“Each man is at every moment subjected to several different sets of law but there is only one of these which he is free to disobey. As a body, he is subjected to gravitation and cannot disobey it; if you leave him unsupported in mid-air, he has no more choice about falling than a stone has. As an organism, he is subjected to various biological laws which he cannot disobey any more than an animal can.” – C.S. Lewis

It is a universal feature of the human condition that we have been endowed for better or for worse with a moral sense, order and experience. We are the only creatures that seem to have this unique awareness that certain things are right others wrong, that certain events are good and others bad. We construct our lives in light of what we think is of the highest value. To put it in a fairly simple way that obviously falls short of reality I will define our moral experience as simply the ability to judge and decide whether certain events, and states of affairs are how we think they ought to be. Sociologist Christian Smith in his book Moral Believing Animals, put it this way:

“What I mean by “moral,” to be clear, is an orientation toward understandings about what is right and wrong, good and bad, worthy and unworthy, just and unjust, that are not established by our own actual desires, decisions, or preferences but instead believed to exist apart from them, providing standards by which our desires, decisions, and preferences can themselves be judged. Human animals are moral animals in that we possess a capacity and propensity unique among all animals: we not only have desires, beliefs, and feelings (which often have strong moral qualities) but also the ability and disposition to form strong evaluations about our desires, beliefs, and feelings that hold the potential to transform them.”

 The natural question that follows then is where does our moral experience come from?

One of the answers provided which is increasingly becoming popular in public discourse is that morality is a product of evolution. It is an instinct that mutations and natural selection have stumbled upon to give our population the slight advantage in survival. Morality is a survival instinct. Does this hold in reality though? I do not think that it holds, there are vast differences between morality and instincts that make them distinct and not identical.

What is instinct?

William James defines instincts as follows:

“The actions we call instinctive all conform to the general reflex type; they are called forth by determinate sensory stimuli in contact with the animal’s body, or at a distance in his environment. The cat runs after the mouse, runs or shows fight before the dog, avoids falling from walls and trees, shuns fire and water, etc., not because he has any notion either of life or of death, or of self, or of preservation. He has probably attained to no one of these conceptions in such a way as to react definitely upon it. He acts in each case separately, and simply because he cannot help it; being so framed that when that particular running thing called a mouse appears in his field of vision he must pursue”

Instincts by their nature tend to be reactive, impulses that we have no control over. If a dog suddenly jumps out and starts chasing me my instinct, impulse or reaction is to run. There is no thought, no careful deliberation of what is happening- just pure instinct to run as quickly as possible. A second example to illustrate this point would be my reaction to public speaking. Whenever I have to speak to a public audience, I get nervous, a bit anxious, and fear sets in. Of course there are ways of dealing and handling anxiety in such situations. But the point is our instinct is an uncontrolled reaction, behaviour or impulse to a specific stimulus within our environment. Another illustration would be a man’s reaction when they see a beautiful women dressed in a bikini.

Differences between instincts and our moral sense

Morality does not seem to fit into this category of instincts for a few reasons. Firstly morality often involves choice. One can choose to steal or to copy homework. Copying homework is not an uncontrolled reaction that immediately happens to a student as soon as they start working on their homework. It’s a choice where a student decides to a certain course of action. Instinct does not involve making a conscious choice.

Secondly morality often involves reasoning and clarifying concepts and ideas. For example ethical debates on abortion, assisted suicide, same sex marriage – involve understanding and interpreting certain ideas in a particular way. They involve arguments and presenting evidence to defend a specific position. They are not uncontrolled reactions – in fact that is the last thing you want in ethical debates. People should defend their positions based on evidence and reasons and not hold certain moral positions because of impulse and instincts they have. Instincts involve perceptions but morality involves conceptions.

I must admit there is a similarity between instincts and morality in some aspects. Our moral sense is basic to being human, almost intuitive and universal. We all mostly seem to have an intuitive awareness that to for example “to kill humans is wrong”. But does this necessarily mean it is an survival instinct? If our moral behaviour can truly be reduced to a survival instinct then it undermines it. Certain instincts are not universal to humans; for example blushing when embarrassed, some people are capable of being embarrassed without the slightest hint of blushing. So instincts can come in varying degrees to different people. Some people become unconscious in the face of danger and yet some flee. Some people have an instinctual fear of heights, others spiders and snakes. Some people blush in any situation others don’t always blush.

