Where does morality come from?

Tarek Amr
10 min readMar 30, 2018
The Righteous Mind

A review of Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,

Actually the main message Haidt wants to deliver is, “Why good people are divided by politics and religion”; however, personally, I was interested more into a different message, “where does morality come from”. The latter can explain the former anyway.

Where does morality come from?

Haidt started by examining two schools of thought here:

The two most common answers have long been that it is innate (the nativist answer) or that it comes from childhood learning (the empiricist answer).

Now, the opponents of the innate answer argue:

If morality varies around the world and across the centuries, then how could it be innate?

While the opponents of the empiricist answer argue that long before language and reasoning infants grasp concepts of caring and harm:

It makes sense that infants can easily learn who is nice to them. Puppies can do that too. But these findings suggest that by six months of age, infants are watching how people behave toward other people, and they are developing a preference for those who are nice rather than those who are mean.

Furthermore, the author ran experiments where he asked his subject to judge stories which lack any victims yet include examples of disgusting and disrespectful actions. In other words, stories that are repellant to their audience, yet the audience cannot put their finger on any rational explanations for why they are repellant.

If you want to give people a quick flash of revulsion but deprive them of any victim they can use to justify moral condemnation, ask them about people who do disgusting or disrespectful things, but make sure the actions are done in private so that nobody else is offended.

For most of the people in my study, the moral domain extended well beyond issues of harm and fairness. It was hard to see how a rationalist could explain these results. How could children self-construct their moral knowledge about disgust and disrespect from their private analyses of harmfulness? There must be other sources of moral knowledge, including cultural learning, or innate moral intuitions about disgust and disrespect.

From there, the author concluded that morality is initially innate in our genes, then shaped further by our experience and culture.

The brain is like a book, the first draft of which is written by the genes during fetal development. No chapters are complete at birth, and some are just rough outlines waiting to be filled in during childhood. But not a single chapter — be it on sexuality, language, food preferences, or morality — consists of blank pages on which a society can inscribe any conceivable set of words.

Plato believed that reason is the main driver of our morality, while the author sided with David Hume who believed that reason was (and was only fit to be) the servant of the passions.

Given Hume’s concerns about the limits of reasoning, he believed that philosophers who tried to reason their way to moral truth without looking at human nature were no better than theologians who thought they could find moral truth revealed in sacred texts. Both were transcendentalists.

The author summarised this part using the following metaphor:

The mind is divided into parts, like a rider [reasoning] on an elephant [human nature]. The rider evolved to serve the elephant.

Where does innate morality come from then?

The book is organised into three parts, however the questions I had while reading where answered in later parts. I personally prefer a different structure of the book, which I am sticking to in this summary, but I guess that author chose his structure to serve his main question, “why good people are divided by politics and religion”

If morality is innate, then how did nature decide that stealing and cheating are bad and honesty is good? The intelligent design (god) is an appealing answer, but, even if you believe in god, he doesn’t fit into the scientific framework, there should be some scientific explanation still besides your beliefs. The answer is always natural selection then!

If you pick nature, then you’re a nativist. You believe that moral knowledge is native in our minds. It comes preloaded, perhaps in our God-inscribed hearts (as the Bible says), or in our evolved moral emotions (as Darwin argued).

We always think of natural selection as a competition between individuals where the fittest ones of them survive. The author brought another level of competition to the picture, which is group selections, i.e. groups competing with each other where the fittest groups survive. According to him, the majority of the scientists today dismiss the idea of group selection, but he sides with those who support it.

I liked the example he gave to show how those two levels of natural selection can contradict sometimes. Imagine two armies, for one army to win and survive it has to be braver than the other one, yet within that army the less brave individuals who stay further away from the frontline have a higher chance of survival.

The bravest army wins, but within the bravest army, the few cowards who hang back are the most likely of all to survive the fight, go home alive, and become fathers.

This mixture of individual and group selection is what gives us the human nature we have now.

Individuals compete with individuals, and that competition rewards selfishness — which includes some forms of strategic cooperation (even criminals can work together to further their own interests). But at the same time, groups compete with groups, and that competition favours groups composed of true team players — those who are willing to cooperate and work for the good of the group, even when they could do better by slacking, cheating, or leaving the group. These two processes pushed human nature in different directions and gave us the strange mix of selfishness and selflessness that we know today.

From there he argues that groups create their moral codes (for example religions) that are essential for the group survival, even at the expense of the individuals sometimes.

I’ll show that religion is (probably) an evolutionary adaptation for binding groups together and helping them to create communities with a shared morality. It is not a virus or a parasite, as some scientists (the “New Atheists”) have argued in recent years.

Autonomy vs Community

Richard Shweder (an American cultural anthropologist) dug deeper into the effect of those two levels of individual vs group selection.

Shweder offered a simple idea to explain why the self differs so much across cultures: all societies must resolve a small set of questions about how to order society, the most important being how to balance the needs of individuals and groups. There seem to be just two primary ways of answering this question.

Most societies have chosen the sociocentric answer, placing the needs of groups and institutions first, and subordinating the needs of individuals. In contrast, the individualistic answer places individuals at the center and makes society a servant of the individual.

