Is Morality Instinctual?

by Alfred Guilfoil

Philosophers, scientists, theologians and other great minds have historically grappled with human nature and our relationship to and uniqueness among species.  Charles Darwin argued that instincts were responsible for all behaviors in the animal kingdom while also giving rise to the primal aspects of human nature (Hauser).  On the other hand, morality was thought to be taught to humans through religion (Singer), or was the result of what was believed to be our unique ability to reason (Hauser).  Without religion, humans were believed to be doomed to their Lord of the Flies nature, and without reason, were considered no better than animals.  But is it possible that instincts and morals are not separate aspects of our nature? Is morality actually instinctual? Are we born moral? Furthermore, could it be argued that morality is instinctual not only to humans, but is shared by animals as well? Is there evidence that morality is expressed instinctually by all forms of sentient life? In this paper, I will be providing evidence and argument that the answers to these questions are indeed, yes.

Morality and instinct are broad subjects of study across multiple fields. Therefore, it is important to clarify the meaning of each. For my purposes, I will use two definitions to assist with clarifying morality. The first is provided in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as “certain codes of conduct put forward by a society or a group…, or accepted by an individual for her own behavior” (Gert & Gert). Secondly, Oxford Dictionaries defines morality as “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.”  

Additionally, I will use a definition of instinct as defined in 1887 by P. A. Chadbourne “as the faculty of acting in such a way as to produce certain ends, without foresight of the ends, and without previous education in the performance” of such acts (James). With these definitions in mind, I invite the reader to explore with me whether humans (and possibly all sentient beings) actually act in accordance to certain codes of conduct which distinguish good behavior from bad behavior as prescribed by their society or group without foresight of the outcomes and without being educated to act in these certain ways (Gert & Gert, James).  More simply, are morals instinctual?

Peter Singer, a moral philosopher at Princeton University, explains that historians account for the introduction of moral codes in all societies through divine origin and myth. He provides examples such as the Hebrew Bible’s account of Moses being given the Ten Commandments by God, Plato’s account in Protagoras of Zeus gifting humans with morals, laws and justice and the Babylonian sun god Shamash giving a moral code to Hammurabi (Singer). This divine origin has made the subject of morality, and the determination of right and wrong, the historical domain of religion. Singer argues that this served the holy man and the priesthood alike, as it allowed them to maintain their position in the societal hierarchy and appointed them to be the keepers of the keys to the kingdom. However, religion’s explanation and motivation for man’s behaviors has left much unanswered. After all, if God defines good behavior, and obeying God is rewarded, then why do bad things happen to good people who follow the rules? Has religion’s divine promise of eternal bliss or damnation been enough to entice humans to behave nicely with each other? If that were the case, wouldn’t the world be conflict free? Wouldn’t we be a world without nuclear weapons, a nation without political divide, a state without the highest rate of homelessness in the United States (Hansen) and a city without the nation’s largest jail also serving as the nation’s largest mental health facility (Los Angeles Almanac). If religion is the source and purveyor of all morality and it’s design was meant to save us from our own savage tendencies (Gray), hasn’t it failed?

Where religion left too many questions unanswered, others have argued that the human’s unique ability to reason can account for morality. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains reasoning as “responsibly conducted thinking” or “forming judgments about what one ought to, morally, do.” At first glance, this makes sense.  After all the human brain is estimated to process information faster than the fastest supercomputer on the planet located in Guangzhou, China. (Staughton). But, even with this brain power, it seems reasoning doesn’t quite explain the source of morality.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that people don’t actually engage in moral reasoning, but instead engage in moral rationalization which means that when it comes to explaining their reasoning for moral choices, humans actually begin with the end in mind (Pinker). Haidt has conducted interesting studies posing difficult moral dilemmas to his research subjects to prove his theory. One such question posed to individuals in his study was, “A family’s dog is killed by a car in front of their house. They heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cook it and eat it for dinner.” When asked if this was right, not only did people say no, they were actually offended by the very question. Haidt discovered that people first experience a visceral and intuitive reaction to such scenarios, and then actually work backwards from their emotional response to form the reasons they believe the behavior is wrong (Pinker). Haidt’s research gives rise to understanding that something beyond our ability to reason our moral choices is at work. Emotions seems to also play a role.

