What kind of counter-evidence is there against "morality is inborn"?

Since "morality is inborn" is not the only view on the source of morality. And yes, intuitively, one can conceive that environmental factors may shape it as well. However, I would argue that it's still possible for a "self-reliant" subject to deviate from any conceptions he/she may have acquired and thus morality is fundamentally subjectively conceived.

However, it could be that not everyone is "self-reliant" or capable of self-reliance. This could suggest that "moral theories" are context-sensitive, that they depend on the (sub)population in question.

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    All of the above. It is inborn and subject to environmental factors (especially peer-pressure). Plus, self-reliance or self-centeredness; i.e. unhealthy vs. healthy ego formation, basic personality types, etc. -- are mostly inborn traits that may be located anywhere on a continuum of polar opposites. The healthier the individual is physiologically, within an equally healthy society of people -- the more potential they have for developing morals that align with those of the Universe (the source of Goodness, Life, Intelligence, and ultimately Truth). I have no counter-evidence for it.
    – Bread
    Mar 28, 2019 at 10:45
  • I would assume, that most "counterevidence" comes from ethnology. Especially the observation (often illustrated with amusing anecdotes from field research) that different cultures have vastly different concepts of what counts as moral. I am not very familiar with ethics, but that would be the literature I would look into. Mar 28, 2019 at 12:08
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    Hope this is not too 'trite'. When you consider any given action you might take and the voice inside your head advises you to 'do the right thing'; that may be an example of 'inborn morality'. The counterargument might be that that voice is purely whimsical and cannot be empirically demonstrated.
    – user37981
    Mar 28, 2019 at 14:35
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    A "self-reliant" subject can deviate from any inborn morality just as (s)he can deviate from the acquired one, and moral theories are obviously culturally dependent. So what exactly is the question?
    – Conifold
    Mar 28, 2019 at 18:16
  • We're crossing the streams here a bit, to use a ghostbusters reference... but we know that the morality of the ancients differed from ours. And that morality differs between groups of people. If morality was inate, this would not be the case. Since all humans are as near as you can discern, the same at birth. Including those born a few thousand years ago. (Yes they are).
    – Richard
    Mar 29, 2019 at 2:11

1 Answer 1


"Morality is inborn" can be read a few different ways. For example, it could mean that our capacity or tendency to form moral beliefs (beliefs in propositions of the form "it's morally wrong/morally right/permissible/obligatory/ought to be that P") is inborn. This says nothing about the veracity of any or all moral beliefs, or that there even is an objective morality which such beliefs are about; even a moral nihilist or an error theorist could say that we have such an inborn capacity or tendency, but that such beliefs have no grounds, are all false, are all meaningless, are relative to culture, and so on.

I think the way you are intending "morality is inborn" to be read is something like the statement of ethical intuitionism, the position that some moral truths are self-evident, or known by us in a direct, non-inferential way. Since these are moral truths, they are unlike how I described in the first paragraph; the innate beliefs are knowledge and really do correspond to some moral reality. The ethical intuitionist might claim that we "see" the correctness of certain basic moral beliefs, analogously to how we "see" the correctness of basic mathematical beliefs. Non-basic moral beliefs are built around the basic beliefs like how we build mathematics around our basic mathematical beliefs, so that our theories cannot contradict these basic beliefs. If we deduce from our mathematical theory that 2+2=5, we reject it as false (or at least not useful for some purpose at hand; there are interpretations of the symbols in "2+2=5" where it comes out true, but not in "normal everyday" math). Likewise, if we deduce from our ethical theory that gratuitous harm is good, we reject that ethical theory as false. We seem to appeal to these supposed basic moral beliefs when arguing for and against ethical statements all the time.

If something like the above is what you mean, then looking at the SEP and Wikipedia pages for ethical intuitionism there are at least three objections:

  1. There is the objection that states that there is no objective morality and no objective moral truths, and so there is nothing to know. It follows that there cannot be innate knowledge (since knowledge implies truth) or some faculty that is supposed to perceive such objective moral truths. The faculty is, at best, like how I described in the first paragraph. A materialist might reasonably make this objection if they thought that there is no way to ground objective morality in material reality.

  2. There is the argument from disagreement. The innateness of morality seems to run contrary to the fact that we disagree wildly about what supposed basic moral beliefs are supposed to be. This is unlike the case of basic mathematical beliefs, or basic beliefs about sense perception since in those cases we usually all agree. And in cases where there is disagreement about basic mathematical or sense perception beliefs it's usually quite easy to figure out why (we were looking at the object of sense perception in funny lighting, a different angle, were under the influence of mind-altering drugs, etc.). Ethical intuitionists owe us an account of moral knowledge that can explain this disagreement.

  3. There is the "Occam's razor" or "no good arguments" objection that denies we need to posit the innateness of morality since it explains nothing. Psychology, sociology, and neuroscience explain away the experience of morality, rightness, wrongness, etc. without needing to posit some innate moral faculty or knowledge. Since we don't need to posit such a faculty for explanatory reasons, ethical intuitionists must provide some arguments for why they believe there is such innate knowledge.

Of course, there are responses to each of these objections, and responses to the responses, and so on... You can check out the bibliography on the SEP page for more in-depth reading material!

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