Social Question

wundayatta's avatar

Is morality built into our cells?

Asked by wundayatta (58367 points ) February 14th, 2012

I just read a question where somebody claimed it was moral to not kill mice because he or she felt a warm, fuzzy feeling inside when looking at the mouse as it was being drowned. It reminded me that I once read somewhere that babies have wide eyes because we have a built-in feeling that makes us want to protect babies when we see those eyes.

I would argue that there is a cuteness “factor” built into us, and I think it makes us want to care for things we find cute.

So here’s my proposition (and it’s probably not just mine, but I can’t quote anyone right now, so I’ll take responsibility). I think that cuteness comes first. It is an evolutionary thing that evolved because it helps us survive as a species. Before we ever had religion or any morality, we were still treating babies like they should be protected. Good thing, too. We wouldn’t be around if we didn’t.

Morality came later, I postulate. Morality is the application of reason to naturally occurring behaviors. It’s a justification or explanation for why we do things. However, since it’s a naturally occurring behavior, it doesn’t follow reason perfectly. Love for human babies spills over to love for cute mice.

Then, since love for babies is supposed to be moral, we mistakenly spill that over and some people say love for mice is moral.

Is that the way it is? Or is there something I’m missing? Where do you think morality comes from?

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22 Answers

digitalimpression's avatar

I think you’ve got it all spot-on. It works in reverse as well. We have a built in “fear” of things like spiders, snakes, and ravenous grizzly bears.

I don’t think morality is cut and dry “inherent”.. but I do believe a portion of it is hardwired. (unless someone was born with the wires crossed)

Coloma's avatar

I think, as always, it is a nature/nurture thing. A person raised and taught to have a love and curiosity of the natural world and respect for all creatures great and small is not going to be as likely to wantonly kill anything as would one that was raised with fear and misinformation.
Same goes for all the evils of the world, racism, sexism, etc.
I don’t believe killing anything should be a rote response to ones programming and conditioning, whether it’s a spider or a mouse or a human. This is the critical danger zone of justifying ones own beliefs and it always starts with the ” It’s just a…..fill in the blanks.

Pandora's avatar

I don’t think its about morality but more of a question of need. I think most of us have it in us to kill something if we really need to kill it to survive. I know I would never want to kill a bunny with my own hands. I even hate to see fish struggle to take its last breath. But if I was stranded and starving and could catch them and eat them, then I probably would. It would break my heart but so would starving. I would have to justify the death of an animal over my own survival. In the animal world, most animals kill other animals to eat to survive or because it was a threat. They don’t just go about sprinting after a cute animals to kill if they are full and it poses no threat.
For now though, I let others kill the animals that I eat and I try not let the gift of their life go to waste by over buying and letting it get spoiled and go in the trash or give the food to picky people who will throw it in the trash.

Coloma's avatar

@Pandora Of course, but survival needs are not the same as sociopathic disregard.

thorninmud's avatar

I don’t think that you’ll find it at a cellular level any more than you will find consciousness at a cellular level. Like consciousness, it’s an emergent property arising from our entirety, not our elements.

If morality is applied compassion (and that’s the best definition I’ve been able to come up with), then first you’d have to ask whether compassion is innate. I think it is. But because we are complex beings, it finds itself in competition with other, more ancient mental processes related to assuring one’s individual interests. These self-serving impulses are particularly compelling ones because they operate at such a basic level.

Compassion probably didn’t appear until humans attained a sufficient level of complexity. Even in modern humans, compassion doesn’t really bloom until the brain reaches a certain level of maturity and neural interconnectivity is better established. Self-serving impulses come online much faster in human development. This makes sense.

In many ways, compassion is not reasonable. The intellect sees the world in terms of comparison, classification and calculation. Compassion has nothing to do with all that. It cuts across the divisions that the intellect would set up, defying the self/other boundary. That often leads to conflict between the intellect and compassion. This is the complexity that we humans have to navigate.

