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Is Morality Innate?

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The subjects of morality, ethics and ethical codex have been studied since the times of the Classics and have often been considered as either the same thing, or synonyms (Slavicek, 2013). The word “ethics” has its origins in the works of the early philosophers, starting with Plato’s testament of Socrates’s ethical dilemmas, in which Socrates asks a fundamental question ‘How should one live?’. Ethical behaviour is understood as a behaviour that corresponds with customs of the society one lives in and own personal believes of what is wrong and right, which are mainly based on conscience and that individuals desires (Taylor, 1997). It is often said, that law is the moral minimum and most laws originate from the customs of given society and its social organisation.

It is in law implementation (Roman laws), later followed by religious laws and their combination (Middle Ages) that a certain custom for behaviour, a set of simple rules, was defined in the Western world. These very particular guidelines to what was considered as ‘all right behaviour’ versus the forbidden can be considered as the stepping-stone for moral principles that have since emerged (Pound, 1923). The Decalogue that was popularised thanks to the violent spread of Catholicism throughout the Western World has served as the basis for now-days moral principles, ethical codex and customs (Rooker, 2010). For the purposes of this essay morality will be understood as a set of social rules, based on given cultural customs and laws, guided by moral norms of what given culture sees as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Belief that it is in the human nature to be cruel, vicious and selfish, as those are the prevalent skills for successful survival in the harsh environment that we developed in, has been acknowledged many times since Darwins’ theory of Evolution. It was namely the prominent biologist, Darwins friend, Thomas Huxley who shared this view in his Evolution and Ethics lecture. According to Huxley, morality is nothing but a social construct which often clashes against the essence of human nature and nature itself (Rutherford, 2007).

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While children’s pro-social behaviour has been observed in many studies, activities like helping or comforting do not hold any positive negatives towards the children. However an act like sharing requires the child to give up something it desires and therefore make a sacrifice in sharing with the adult. However at both 18- and 24-months of age, children are willing to share their snacks with an adult that has none and expresses desire for some, in comparison to sharing when the adult has some of his own (Dunfield, Kuhlmeier, O’Connell & Kelley, 2011). This particular study showed children were very willing to share, which contradicted previous research on willingness to share (Thompson et al., 1997; Brownell et al., 2009). The researchers altered the previous procedures by the adult extending an arm towards the child with his palm up – presenting a typical ‘desiring gesture’. It is therefore slightly questionable, as the child could have felt pressured to share when presented with such a strong gesture from an adult .

When looking at children’s capacity to be moral or their moral compass, we try to establish it by judging their social interactions not only towards other humans, but also to animals. The ability to empathise, altruistic behaviour and ability to distinguish between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are one of the key features contributing to what we identify as a sense morality or ethics. Even very young children distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour in social scenarios, as children show negative attitude towards a hinderer and very positive attitude towards helpers as shown in several studies of Hamlin et al., who specialises in children perception of morality (Hamlin, 2013).

Research published by Hepach, Vaish & Tomasello in 2013 focused on the reasoning behind prosocial behaviour in children using mainly Warnekens & Tomasellos previous research into children’s helpfulness. In the first study they focused on how different reward systems (material – group A, social – group B, none – group C) influenced child’s willingness to help again. Similarly to that study that showed that money reward is less than verbalNEED TO REMEMBER THE NAME, children from group A helped significantly less (~51%) compared to groups B (~80%) and C (~85%) after rewards were presented (F(2, 33) =5.66, p < .01).

In the second study, this lab has tested 18 and 25-month-old children focusing on their perception of harmful conditions – essentially focusing on their ability to empathise. This two part study had children under the ‘harm condition’ watch adult A steal or destroy an object adult B presented as his own property, whereas under the control group watch adult A steal or destroy an object similar yet not the one presented as adult B’s property. Part two of this study gave the children two balloons and adult B one flying balloon. Adult B proceeded to let go of it ‘by mistake’ followed by expressing sorrow over the loss in both facial features and tone of voice. The researchers then graded the children’s social behaviour. Children of both age groups showed more prosocial behaviour towards adult B when they were previously under the harm condition (Hepach, Vaish & Tomasello, 2013). Moral compass in children as young as 5 months of age is developed enough, to be able to distinguish between ‘bad’ and ‘good’ hinderers. When a puppet A that was previously hindering, gets hindered by another puppet B, children show positive attitude towards puppet B, even though his behaviour is anti-social. This proves, that even children this young have a sense of justice and believe negative behaviour is right to be punished (Hamlin, 2013).

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Is Morality Innate? (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 8, 2022, from
“Is Morality Innate?” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022,
Is Morality Innate? [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 8 Dec. 2022].
Is Morality Innate? [Internet] Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 16 [cited 2022 Dec 8]. Available from:
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