It was an insight of Chomsky who demonstrated that though language ability varied from man to man: one man speaking several languages and illiterate, and another speaking one language but literate; their capacity for learning language was innate, and that this capacity was structured in a certain general way.

And this by demonstrating all languages, despite there luxuriant variety had certain general features: for all languages must locate objects and subjects, and this in time and place; the subject being he who acts, and the object being that what is acted on; possibly directly or indirectly.

Can something similar be posited for moral intuition; an innate capacity for understanding and learning moral sentiment?

First, what is this position called?

Second, can it be shown to hold?

Chomsky's argument worked by structure; but is morality itself structured?

  • Linguistic studies ruled out Chomsky's innate language hypothesis ("universal grammar"), at least in its original form, by demonstrating that language universals it predicts do not exist:"The true picture is very different: languages differ so fundamentally from one another at every level of description (sound, grammar, lexicon, meaning) that it is very hard to find any single structural property they share". journals.cambridge.org/…
    – Conifold
    Sep 21 '15 at 23:41
  • @conifold: why would anyone consider lexicon and sound to be a basic part of language capacity? Dennett and Searle both accepted the hypothesis as being demonstrated; there is no article behind that link. Sep 22 '15 at 0:02
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    The link opens for me, the paper is Myth of Language Universals: Language Diversity and Its Importance for Cognitive Science by Evans and Levinson in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2009, here is the DOI link dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X0999094X Neither Searle nor Dennett are linguists or psychologists, and it was a while ago.
    – Conifold
    Sep 22 '15 at 2:10
  • Searle and Dennett are philosophers; it was partly on the basis of philosophy that Chomsky was making his argument - so I do think that this is important; here is paper by Crain, Khlentzos and Thornton on Universal Grammar vs Language Diversity Sep 22 '15 at 10:30
  • Which presents the counter-argument: "in providing descriptions of particular languages, linguists may concentrate on what makes a language special, and not what it has in common with other languages. Universal Grammar does not attempt to account for exceptions and irregularities. Therefore little is gained by arguing that human languages exhibit a lot of individual differences. Any challenge to Universal Grammar requires more than this". Sep 22 '15 at 10:36

I don't know of a specific name for this idea, but it certainly has been proposed. As one example, it was the center pillar of the arguments developed by CS Lewis in the book Mere Christianity. In the book, he appeals to an innate sense of right and wrong in simple social situations, such as when someone bumps you walking down the street, and how the common (seemingly universal) reaction to that is that it's not good to do that.

Another example of someone who depicted a similar idea is Augustine. Augustine in Confessions in several places references the idea of the moral sense being innate. In one passage, he expresses regret at stealing pears just for the sake of doing that, and feels that the regret is an innate feeling stemming from violating what's right. He also says famously that there is an innate desire for union with God (our hearts are restless until they rest in you), from whom many religious people (such as Augustine) would say is the source of morality.

For counter arguments, one can see:

  1. Positivists and utilitarians seem that they would both reject any argument that appeals to personal experience, looking only at the external results of an action to figure if something is good or not
  2. Plato (see The Republic, Gold Souls, vs. others) and Aristotle (Book 1 of Politics: the necessity of the governing class, heads of household) both argued that while some are well-suited innately for having a good sense of morality/virtues, others are not, and it is the job of the ruling class (composed of those who are to ensure a moral/virtuous state.
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    Kant would probably accept innate morality but reject arguments from "sense of right and wrong":"While empirical moral philosophy, which Kant calls moral anthropology, can tell us how people do act, it cannot, Kant claims, tell us how we ought to act. And what we want to find... is not a descriptive principle, but the most fundamental, authoritative normative principle... We could never discover a principle that commands all rational beings with such absolute authority through a method of empirical moral philosophy." plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-hume-morality/#BriOveKanEth
    – Conifold
    Sep 22 '15 at 21:57

Yes, there is innate morality.

  • (Many) monkeys will starve themselves rather than do something that hurts another monkey but allows them to get food.
  • People have mirror neurons that fire in sympathy with what other people are feeling as well as when they have it themselves.
  • People very frequently balk at imperatives from rational morality when it disagrees with some internal sense, and insist that the apparently more rational view is wrong.

If you want to fall back to the weaker argumentative form used by Chomsky ("most everyone does it kinda the same way, even though that way is not all that simple"), there's plenty of support for that too. Qualities like humility, bravery, kindness, sharing, etc. are nearly universally regarded as positive. Moral action doesn't have the same depth of structure as language does, but the same kind of irrational-seeming behavior (e.g. around issues of fairness) can be widely detected, which is a pretty good clue.