My point is that we do not hold people accountable for having certain instincts and lacking others. If morality is an instinct as well then it follows that not everyone will possess it, it will come in varying degrees to different people as well. It seems possible then that someone might occasionally inherit from nature a rape instinct which drives them to serially rape women. Now this raises a dilemma for us as to how to handle such a case. The first option would be to not hold the individual morally accountable for any of their raping actions because that’s simply what nature has given them, similar to how we won’t hold anyone accountable for having a fear of snakes. The second option is to hold them accountable for their rape actions, however this would mean that we assume that they have some choice in their actions, and it’s not a purely instinctual action.

 Judging from experience we have taken the second option which means we at the very least assume moral actions are not instinctual. We hold people accountable for their greed, selfishness, envy, racism, and intolerance and yet we don’t hold them accountable for their other instincts and predispositions which are equally a product of nature such as psychological and physiological disorders; such as poor eye sight, bipolar, autism. It means we have made a distinction between what innate instincts and predispositions people should be held morally accountable for and which ones they should not.

But even if raping was an uncontrollable instinctual action that certain people just have – we would still classify it as morally wrong and bad. But the underlying assumption would then be that not all instincts, or inclinations that people naturally possess are good.

Lastly I would add we do recognize a vast difference between instincts and moral attitudes. History is filled with speeches and arguments written in an attempt to persuade people to adopt a certain law or tear down an unjust law and practice. But it would be absurd to try and persuade people into doing something that is instinctual. If a certain behaviour and attitude is purely instinctual then no reason, logic or argument will change that – it would be like trying to persuade a man not to blush when a girl they truly like kisses them. No amount of rhetoric and logic can persuade a person not to shiver and get goosebumps when an ice cube touches their spine.  But good moral reasons can and have changed a people’s beliefs and attitudes on race and slavery. Another indication that instincts and morality are distinct and not identical.

Our moral sense becomes arbitrary if based on instinct

If what is instinctual is right then morality becomes arbitrary. We could easily imagine a world where the psychotic instinct is dominant and universal– where people have an innate instinct to dominate, subdue and enslave. Consistent with the principle that “what is instinctual is right” we would have to conclude that in such a world selfishness, enslavement, subjugation is morally right.

We could imagine another world where women had inherited the same gene that predisposes female black widow spiders to eat their male partners after mating. In this world we would have to say such an act is instinctual and therefore right because that is how nature made women. However morality becomes arbitrary, dependent on circumstances. Because in our world, where women do not have such a gene, a woman who does that would be classified as a psychopath requiring immediate removal from society. And so you have in two equally possible worlds the same action being morally right and morally wrong.

We could take this thought experiment further and imagine in our world what would happen if a mutation occurred in certain women creating in them the black widow gene. Would we say that kind of action is now moral because it is an instinct given to them by nature? Or would we still say it’s wrong and try to find a way to reverse the mutation? Again judging from experience we have taken the latter route. There are many psychopaths in society whose brain chemistry and psychology has led to them to lack empathy, possessing an insatiable desire for cruelty, desiring sexual relations with corpses, serially killing and raping – we recognize such instincts as being wrong and requiring correction. We classify them as disorders.

The problem it raises however is that it cannot be one instinct that judges another instinct as being right or wrong.  Why should one particular instinct be able to judge another particular instinct? To put in another way – Persons A have instinct A and persons B have instinct B. Persons A state that actions based on instinct B are wrong because instincts A says so. But persons B could make the same claim about instincts A. Therefore you cannot tell which set of instincts is right or wrong using any of the instincts themselves. The only way out of the dilemma is if we have a moral framework that is independent of our instincts and not dependant or reducible to any instinct.

So our ability to classify and morally judge certain instincts as being good or bad must transcend our instincts. Which means our instincts themselves are subordinate to our moral sense. In fact this is how we actually operate in our daily lives – we use our moral sense to regulate our instincts. For example as a married man I have to use my moral sense to regulate my sexual instinct to ensure it is only active in relation to my wife. My moral sense ensures that I do not act on my sexual instinct any and every time it arises. This illustrates that our moral sense is not identical to instincts.

In search of the moral gene

The evolutionary paradigm is that new traits, functions, organs arise through random mutations which happen to have a fitness increase and are preserved and increased within the population by natural selection. On the evolutionary paradigm our moral sense is a product of that process. It means our moral sense is reducible to a particular set of proteins and genes. Random mutations caused changes in our DNA sequence which created a new set of genes. That new set of genes produced a new set of proteins and complex biochemical interactions which then caused our moral sense of what is right and wrong to exist. Firstly it goes without saying that there is no empirical evidence for this claim. No moral genes and proteins have been discovered nor can they in principle be discovered.

