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The question of morality—mainly in its trespass—is often a staple in the news. A politician may be accused of embezzling money or breaking his marital vows in an illicit affair with a co-worker. A police officer may be the focus of an investigation for accepting bribes. A priest may be faced with condemnation for molesting children. Your average Joe may have just entered a school and gunned down three instructors and five students. The list of lapses is continuous as is the call by prominent people or institutions for a return to the moral universe of the past. Like modern allegories of improper behavior, these incidents send us didactic messages on how not to behave. They become the tales of wrongdoing whose inevitable denouement is punishment of the guilty and a mandate for return to morality until the next lapse that is.

For some, the “moral universe” is clear and orderly, where moral rules are objective and must simply be adhered to. According to certain moral philosophers, humans have an innate sense of morality, an interior voice that whispers to our conscience and helps us distinguish between right and wrong. It is this voice that stops a child from shoplifting in a store or stealing a friend’s cell phone. It is this nagging voice that prevents us from doing whatever we want whenever we want. It is this very conflict within a person, the psychomachia, which forms the basis of humanity for many religions. In other words, people inherently know what is right; doing the right thing or doing the wrong thing is only a matter of choice, for people also have free-will given by God. In contrast to these beliefs of innate and universal human morality stands moral relativism, according to which morality is something that humans are conditioned to and is therefore relative and subjective. To moral relativists, there is no innate moral ground or whispering voice that forms our conscience; rather, morality depends on the situation one is put into, and every situation is relative to another.

The following hypothetical scenario can put these theories into a more tangible perspective. During a robbery at a bank, the perpetrators electronically get away with an undisclosed amount. In the process, the bank manager becomes aware of the security system penetration as well as the methods utilized by the hackers. Before calling the police, the manager has a short window of time when she can steal five million dollars without any chance of being caught and without any chance of anyone ever knowing of her crime. Will she commit the crime even if she knows she could do it with impunity? For those with moral certainty, her decision is merely a matter of utilizing the innate morality she was born with. The psychomachia, the battle in her soul, would rage between her desire for personal gain and her moral duty, but she certainly would know what is “right.”

On the other hand, moral relativists would take a different stance on this bank heist scenario. A moral relativist would say that the bank manager’s ethical dilemma is not triggered by any innate moral device, but rather it was mandated by the manager’s specific moral values as shaped by her family, religion, or other social factors. To even further solidify the subjective character of morality, the moral relativist would weave a more complex scenario regarding the punishable character of the manager’s act. What if, for instance, she were to get caught? Should she be condemned in all cases? What if she stole the five million dollars not for fancy cars, dinners, vacations, diamonds, or anything for herself? What if, instead, she stole the money to donate to cancer research, and because of her donation there was a major breakthrough in the treatment of cancer? This breakthrough would save millions of lives and billions of dollars in health care. In this case, would the bank manager still be found guilty? She would have committed an apparently immoral act yet for a moral if not honorable cause.

Moral relativists believe that objective morality does not exist; morality is induced from the outside and has to be judged by the specific circumstances of each case; it is, in essence, a set of social beliefs that becomes codified over time into a set of value standards. People learn moral standards along with ideas of proper behavior, decorum, language, style, or anything else. To substantiate their claims, moral relativists use the different cultures and traditions of the world which help explain the “relativity” of morality across the globe. Indeed, outsiders visiting planet Earth might be confused by this plurality of often contradictory norms. They may wonder, for instance, about the act of killing another human being. Why are some people who kill another human being arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated, while others are hailed as heroes and given medals? When does killing constitute “murder”?

The answer to this debate between innate, God-given morality versus man-made, relative morality may lie in the most unlikely of places, Darwin’s 1859 publication of the Origin of Species. As is well-known, Darwin used this text to promulgate his ideas of evolution and to show how mankind evolved over time, ultimately descending from apes. Evolution, therefore, would squarely support the idea that human beings construct their own social belief systems. However, a growing number of philosophers, sociologists, and cultural anthropologists have been arguing that there exists a biological “morality device” in human beings, which has evolved over time. This morality device operates like a module in the brain that triggers the need for humans to develop more complex codes of human behavior in order for them to effectively adjust to the challenges of survival. In essence, some hidden part of our brains became active at a point in the distant past, triggering the morality device. Books such as Harvard professor Marc Hauser’s Moral Minds and Michael Tomasello’s A Natural History of Human Thinking even go so far as to claim that human beings are born with a “moral grammar” hardwired into the brain, a theory that builds on notable language theorist Noam Chomsky’s idea of an inherent “Language Acquisition Device” and an underlying “Universal Grammar” to prove humans’ biological predisposition to learning a language (Hauser, 2006; Tomasello, 2014). Thus, the human species evolved physically, mentally, and morally at the same time, roughly 50,000 years ago (Smith, 2015).