  • @virmaior - Absent a clear definition for the distinction between "moral feeling" and "morality", I'd rather not; it feels kind of like a No True Scotsman situation. I'm just establishing that there's some biological basis, not that it's incredibly deep.
    – Rex Kerr
    Oct 1 '15 at 6:50
  • I think that's completely fair.
    – virmaior
    Oct 1 '15 at 7:25
  • Good to see you're back; it's a good answer from the empirical view; though now that I look at the question I don't think I was being very clear. Oct 2 '15 at 22:16

I am answering this question from an Islamic scholar from the Shia sect named Ja'far ibn Sadiq but with will try to only speak in plain English

All human beings are born with senses of good and wrong and perhaps it is more intact within the first few years of a child and more cultivated by age and growth of wisdom, more damaged by sins and more preserved by kind acts. I said that to explain the differences among people's wisdom, that they all come from the same source, but are altered by age and growth of wisdom and by our actions

My argument is :

If you look at a young age child, you would see them to be the most truth telling, the most kindest until they see and learn from others how to do wrong and then by choice, but without sufficient knowledge they start lying from time to time or bother other people. Initially they are kind, they are honest... I mean 95% the first time a child talks he/she doesn't do it to lie... Yet it's not complete, once they're coming of age, then their wisdom innately fruits into more kind deeds. Do parents really have to teach their children what is justice? Do they take a Justice 101 class at the age of 8 and then at the age of 10 they take Justice 102 and then age of 14 they take the class of the Humility 101 and Thanfullness 102? No! The mother or father just says: " Hey my beloved daughter, it's not nice that you didn't thank your uncle for the birthday present" and the son replies: Uhum; And the matter is settled!( he wouldn't say what?! What are you talking about?! I don't know what thankfulness is! Please teach me) Or if he cheats against her sister her father wouldn't say he sweety you have to go back to class and take not-cheating class again, its the 10th time you failed! He would just say, don't cheat and she would just say: I am sorry dad, I won't do it anymore!

How is it not the other way around!? That people are not injected with a moral compass to lie? How is it that they are pre-injected to tell the truth?

Humans are initially injected with Justice, Honesty, kindness, Hope,Thankfulness, Chastity, Mercifulness, Humbleness, peacefulness, forgiving, sympathy, Affection, Loyalty, Obedience,Love, Truth, Sincerity, Safekeeping, Kindness to parents, Concealment, peaceful, Cleanliness, Wisdom, Dignity,Repentance, Seeking forgiveness, Happiness

I guess part of the reason its not so obvious is that people's opinion or at least their actions are not all the same which leads us into thinking that this could be a result of us not having a similar base.

  1. IMHO Its that they are all gifted to us by a higher power, that higher power being God, yet through our free-will based sins we somehow scratch and deteriorate the cleanliness of our soul, of our nature! For example for a person called Jack: The first time in his life, when he steals something, he simply goes and steals a chocolate bar from Starbucks... and then he realize that its bad, but hes doesn't care...the 2nd time, he goes and steals, but this time the sin of stealing becomes far less obvious to him...third time he goes and steals 2 chocolate bars... 5 months later, He has become a new person a person who is stealing 15 boxes of chocolate per day...2 years he is a person who is hiring people for his mob...5 years later he becomes is even willing to kill people... and this person becomes a person who will even argue with his own version of himself of 5 years ago, BECAUSE he didn't do anything to undo the damage on his soul, on his heart! Obviously this is an exaggerated version... I am just trying to explain the whole process of humans changing. Yet at every second people have the ability and free-will to change and become a brand new good person.
  2. How can we all not have the same understanding!? I mean it would be impossible for us to live together if my moral standards are COMPLETELY different from you. The similarity itself leads to a single creator.
  3. If you don't believe in God and the judgement day then forget this part, but if you do then: God cannot give human beings a wisdom, or source of intellect which for each person it functions differently and that it won't have any sort of touchstone... if our wisdoms don't have any touchstone then on the judgement day we could go to God and say " Hey Goddi... you know, no one taught me what is justice... no one taught me that I had to show kindness to my parents, therefor you can't send me to hell!" God's answer: I gave you wisdom so that you would know what is right and wrong.
  4. No person would say that lack of respect is good or that justice is bad, God ( or the higher power if you don't believe in God) who has gifted us our wisdom has made all of us aware, yet for every two people you find it almost impossible for them to have the same extent of understanding on the righteousness or evilness of the action... for me the goodness could be 100X for you it could be 10000X. My point is, we are all on the same trajectory (because of the same source of creation, but with different levels of understanding because of our deeds, education and endeavor)
  • I can't tell which part of this is yours and which part is the scholar's, but it seems like someone is lacking in experience with children. Once children realize that when someone else takes a toy, they no longer have it, they tend to get more than a little possessive. Teaching children how to share and get along is a huge part of the work for daycare providers! There may be innate morality, but this view of purity and morality of the young child is strongly at odds with empirical observations.
    – Rex Kerr
    Oct 1 '15 at 3:15
  • @RexKerr Thanks. I will revise on which parts are from Ja'far ibn Sadiq and which parts are its applications... but from his teachings...humans are born with wisdom, their actions conceal or awaken your understanding of truth and there is an army of intelligence gifted to humans. I wrote myself was the examples. Also I said:"but without sufficient knowledge[or guidance]...deeds. " meaning they need that sort guidance... but its not actually teaching, its admonishing them to what they already know but have forgotten. HOW do you explain those kids who don't need any education on this matter?
    – Honey
    Oct 4 '15 at 17:44
  • You explain observations by noting that as with all human behaviors, there is great variability and thus one must look to tendencies and the frequencies thereof to learn what people usually are like (as opposed to what they possibly can be).
    – Rex Kerr
    Oct 5 '15 at 18:16