The reason being is that there is a larger philosophical problem that exists – our moral sense, moral values and duties cannot be reduced to physical biochemical interactions – they are not identical. Biochemical interactions of molecules and are physical events – which can be located at a particular time and space. Our moral sense involves making moral judgements about physical events such as sex, death, hurricanes. Our moral sense has a unique property in that it is about something else. Physical things do not have this property nor can their complex interactions ever produce this property. Our moral sense is not a physical thing – it cannot be located in a particular time or space. It has no mass, charge or energy.  Therefore the idea that our moral sense evolved and is a product of natural processes is simply false. Moral values (justice, kindness, love) are not identical to physical objects. They cannot be explained in terms of atoms and genes.

Claiming that morality evolved would seem to imply that random mutations caused changes in our DNA producing genes and proteins that cause our moral sense. How can a set of proteins and their chemical interactions cause our moral sense? Is there a protein for justice, kindness and equality? Clearly not because moral properties cannot be reduced and explained in physiochemical categories of charge, binding, hydrophobic forces etc.

The is-ought problem

CS Lewis put it this way,

“From the statement about psychological fact ‘I have an impulse to do so and so’ we cannot by any ingenuity derive the practical principle ‘I ought to obey this impulse’. Even if it were true that men had a spontaneous, unreflective impulse to sacrifice their own lives for the preservation of their fellows, it remains a quite separate question whether this is an impulse they should control or one they should indulge.”

In other words even if it were true that people have an innate instinct to preserve society and see it flourish – it does not follow logically from that fact that they ought to preserve society. From a description of facts alone, it is impossible to derive a prescription or set of norms (what ought to be done). The conclusion that we ought to obey our conscience does not necessarily follow from the fact that we have a conscience.  It is perfectly possible for one to have a conscience and choose to ignore it and repress it as others do.

Imagine you are the main witness to a crime and are asked to give a complete description of what you observed. You will probably give details such as: at 3 am in the morning, 2 men pulled out a gun on the victim, punched him a few times then drove off with his car. Now if I asked you to tell me on the basis of your descriptions whether those events you have described are wrong or right – you could not! No doubt you will probably say that “Hijacking is wrong” but this is not what you observed; you did not observe “Hijacking is wrong” only the act of hijacking itself. When you say it is wrong to hijack you are imposing a value judgement on those events you observed. But from the observations of the event itself you cannot conclude “to hijack is wrong”, that is something you didn’t observe – rather it is a value judgement over and above the events observed. Observing a thousand of these events can never generate a value judgement. It means we can never from experience and observations alone derive value judgments about our experience. This poses a problem for any naturalistic explanation for the basis and origins of our moral values and duties. It is logically impossible to derive from experience moral values and duties although our experience can sharpen our application of them. It cannot give them a valid base.

The last word

Morality cannot be reduced to an evolved survival instinct because there are vast differences. Morality often involves making a choice and using our reason. Instinct is an innate, fixed response and to stimuli involving no deliberate thought process. Secondly if morality is instinctual then it becomes arbitrary – if our instincts changed so that the majority of the world became psychopathic then what is instinctively good and right would change. Thirdly we classify and morally judge whether our instincts are right or wrong and need to be corrected. Which means our moral sense transcends and is higher than our instincts and cannot itself be an instinct. We also use our moral sense to regulate how at times our instincts should be used – should I have sex with anyone and anytime and anywhere whenever my sexual instinct is aroused. Moral concepts such as justice, kindness have properties that cannot be explained or reduced to physical categories – and yet evolution is a completely physical process therefore it could not have produced morality. Lastly even if we possess a person inclination or instinct to preserve our species it does not logically follow that we should preserve it. Our moral sense of good and bad, right or wrong cannot be reduced to instincts acquired through random mutations and natural selection.

Further thoughts on morality

  1. I don’t need God to be good?
  2. An imaginary dialogue between Socrates and Darwin on evolutionary ethics
  3. In a secular world without absolutes: What does it mean to change the world?
  4. The link between design, meaning and ethics
  5. Unravelling The Fabric of Morality
  6. Lessons on Moral Foundations From 12 Years a Slave