Joshua Greene, a philosopher and cognitive neuroscientist, conducted MRI studies and demonstrated that our moral responses come from parts of the brain responsible for our emotional impulses, and actually override other parts of the brain responsible for cost-benefit analyses (Pinker).

Yale University psychologist Paul Bloom argues that humans exhibit five “moral emotions” including empathy, compassion, guilt, shame and righteous anger (Cook).  He argues that these emotions actually override our ability to rationalize. For example, he explains, humans express more empathy to a child stuck in a well than we do to future generations impacted by global warming (Cook). We often see humans rise to heroic levels to come to the aid of a shelter dog posted on social media, while regularly passing up the homeless on the streets of Los Angeles with little notice. Clearly, something else is at play beyond reason.

Could it be genetics?  In his book, Just Babies, Bloom cites studies that provide actual evidence that babies come into the world with morality as part of their makeup. One such study showed that as soon as babies have motor skills, they will make efforts to soothe others who are suffering by patting and stroking the person in distress (Cook). Another study showed that three-month old infants respond positively to a character helping someone and negatively towards a character hindering another person (Cook). Bloom also cites behavioral genetic research studies which provide evidence that empathy is actually inherited.

Steven Pinker argues in his New York Times magazine feature, “The Moral Instinct,” that humans have a complex ‘sixth sense’ he labels our ‘moral sense.’ Pinker explains that this innate sense assists us in differentiating actions as immoral, disagreeable, unfashionable or simply a poor choice. For example, killing is considered immoral while one might find eating sushi as disagreeable, or wearing Uggs to the beach as unfashionable and not wearing sunscreen while there a poor choice.

Pinker explains that moral values are universal. He cites studies conducted by Anthropologists Richard Schwieder and Alan Fiske who studied morality across the globe and discovered five universally recurrent themes. They found that humans: 1.) believe it is bad to harm others and good to help others, 2.)value fairness including reciprocating favors and rewarding those who help while punishing those who cheat others, 3.) value loyalty to the group and conforming to its norms, 4.) believe it is right to defer to legitimate authorities and to respect people in positions of authority and, 5.) value purity, cleanliness and sanctity while strongly disliking “defilement, contamination and carnality” (Pinker).  Interestingly, Haidt’s extensive global and cross-cultural studies found the same five categories of morality. Haidt labeled them “harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity” and violations of these moral values unacceptable and even punishable (Pinker).

Gerald Guild, a Cognitive Behavioral Psychologist, believed that morality was grounded in a human being’s ability to reason and was formed through a “rationally driven developmental process.” He acknowledges, however, that Pinker’s work has expanded his thinking to make room for the ideals that morality is complex, and that it is likely shaped by an inseparable combination of evolution, neurobiology and culture (Guild).

Author and Researcher John Grohol, Psy.D., furthers this argument by declaring morality as a “basic instinct.” He outlines the results of research conducted at the University of Toronto which suggests this to be true. In the research scientists examined facial movements of individuals tasting unpleasant substances, being cheated in a game and looking at ‘disgusting objects’ such as dirty toilets or physical injuries. The study led by researcher Hanah Chapman demonstrated that people respond similarly to both “primitive forms of disgust and moral disgust” providing evidence that morality is evolutionarily encoded into the human brain as perhaps a survival instinct (Grohol).