While it is tempting to believe that religion had it right all along or that people do have an innate sense of morality, a closer look at how scientists define morality significantly problematizes this quick interpretation. Many cognitive psychologists, those scientists engaged in the study of the parts of the brain in question, do not overtly claim that morality is innate; instead, they claim that morality developed along with other cognitive functions as part of larger social systems. As early man banded together for his own protection, he needed a more developed social system that would allow for greater cooperation, survival, procreation, and expansion of the species. In this way, morality was part of the process of developing stronger social bonds between individuals and their communities. With this “social intelligence hypothesis,” morality wasn’t necessarily about strict notions of right and wrong; it was merely and primarily concerned with ways of establishing specific parameters for human survival; so, for instance, these parameters may coincide with peaceful coexistence and cooperation among humans while other times “war” may be proclaimed as “necessary” or morally “justifiable.” Morality, then, could be seen as part of a human need for organization and structure. This differentiation in definitions may seem minor, yet it helps explain a great deal of human behavior.

With this definition in hand, it becomes obvious that humans may have a predisposition for morality but not necessarily a specific morality. There is no innate set of specific behavior rules that everyone is born with, for there are far too many cultural distinctions among the world’s peoples for that to be true. This hypothesis disrupts thousands of years of philosophical thought process. Plato (428BC-348BC) thought that men had knowledge of morality that was inscribed on their minds as similar to impressions left on wax, and one endeavored to “rediscover” these impressions during life (Benardete, 1991; Plato, 2011); John Locke (1632-1704) capitalized on this metaphor to argue for people being born as “blank slates” as they are socialized due to social contract theory (Locke, 2016). Even the modern-day grandfather of moral philosophy, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), believed that morality was based on rationality, but people were forced to be moral through his so-called categorical imperative. So, whether morality was a choice, imprinted in humans by God, or applied to us by a categorical imperative, a fairly strict moral code existed. Scientists, however, are changing this narrative. They are arguing that people are biologically encoded with a predisposition for rules of governance in social interaction. In this way, we can see that morality is not about good or evil, right or wrong; morality is about individuals’ relationship with their community, and we need morality in order to function within a society. It isn’t a choice; it’s in our genes.

Theological thinkers from Martin Luther King, Jr to St. Augustine have postulated the difference between “man’s law and God’s law.” Man’s laws are imperfect and can lead to injustice, so it is the responsibility of people to fight unjust laws as King wrote in his famous missive, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” For theologians, alluding to God has been one way that humans have interpreted and enforced morality for eons.

Scientists, however, have been using a sociological lens to interpret morality. For them, judging people by a distinct and inflexible set of moral codes is unhelpful or even unrealistic because people’s actions and moral values differ from culture to culture and situation to situation. The viewpoint of social scientists can be summarized like this: morality is not about finding an innate value system implanted by an unknown creator. It is rather about humans’—as individuals and as members of a community— constant negotiation with an existing, evolving, and relative value system. During times of relative peace, individuals may break their “moral contract” with the community (and with their religions), and for that there are consequences to be suffered. During times of instability in a community, moral lapses or crimes are far more likely to be committed by even average citizens because the social pact, the common and assumed agreement between individuals and society, has broken down or is in need of adjustment to changing circumstances. For scientists, morality is a luxury afforded to the human species, encoded in our genomic sequences, and expressed in our need for social bonding that is based on an almost instinctual understanding of fairness. Now, where the genetic code for morality comes from is an entirely other matter. Perhaps that’s a question for the theologians after all.

Here is the 11 questions:

Do you believe that some things are absolute (right or wrong)? If so, what are they?

To what extent do you think we learn morality or ideas of right and wrong from our environment?

Are there laws that govern moral behavior? If so, who or what creates these laws?

Have you ever broken the rules to help a friend or someone you know even though you knew your action was wrong? Why did you do it and how did you feel afterwards? Share only what you feel comfortable with.

What would you do if your employer suddenly came to you and asked you to shred a lot of paperwork in the middle of the night?

Do you think that sociologists are correct that human beings are not necessarily moral, but they are encoded with genes that predispose us to social cooperation?

Does morality really matter? If we have strength and the power to achieve our goals, why shouldn’t we? Does might make right?

Should we teach ethics and moral reasoning in our classrooms? Why or why not?

Can we have morality without religion or a God? Explain your answer.

What’s the difference among ethics, morality, and laws?

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously demonstrated against segregation and discrimination by employing the idea of “unjust laws” that one had a moral responsibility to disobey. Do you see such laws or situations in your own life? How can we determine what is unjust or not?

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