Reason, as our explaining function, can be put at the service of compassion or of our self-serving impulses, building a case for either. But, as an intellectual faculty, it seems to have an easier time rationalizing self-interest. It can spin compassion as a kind of evolutionary adaptation to allow us to function as a group—fine. But that hardly accounts for the full range of human compassion. When compassion is given its full voice, it extends to literally _everything: the cute, the not cute; the animate, the inanimate. What keeps it from having its full voice is all of the competition from the self-interested aspects of our humanity.

Coloma's avatar

@thorninmud Well said, “applied compassion”..excellent! :-)
And, as “they” say…knowledge without application is useless. Compassion must be applied beyond the level of concept through action.

flutherother's avatar

Morality existed before we began to reason and the foundations for what we call morality are built into our DNA. It lies very deep within ourselves and is more subtle than merely something which is triggered by ‘cuteness’. As society becomes more complex we use reason to decide what behaviour is acceptable and what is not.

Morality comes from feeling how others feel and wishing to protect others from hurt as we would protect ourselves. This usually applies to those within our social group but there is no reason why our moral principles shouldn’t cover the entire world and all life within it as with Buddhists.

wundayatta's avatar

Thank you people for a very enlightening discussion.

I think I see compassion as an expression of the golden rule. However, I don’t see the boundary of what “other” is as being fixed at any particular point. There are many types of others, and some of them may be so other, as to not count as other. I mean, do unto a tree as you would have it do unto you? Do unto a mountain as you would have it do unto you?

Yet there are people who would extend the golden rule that far, I think. And there could be rationality in that compassion towards mountains or trees.

The problem is that what is the “do unto” when you can’t talk to each other and your “needs” are vastly different. Can a mountain even be said to have needs? Can anything non-living have needs?

And is compassion really the basis for morality? What happens when we disagree on what compassion means? On what the compassionate act is?

thorninmud's avatar

I’d be reluctant to equate compassion to the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule asks you to put yourself in the place of another. It says, in effect, “I am here and you are there, but now I will imagine myself in your place” That’s a kind of thought experiment, really. Bringing thought into it can actually lead to some pretty screwed up conclusions. And it’s only narrowly applicable, as you point out.

Compassion doesn’t have this cognitive element. It dispenses altogether with the “I am here and you are there” premise and seamlessly integrates. There is no other. The mountain and tree pose no problem to compassion as they do for the Golden Rule. There’s no need to try to imagine what a mountain feels because there’s no gulf there to bridge with the imagination.

I don’t think we have to agree on what compassion is. If you over-process it, you turn it into dogma. You end up with nonsense like not shooting the rabid dog in the playground because if you were the rabid dog, you wouldn’t want to be shot. The important thing is to keep one’s own compassion keen through constant use. Morality is always messy business; we have to accept that there’s a great deal of ambiguity and muddling about. Codifying morality seems more straightforward, but that risks turning it from a living force into an algorithm.

wundayatta's avatar

@thorninmud I believe I understand your feelings about “over” processing the idea of compassion. I guess I think we can have it both ways. It can be that cognitive understanding and it can also be that non-linguistic, holistic understanding of the universe. Dogma only comes around if you have to set things down in the rule books. That only happens when you think people are stupid; and can only follow rules and are incapable of thinking for themselves.

When I ask you to explain something, I’m not asking you to pin it to the specimen table for me. If I do, you have my permission to stab me with one of those pins. I am trying to understand how it works for you a little better. I have lots of pin holes, btw, but maybe fewer as time goes on.

Although I’m getting off track here.

Whether compassion is some brain artifact, or whether it is behavior that is built into us, I think we behave in characteristic ways. Later on, I think we try to explain or justify or standardize our behaviors, as if they were holy. Perhaps it is the difference between behavior and holiness that I think warrants analysis. For it is my observation that when things become holy, we get screwed, even if people make things holy for the best of reasons.

thorninmud's avatar

The way it works for me, then, is that there is no such thing as “holy”, or even “right” and “wrong”. There’s only what compassion urges, and what outrages compassion. Fuck holiness.

wundayatta's avatar

Fuck holiness! Seems like a satisfying thing to say. I don’t like it much. I don’t like what it does. However, I have compassion for people who feel moved to nominate holiness. I would like to help them pull back from the brink. It is a shame to lose them and I don’t think they know what they do.

flutherother's avatar

Getting back to the original question it may well be that morality originates in our cells as mirror neurons have been discovered that fire when an animal carries out a particular act and also when it observes that same act carried out by another. It is believed that these cells play a role in creating feelings of empathy.

