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whiteliondreams's avatar

How is morality not a social construct?

Asked by whiteliondreams (1693 points ) July 9th, 2012

According to Gazzaniga’s book The Ethical Brain (2005), humans are hardwired for morality. However, if morality is a physiological function, then how would it manifest socially if it is an innate feature that requires intelligence to be communicated, negotiated, acknowledged, and accepted? How wouldn’t morality be a socially human construct despite it’s innate properties?

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25 Answers

bolwerk's avatar

Being physiological certainly doesn’t contradict it being social – indeed, it might define how we become social. Humans are social creatures. You can probably divide morality between low-level moral functioning – how you fight, when to use violence, sharing, nurturing offspring – and higher-level moral reasoning, which is surely social or situational to some extent (e.g., sexual ethics).

roundsquare's avatar

It would show up in the particulars that happen in each person’s life. Morality might determine the rules for everything (maybe in very general terms) but the social part would be how its applied in everyday life.

Morality tells us what to do in our social interactions – that is the social manifestation. That doesn’t mean its constructed by society (although it might well be).

Nullo's avatar

Those who take my view – that right and wrong, Good and Evil, are established by God, don’t think that morals are a social construct.

thorninmud's avatar

The basis for morality is physiological. Our mirror neurons allow us to understand that others have inner states much like our own, and cause us to experience their suffering and happiness as our own (to varying degrees). I can care about complete strangers because my brain mirrors their experience. This is why I want what is best for them.

When you take that basic impulse and generalize it beyond the individual to the societal level, that’s where constructs come into play.

JLeslie's avatar

It is. Morality is both innate and based on interactions within society. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Aethelflaed's avatar

It’s very in right now to declare things “hardwired”, isn’t it?

I have not read this book, but I’m guessing the author is arguing that humans have an innate need to have morals, not that humans have an innate need to see any specific morals as the right ones. The social construct part comes in when we decide what exactly those morals will be.

Bill1939's avatar

It seems to me that many (if not most) animals behave as though they followed a moral code. As @whiteliondreams pointed out, some people believe that we have an innate sense of morality, a genetically predisposed set of assumptions about what to expect from others and from ourselves. I think this is likely the basis for all morality, which is built upon and amended as humans form more complex societies. For example, little children often demonstrate an intuitive sense of what is fair and what is not. Their environment can reinforce or extinguish this natal judgement.

Qingu's avatar

I think too many people overcomplicate morality.

Morality is just a code of animal behavior. I mean that in the sense of computer code. “If X, then do Y. If A and B, do not do C, unless D.” Some codes work better than others. Some codes work better in certain situations or societies, and worse in others.

Evolution selects moral codes that work well. This is why altruism is common among animals, for example. We can also use our big brains to figure out if a given moral code might work well or not work.

Qingu's avatar

I also think it’s important to distinguish between morals and laws. I define a law as a moral that is enforced.

The difference is hugely important. Some morals, such as “do not murder,” are enforced in most societies. Other morals, such as “do not talk behind a person’s back,” are not. Still other morals were once enforced and are no longer, such as “do not commit adultery.” People often believe/follow morals that they nevertheless do not wish to enforce on other humans, such as “do not smoke marijuana” and “do not lie.”

Humans do seem to be the only animals with laws. So laws are definitely a social construct. But morals I think are best understood as generalized rules of animal behavior, which are not limited to human societies.

josie's avatar

Human beings are alive, conscious, possess reason, hold ideas as abstractions and act on volition.
When confronted with facts of reality, human beings do not automatically “know what to do”. Human beings must figure out what to do and then choose to do it. Since living things face a fundamental alternative, life and death, the ideas and choices matter. Since it is time consuming and existentially dangerous to have to go through a long series of logical steps in every one of life’s circumstances, people develop a code of morality to help them negotiate the most common of life’s challenges.
How we treat each other is in fact a social construct and subject to change as history indicates.

athenasgriffin's avatar

I believe I would have a certain sense of morality even if I had never met another human being. For instance, if I grew up in a forest (somehow surviving despite the extreme improbability) I would not purposely destroy it for the fun of ripping things up. Even though the resources are unlimited (another assumption, as I’m the lone human in this forest) I still wouldn’t destroy them needlessly, forgoing the idea that it might be simple survival tactics.

Also, I think morality is innate in most living beings, not just humans. Animals also don’t needlessly harm one another, even though it might be fun. But that is another story entirely.

Bill1939's avatar

While I agree with most of what you said, @josie, I think that much of human behavior is an “automatic” process that often occurs before one can consciously become a part of that process. What we do usually becomes cognitive after the fact, whereupon we rationalize the action and experience it as one that we chose.

josie's avatar

@Bill1939 Certainly humans will act at a subcortical level.
But so do all critters with a nervous system.
Morality is unique to humans, because it only applies to behaviour that is uniquely human. Such behaviours are directed by reasoning and volition. Subcortical behaviours, like jerking your hand off a hot stove or reacting to a loud noise, are not directed by choice, and are thus not subject to moral evaluation.

augustlan's avatar

[mod says] This is our Question of the Day!

whiteliondreams's avatar

@josie I concur 100% with volition, unless a human is incapable psychologically or physiologically (brain matter damage).

whiteliondreams's avatar

The reason I asked this question is because philosophers have been trying for over 2,000 years to create a universal moral code, which personally, I do not think it possible unless it can be proven to be effective; even then, will not be religiously or culturally accepted.

marinelife's avatar

You can (and I did) develop a moral code on my own.

whiteliondreams's avatar

@marinelife But it isn’t universal, which means it would apply to all human beings and at the same time.

flutherother's avatar

Morality doesn’t feel as though it is imposed from outside. It feels as though it comes from within. We act in a moral way because it feels wrong not to. It may be partly innate but the rest is learned as we grow up in the company of others. Our ideas of fair play are developed in the school playground rather than the school classroom. I think that morality has deep roots within us and is more than a social construct.

Bill1939's avatar

@josie, I was not referring to reflexes, but to complex actions such as taking a sip of coffee. If we had to be conscious of every aspect of a behavior like putting on a jacket, it would take a great deal of time (try to speak aloud each action required to do this and you will quickly see what I mean). Our moral sense likewise becomes habituated. The only time we only need to think about whether we should do something when what we want to do might be questionable. The thought of stealing food when hungry and broke would be one of those times. However, little or no thought is required when food is in your plate and you have an appetite.

josie's avatar

@Bill1939 That is why the notion of a moral code comes in handy.
Since it is time consuming and existentially dangerous to have to go through a long series of logical steps in every one of life’s circumstances, people develop a code of morality to help them negotiate the most common of life’s challenges
Quote, my first answer.

marinelife's avatar

@whiteliondreams Of course it is not universal. Different people’s codes develop from their own influences and experiences. What is universal is that all people have one.

Bill1939's avatar

@josie, if you are saying that the code has been internalized, habituated, so that an appropriate behavior is a conditioned reflex and does not require a moral decision on the spot, then we are in total agreement.

whiteliondreams's avatar

@marinelife That’s my point, philosopher’s are looking for a Universal Code. I agree with the individual “morals”, despite my amorality.

josie's avatar

@Bill1939 That is what I am saying. It sort of like driving a car. In the beginning, you have to think about taking your foot off the accelerator and moving it over to the brake. But later, you have placed the action into your subconciousness. The action originated as a reasoned decision with a purpose. Once it is “automated” you may forget all the reasoning behind your movements, but you still do them.

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