however could be rather deterministic and argue that morality is an innate ability.
A healthy man walks into a hospital where five patients are awaiting organ transplants. Is it morally acceptable to kill the man in order to harvest his organs to save the lives of five others? If you instantly answered no, you share a near-universal response to the dilemma, one offered by peoples and cultures all over the globe. (Test your moral instincts here.) But how did you reach this conclusion? Was it a rational decision learned in childhood, or was itâ€”as Harvard evolutionary biologist and cognitive neuroscientist Marc Hauser claimsâ€”based on instincts encoded in our brains by evolution? In his recent book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong (HarperCollins), Hauser argues that millions of years of natural selection have molded a universal moral grammar within our brains that enables us to make rapid decisions about ethical dilemmas. (Read a review here.)
So, is our morality innate or learned?Â I would argue that we all have the innate ability to be moral beings, however, our experience will shape massively how we experience and interpret any situation that we are in.