Could Darwin have been correct all along? Hauser explains that Darwin actually supported the notion that morality is natural for human beings. Moreso, he explains that Darwin believed that the foundation for our morality lies in our evolution from animals. John Gray explored the idea that morality is grounded in Darwinian theory of evolution and argued that, instead of morals actually suppressing instincts, humans are simply behaving naturally. He goes on to argue that if morals are indeed grounded in instinct then they must have evolutionary roots stemming from animals.  So, is there evidence that animals actually possess this moral code? Are animals also instinctually moral?

Pinker argues that the five universal moral themes can be found in the animal kingdom and are the evolutionary roots of human moral codes. He cites research studies of rhesus monkeys who chose to go hungry instead of pulling a chain that would deliver food at the expense of shocking another monkey as the moral roots of our collective value that it is good to help and bad to harm others.  He argues that pecking orders found throughout the animal kingdom are the evolutionary source of human’s universal respect for authority.

Primatologist Frans de Waal argues that morality “comes from our evolutionary past as social primates” (Holmes). He explains that like primates, we “evolved in small, tightly knit, cooperative groups,” and as a result, “we are exquisitely sensitive to one another’s moods, needs and intentions” (Homes). In his book, The Bonobos and the Atheist, de Waal outlines his theory that the human moral code has two parts. The first he describes as “one-on-one” morality which explains how we treat each other, and the second he describes as our “community concern” which is our moral code responsible for keeping the entire group together (Holmes). Interestingly, de Waal argues that it was not religion that gave us morality, but our instinctually encoded morality that actually gave rise to our need to construct religion as a way of reinforcing our “community concern” (Holmes).

Professor Marc Bekoff, Ecologist at University of Colorado, Boulder argues in his book, Wild Justice, that morals are “hard wired” into the brain of all mammals and provide the “social glue” that allows often competitive and aggressive animals to live together in groups (Gray).  In his Telegraph article, “Animals Can Tell Right From Wrong,” Richard Gray references studies that demonstrate animals possess “an innate sense of fairness, display empathy and help other animals that are in distress.” So, is it true, that animals possess an instinctual morality?

Bekoff argues yes, and provides examples of moral behaviors across animal groups.  He proposes that moral codes are species specific, therefore, making it difficult to directly compare them to human morality. Yet, they are no less real and no less meaningful. Gray cites numerous examples of moral behaviors across a number of species including canines, elephants, monkeys, chimpanzees, rats, bats, dolphins and whales.  

Researcher Iain Douglas Hamilton from the Department of Zoology at Oxford University argues that elephants demonstrate compassion. He provides anecdotal evidence of Grace, a female elephant attempting to help her sick herd mate, Eleanor, get back on her feet. Hamilton reported that Grace, visibly distressed, remained with Eleanor until after she died (Rowlands, Gray). In another example, an elephant opened numerous metal latches holding a gate closed to allow a herd of antelope to escape their enclosure in KwaZula-Natal, South Africa (Gray).

Bekoff proposes that canines (both wild and domesticated) demonstrate social ordering with rules of behavior. He notes that wolves, coyotes and domesticated dogs all demonstrate a sense of fairness as well as expectations of punishment if a dog bites a playmate too aggressively. He reports that punishment amongst coyotes includes being ostracized from the group. He describes experiments where one dog was given a treat and another denied a treat, and the dogs actually shared.

Mark Rowlands, a professor of philosophy at the University of Miami, observed his own two dogs, Nina and Tess, demonstrating care and concern for his infant son including waking him at night when his son was crying and allowing the boy to crawl on and poke them with little response. Rowlands questions whether his explanations for his observations were grounded in anthropomorphization, noting that we often attribute certain traits to “good dogs” such as friendly, playful, gentle, trustworthy and loyal, while we label “bad dogs” as mean, aggressive vicious, unpredictable and a bully.