There are in fact three major clusters of moral themes, which they called the ethics of autonomy, community, and divinity. Each one is based on a different idea about what a person really is:

The ethic of autonomy is based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, autonomous individuals with wants, needs, and preferences. People should be free to satisfy these wants, needs, and preferences as they see fit, and so societies develop moral concepts such as rights, liberty, and justice, which allow people to coexist peacefully without interfering too much in each other’s projects.

The ethic of community is based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, members of larger entities such as families, teams, armies, companies, tribes, and nations. These larger entities are more than the sum of the people who compose them; they are real, they matter, and they must be protected. People have an obligation to play their assigned roles in these entities. Many societies therefore develop moral concepts such as duty, hierarchy, respect, reputation, and patriotism.

The ethic of divinity is based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, temporary vessels within which a divine soul has been implanted. People are not just animals with an extra serving of consciousness; they are children of God and should behave accordingly. The body is a temple, not a playground. Even if it does no harm and violates nobody’s rights when a man has sex with a chicken carcass, he still shouldn’t do it because it degrades him, dishonors his creator, and violates the sacred order of the universe. Many societies therefore develop moral concepts such as sanctity and sin, purity and pollution, elevation and degradation.

The sense of disgust is initially meant to keep humans away from diseases and poisonous stuff.

The psychologist Mark Schaller has shown that disgust is part of what he calls the “behavioural immune system” — a set of cognitive modules that are triggered by signs of infection or disease in other people and that make you want to get away from those people.

However, in religions this sense is “repurposed” to guide their followers to what god (or the community) wants.

Once you allow visceral feelings of disgust to guide your conception of what God wants, then minorities who trigger even a hint of disgust in the majority (such as homosexuals or obese people) can be ostracised and treated cruelly.

Gladly, the author commented afterwards:

The ethic of divinity is sometimes incompatible with compassion, egalitarianism, and basic human rights.

There is more to morality than harm and fairness

The second part of the book, and what I think is the most controversial part, is where Haidt argues that morality is like taste receptors in our tongues, different groups of people respond to different tastes differently, yet there is no one of true taste.

He initially proposed 5 moral foundations

The Care/harm foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of caring for vulnerable children. It makes us sensitive to signs of suffering and need; it makes us despise cruelty and want to care for those who are suffering.

The Fairness/cheating foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of reaping the rewards of cooperation without getting exploited. It makes us sensitive to indications that another person is likely to be a good (or bad) partner for collaboration and reciprocal altruism. It makes us want to shun or punish cheaters.

The Loyalty/betrayal foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forming and maintaining coalitions. It makes us sensitive to signs that another person is (or is not) a team player.

The Authority/subversion foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forging relationships that will benefit us within social hierarchies.

The Sanctity/degradation foundation evolved initially in response to the adaptive challenge of the omnivore’s dilemma, and then to the broader challenge of living in a world of pathogens and parasites. It includes the behavioral immune system, which can make us wary of a diverse array of symbolic objects and threats.

And later on he added “Liberty/Oppression” as a sixth foundation. Yet, before adding the sixth foundation, he differentiated between two interpretations of the fairness foundation depending on the interpreter political stance.

Everyone cares about fairness, but there are two major kinds. On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality — people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.

He then shows that liberals focus on 3 out of the 6 foundations while conservatives give the 6 foundations equal weights.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Liberals have a three-foundation morality, whereas conservatives use all six. Liberal moral matrices rest on the Care/harm, Liberty/oppression, and Fairness/cheating foundations, although liberals are often willing to trade away fairness (as proportionality) when it conflicts with compassion or with their desire to fight oppression. Conservative morality rests on all six foundations, although conservatives are more willing than liberals to sacrifice Care and let some people get hurt in order to achieve their many other moral objectives.

I could not ignore the irony that the ones who interpret fairness as equality are the ones who weight the moral foundation differently, and vice versa.

Yin and Yang

He then concluded that members on both sides of the political spectrum along with their moral matrices are needed side by side to complement each other like yin and yang

Neither Shweder nor I am saying that “anything goes,” or that all societies or all cuisines are equally good. But we believe that moral monism — the attempt to ground all of morality on a single principle — leads to societies that are unsatisfying to most people and at high risk of becoming inhumane because they ignore so many other moral principles.

My take on the Haidt’s conclusion

Although, I gave the book 4 out of 5 stars on GoodReads, and I do highly recommend it to every one, I do not fully agree with its main message and conclusion.

If morality is an evolutionary adaptation for the fittest to survive, then why isn’t it that one more matrix is more fit to today’s world than the other?

The author himself said that:

The ethic of divinity is sometimes incompatible with compassion, egalitarianism, and basic human rights.

Thus, it is very likely that the ethics of community (or autonomy if you will) are also incompatible with basic human rights.

The author uses the acronym WEIRD to refer to “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic”. He then explains:

If WEIRD and non-WEIRD people think differently and see the world differently, then it stands to reason that they’d have different moral concerns. If you see a world full of individuals, then you’ll want the morality of Kohlberg and Turiel — a morality that protects those individuals and their individual rights. You’ll emphasize concerns about harm and fairness.

Maybe the future is WEIRD and then the survival will be for WEIRDest



Tarek Amr

I write about what machines can learn from data, what humans can learn from machines, and what businesses can learn from all three.