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By: Edwin Dos Santos

Teacher: D. Sharma

Morality is not a culturally conditioned response


Throughout the course of history the question of if morality is an innate quality or if it is
a culturally conditioned response has been a topic of debate amongst the philosophical
community. Some have adopted the ideas of the renowned linguist Noam Chomsky that claim
were all born with what he called a universal grammar (Lyons,7)and have expanded those ideas
to morality thus resulting in the claim that we are all born with an innate moral code. Whereas
others have claimed that we are all born as blank slates to be filled throughout the course of our
lives though experiences and by our upbringing. The evidence demonstrates that just as Noam
Chomsky indicates that we are all born with a grammatical code we are also born with a moral
code.
The most outstanding piece of evidence that would demonstrate that we are in fact not
born as blank slates but rather as morally aware beings lays in the research that was conducted
by Yale University's Infant Cognition Center. In a study where several infants ranging from 3
months old to as old as 2 years of age would be shown an example of a character doing
something that would be considered good behavior and example of another character
demonstrating bad behavior. When asked which character they preferred, over 80% chose the
character that demonstrated good behavior and with children 3 months old they chose the same
character at a rate of 90% (Chun,Moral Code). That would be a prime example of how children
who would be too young to have had their understanding of morality molded by the society
around them or by life experiences already had an understanding of what would be considered
good behavior and what would be considered bad behavior, thus countering the claim that
children are born as blank slates and demonstrating they already have an understanding of what

By: Edwin Dos Santos


Teacher: D. Sharma

is right and wrong. Therefore demonstrating that their morality was not the result of cultural
conditioning but instead it was an innate characteristic.
The second claim that could be used to support the idea that morality is an innate quality would
be the fact that several core characteristics were discovered to be reoccurring in several cultures.
That discovery was made by anthropologists Richard Shweder and Alan Fiske when they
surveyed several cultures and found reoccurring themes. Although the exact number of themes is
debatable the five most commonly accepted characteristics were harm, fairness, community,
authority and purity. One of the reasons that we could have acquired those characteristics is
because they would almost be essential from an evolutionary standpoint, an idea that had been
proposed by the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers and then later promoted by Evolutionary
Biologist Richard Dawkins in the book the Selfish Gene. For example the impulse to avoid harm
would be beneficial is it would prevent one person from doing unnecessary harm to other
members of their group, whereas other characteristics such as purity would help members of a
society avoid things that they feel could contaminate them thus it would be a beneficial reaction
to avoid that and not present an unnecessary threat to themselves or others in their group(Pinker,
Moral Instrinct).Behavior that we would consider moral would be behavior that would have been
beneficial to the advancement of our species. Thus demonstrating the moral behavior would be
the be an innate characteristic as it would be something that man would have developed as a
survival mechanism and not something cultural that would be passed down as a tradition.
The third argument that is usually used in favor of the idea that morality is innate is that there is
to a certain extent a universal morality. That does not mean that one does not have the free will to
stray from ones sense of morality, or that ones sense of morality could not be twisted by
propaganda, religious indoctrination or by environmental factors. One example of how people

By: Edwin Dos Santos


Teacher: D. Sharma

have been willing to go against their sense of morality would be the practice of cannibalism.
Although some might claim that cannibalism has been documented in 34% of the worlds
cultures (Prinz, Morality) what should have to be taken into consideration is that cannibalism
was usually more of an action that was done out of desperation or as a ritual. A prime example of
that would the Aztecs who in addition to offering human sacrifices would also cannibalize their
sacrificial offerings in order to achieve union with their gods (Human Sacrifice, Michigan State).
Another factor that would have to be taken into consideration is that in many areas where
cannibalism was not ritualistic in nature it was done out of necessity. One of the most well
documented cases would be during the Russian Famine where food was so hard to come by that
many resorted to eating their neighbors or loved ones (Lukov, Ukraine). Once all those factors
are taken into consideration it becomes clear that those who willingly practices cannibalism
without it being the result of religious or ideological indoctrination or due to necessity would be
a number far less that the 34% previously stated. That serves as evidence that to a certain extent a
form of universal morality exists where for the most part society will view some actions as
favorable and others as unfavorable. Had our morality been influenced entirely by our
upbringing such as large difference would not be observed.
Ultimately it is abundantly clear that morality is not a product of the culture we live, the result of
our upbringing or the bi product of practicing a religion, although it can be influenced by those
factors. But rather morality is an innate quality that has been developed in order to protect man
from unnecessary dangers to themselves or to their fellow community members. Morality is not
a quality that is specific to a small number of people but rather it is a characteristic that is
observed in just about all cultures and any significant variation in morality can usually be
attributed to a life or death reaction or it can be tied to a religious or ritualistic tradition.

By: Edwin Dos Santos


Teacher: D. Sharma

Bibliography
Chun, Susan. "Are We Born with a Moral Core? The Baby Lab Says 'yes'"CNN. N.p., 14 Feb.
2014. Web. 17 Oct. 2014.
Divine Hunger Cannibalism as a Cultural System Peggy Reeves Sanday
Pinker, Steven. "The Moral Instinct." The New York Times. The New York Times, 12 Jan. 2008.
Web. 17 Oct. 2014.
"Human Sacrifice and Cannibalism in the Aztec People." Rise of Civilization. Michigan State
University, n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2014. Human
Lukov, Yaroslav. "Ukraine Marks Great Famine Anniversary." BBC News. BBC, 22 Nov. 2003.
Web. 17 Oct. 2014. (Lukov, Ukraine)
Lyons, John. Noam Chomsky. New York: Viking, 1970. 7. Print.
Prinz, Jesse. "Morality Is a Culturally Conditioned Response." Philosophy Now. N.p., n.d. Web.
21 Oct. 2014.