I might argue anthropomorphization was at play had I not had experiences with my own dog, Stella. A Schnoodle, Stella pouts and refuses treats when the suitcases come out of the closet, as she knows we are leaving on a trip. She licks my mom’s face whenever she is sad and crying. I thought it might be the salt in my mom’s tears that explained her behaviors, until recently when our other dog, Jack, died.  Sad to lose our pet, we had his body cremated. The day his ashes were delivered in a little box to our front door by a courier, Stella joined us at the door and began whimpering and pawing at the box. When we placed the box on a shelf, Stella stood on her hind legs and continued to whimper, sniff and lick the box. She knew it was Jack! Her grief was evident as she lay in her bed for days exhibiting little interest in eating or taking her favored walks.  She returned to her happy self weeks later when we brought a new rescue home. Just as Rowlands believes his dogs, Nina and Tess, displayed genuine care and concern for his son, my family is equally convinced that Stella is capable of expressing empathy, compassion and grief at the very least.

Bekoff argues that animals demonstrate all sorts of empathic behaviors driven by instinctual moral codes.  He highlights a group of apes treating another ape named Knuckles with kindness and compassion not shown others in the group. Bekoff explains that Knuckles is the only known chimpanzee in captivity who suffers from cerebral palsy.

Numerous studies referenced by Bekoff include the refusal of animals to inflict pain and harm on others. He reported rats demonstrating compassion in one study by refusing to take food when doing so in experiments caused electric shock to other rats. He highlights another experiment in Switzerland which demonstrated that if rats had received charity extended to them by others, they in turn would pass along kindness by helping other unrelated rats get food, too.

In another such experiment with Diana monkeys researchers found that a male who was trained to insert a coin into a slot to obtain food came to the aid of a female who had not yet mastered the task by putting coins she had dropped into the slot for her and allowing her to have the food obtained, instead of taking it himself.  Bekoff argued that his behavior was driven by morality since he had nothing to personally gain from his behaviors.

Rowland describes the behavior of Binti Jua, a gorilla from the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois as an example of moral behavior extended across species. In 1996 Binti Jua rescued a three-year-old boy who had fallen five meters into the gorilla exhibit after climbing over the enclosure wall. Binti Jua picked up and cradled the unconscious child, and aggressively defended him from other approaching gorillas. And, with her own baby riding on her back, she delivered the child safely to the zoo staff. Rowland also describes dolphins coming to the aid of humans threatened by approaching sharks.

And as a final example, Bekoff describes vampire bats sharing food with others who were not successful in the night’s efforts to gather blood. Researchers even found that they were more inclined to share with others who had shared with them in the past.  Bekoff argues that bats behaviors are not limited to food sharing. He notes that biologists in Gainesville, Florida demonstrated that a female fruit-eating bat assisted another female by showing her the appropriate birthing position (with head up and feet down).

It’s hard to argue with the compelling findings of these numerous researchers.  However, Rowland notes that some have tried. He reports that some scientists believe that animals are actually engaging in aversion behaviors meaning that the animal is not morally motivated, but instead, is acting to avoid something negative (like an animal crying out in pain). Rowland argues that humans engage in the same behaviors, but that it’s naive to think that such behaviors are not mixed with moral concerns. For example, humans dislike when a baby cries and do things to get the baby to stop. It does not mean the human’s motivation is merely driven by the desire to extinguish the noise. Most humans actually care about the well-being of the child.  Such care is equally likely among animals.

Others have countered that animals are likely engaging in “non-moral” behaviors, which are being interpreted through human lenses as moral behaviors. Some actually argued that Binti Jua had been hand raised and given dolls as toys, and therefore she was treating the boy like a doll. Rowland argues that this is absurd citing that dogs clearly know the difference between a stuffed toy and a baby, just as my cats know the difference between a real mouse and a stuffed one.

Equally, my family had no way of knowing if Jack’s ashes were in the little box delivered to our home. We even commented that the service could have delivered us any white powder in a box and we would have never know. But, Stella knew. And, it was her behavior that convinced us that we humans far underestimate the abilities of animals to feel, grieve and demonstrate moral behaviors.