It would seem to me that morality can't actually be 'innate' in any meaningful sense, by which I mean we are born with an innate sense of what actions are moral or immoral.Because we are born with essentially no concept of mind, reality, or thought, let alone rationality or morality, it doesn't seem rational to indicate a pre-determined set of morals.

The only thing we are capable of doing at birth is reacting to our immediately perceived environment. That being said, one may argue that morality, or rather what it is perceived to be, is simply repeated associations between 'immoral actions' and a biologically-innate instincts.

For example, as you develop a Theory of Mind and a sense of sonder, you may realize that taking another child's toy, or physically hurting someone, would be something you'd likely not desire for yourself. Realizing that others may feel the same way you do, you'd have an adverse feeling towards that action, dubbing it 'immoral.'

Of course, looking at Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development, we can see that perhaps these feelings themselves are not even innate. It would seem, however, that the reaction towards adverse, incorrigible sensations are, indeed, innate. Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

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    This seems the best explanation. Morality isn't innate, but is formed in reasonable ways from our experiences. Many of those are shared experiences universal to all humans, and so unless we have pathological problems with concept formation, we draw similar conclusions about how we should behave. Sep 25 '15 at 15:47
  • Thanks for your useful answer; to clarify: I'm not suggesting that there is a specific set of morals that one is born with, but a kind of moral capacity or potential; which as we learn to negotiate the world becomes more determined; like we're not born seeing, but have the capacity to learn to see. Sep 26 '15 at 1:31
  • If you mean "see" as in the ability to perceive light, then infants can certainly see. However if you mean comprehend, or at least actually make sense of these perceptions, then I would agree. Your point seems vague to me. I'd love for you to elaborate.
    – Goodies
    Sep 26 '15 at 3:50
  • @goodies: it is vague, but this was why I was asking the question; to find something more specific. Sep 29 '15 at 7:29
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    This fails to account for strong correlations between morality, empathy, and brain structure. The logic is also faulty, given that "you'd have an adverse feeling towards that action" requires some sense of morality!
    – Rex Kerr
    Oct 1 '15 at 3:11

One place to look for a theory and evidence justifying innate moral intuition is Moral Foundations Theory (MFT):

Moral foundations theory is a social psychological theory intended to explain the origins of and variation in human moral reasoning on the basis of innate, modular foundations. It was first proposed by the psychologists Jonathan Haidt, Craig Joseph and Jesse Graham, building on the work of cultural anthropologist Richard Shweder; and subsequently developed by a diverse group of collaborators, and popularized in Haidt's book The Righteous Mind.

The original theory proposed five foundations: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation. It now includes liberty. Its authors did not proscribe the possibility of including more.

This theory contains a structure of multiple foundations each representing a pair of extremes oscillating between group values and individual values.

A survey of MFT is presented at moralfoundations.org which contains a list of publications to explore the theory and evidence justifying it further.

Wikipedia contributors. "Moral foundations theory." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 27 Feb. 2019. Web. 24 Mar. 2019.

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