CaptainHarley's avatar

It is my belief that morality is built into the very fabric of the universe.

ninjacolin's avatar

It’s my belief that people love to forget to define morality before having discussions like this. In this case, @wundayatta, you’re guilty. :)

For example: If Morality = Chocolate, then your question becomes really easy to answer: No, chocolate is not built into our cells.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

I believe morality is a social construct influenced by inborn factors that shape our perceptions and responses.

ninjacolin's avatar

@wundayatta suggested: “Morality is the application of reason to naturally occurring behaviors.”

oh.

good.

Well, is the application of reason to naturally occurring behaviors built into our cells? Of course it is. None of my abilities came from no where. My ability to walk, talk, eat, feel pain, not grow feathers, not grow tusks.. all of these I inherited from my parents. My ability to apply reason also came with me from birth. My aptitude for applying reason, however, that’s something that was taught to brain socially.

vitro's avatar

Morality is neurological. The difference is how one applies it.

For example, there are those who find it moral to feed the poor, but by doing so, they’re rewarding and teaching the poor that it’s acceptable to be a degenerate. They’re also turning poor people into slaves because the poor become reliant on the enablers that support them. They’re also exposing themselves to danger by being betrayed or taken advantage of by the poor.

Then there are those who see it the other way around, that by not helping the poor, they prevent the possibility of betrayal or being taken advantage of by the poor, coupled with the lesson that it’s not acceptable to be a degenerate, and it also teaches the poor to be self-reliant (no free lunch) while averting institutionalization.

The two perspectives are triggered by the same neurological event.

Symbeline's avatar

I pretty much agree with you. On some animal level, it’s within us to care for our species in order to ascertain our survival. I’m guessing it’s the same for a lot of animals, whether they find things cute or not. However, the morality part is a way to explain it I guess, like you said, applying reason and image to the action, which didn’t require anything but the action and reaction when we were cavemen. I do believe the illustrating is something conditioned by environment, but its root is very much primal. It adapts to our own advancement I guess? Some remnants of the very basic are used in different situations. It’s the same thing, but the presentation varies and caters to advancement, if you want to call it that. Kinda like how in the Western world, religion isn’t as important as before, but the same approach to religion is used towards other currently important social things.
And in so doing, I guess some seemingly unnatural things may occur in this form of adaptation, like finding mice cute, or people who don’t love their children. The idea of morality is built around all this I think, to help us cope when our feelings don’t match the survivalist disposition of our instinct. It all has to have a reason rather than being a glitch though…
Hell, killing a mouse might just seem wrong as far as morality goes, because instead of killing a mouse you have no use at all of killing, you could have spent that energy on something constructive and vital to your survival, no matter the level of magnitude that it may borrow.

Yeah I have no idea what the Devil I’m trying to say, but I do think morality is secondary, even if it’s a vital tool to our survival on both physical and emotional levels. But the core that calls for it is much older. It’s like, you wanna draw something. You have paper. The paper has always been there. Now you’re gonna draw something on it that hasn’t always been there, and everyone sees the idea when you do draw it. But it never would have happened if you didn’t have the paper. So I think morality comes from the need to keep shit together.

Unless you carved it on stone or in a tree or on some dead guy, but then in that case you’d be some freak of nature with a hockey mask and a fake naginata that’s a total error of everything we know about evolution of human beings.

I make no sense, this is too hard to explain. What @Dr_Lawrence said.

saint's avatar

No. It is a product of our reasoning consciousness.

MollyMcGuire's avatar

No. Building our own belief, moral, and ethic system is part of maturity.

CaptainHarley's avatar

Morality is the ability to tell when it’s appropriate to beat the ever-lovin’ crap out of some butthole who so desperately deserves it. : )

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