Rowland explains that scientists who argue that animals are not capable of moral concern have used Lloyd Morgan’s Canon, which states that one must assume “only the bare minimum of cognitive abilities required to explain [animal] behaviors” (Rowland).  Rowland cites primatologist Frans de Waal and biologist Marc Bekoff and their extensive work with animals to demonstrate that animals are actually “like us in many ways – in terms of their evolution, their genetic structure, the structure of their brains, and their behavior” (Rowland).  Therefore, he believes we should look at animals as behaving similarly to us and assume that they are similarly motivated unless we can prove otherwise. And, that similar motivation includes moral motivations that are demonstrated to be genetically encoded in all animals including humans.

So, yes, it seems there is plenty of evidence to support the notion that morality is actually instinctually encoded in not only humans, but animals as well.  With advances in neurobiology, there is a growing body of evidence that Darwin was indeed correct, and that our evolutionary origins from the animal kingdom account for our moral encoding.  It is likely only a matter of time before genetic researchers provide us with the actual proof that our universal moral values are indeed wired into our genetic material and that of our animal friends as well.

Works Cited

Cook, Gareth. “The Moral Life of Babies.” Scientific American, Nature Publishing Group, 12 Nov. 2013, www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-moral-life-of-babies/.

Gert, Bernard, and Joshua Gert. “The Definition of Morality.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University Metaphysics Research Lab, 8 Feb. 2016, plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-definition/

Gray, John. “Are We Born Moral?” The New York Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, 10 May, 2007 www.nybooks.com/articles/2007/05/10/are-we-born-moral/.

Gray, Richard. “Animals Can Tell Right from Wrong.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 23 May 2009, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/wildlife/5373379/Animals-Can-tell-right-from-wrong.

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Grohol, John M. “Is Morality a Basic Instinct?” Psych Central, Psych Central.com, 8 July 2018, psychcentral.com/blog/is-morality-a-basic-instinct/.

Guild, Gerald. “Moral Instinct.” How Do You Think?, Gerald Guild.com, 27 Aug. 2012, geraldguild.com/blog/2010/02/19/moral-instinct/.

Hansen, Claire. “Homelessness Is Highest in These States.” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, 19 Dec. 2018, 12:15 pm, www.usnews.com/news/best-states/articles/2018-12-19/west-coast-states-have-highest-rates-of- homelessness-hud-report-says.

Holmes, Bob. “Tracing the Roots of Human Morality in Animals.” New Scientist, Simon & Schuster, 15 May 2013, www.newscientist.com/article/mg21829172-300-tracing-the-roots-of- human-morality-in-animals/.

James, William. “What Is An Instinct?” William James – What Is An Instinct?, Bob Doyle, http://www.informationphilosopher.com/solutions/philosophers/james/what_is_an_instinct.html.

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Pinker, Steven. “The Moral Instinct.” The New York Times Magazine, nytimes.com, 13 Jan 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/13/magazine/13Psychology-t.html.

Reid, Louis Arnaud. “Instinct and Moral Life.” Journal of Philosophical Studies, vol. 3, no. 10, 1928, pp. 173–185. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3745639.

Rowlands, Mark. “If a Lion Did a Good Deed, Would We Understand It?” Aeon, Aeon Media Group, Ltd., 8 Apr. 2019, https://aeon.co/essays/if-a-lion-did-a-good-deed-would-we-understand -it.

Singer, Peter. “Ethics.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 29 Mar. 2019, http://www.britannica.com/topic/ethics-philosophy.

Staughton, John. “The Human Brain vs. Supercomputers… Which One Wins? » Science ABC.” Science ABC, Science ABC, 21 June 2018, www.scienceabc.com/humans/the-human-brain-vs- supercomputers-which-one-wins.html.

Stroud, Barry. “Hume’s Scepticism: Natural Instincts and Philosophical Reflection.” Philosophical Topics, vol. 19, no. 1, 1991, pp. 271–291. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43154096.

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