My question in its simplest form: is the moral compass of an individual inherent or is this aspect of their nature acquired due to experience?

Now one needs not look far for the countless cases of individuals believed to be born evil or born good by many people. But in my view the former has always represented an underlying social issue in the society they were born into that is yet to be addressed, simply because either: (1) its triggers are too subtle, or (2) they are an unknown aspect to psychology as it is, or (3) due to the overwhelming amount of individuals that believe the judicial process of administering punishment for those deemed guilty is somehow fixing or removing the causality of the underlying problem that is "creating" these individuals that commit acts of evil.

And from this view, I believe inherent good or evil to be a fictional thing. But I would like to hear arguments to the contrary if they exist.


Some of it is inherent, like some amount of utilitarian ethics can be seen in ant colones and so on. Some of it is acquired, like say, shifting perceptions about homosexuality within a generation. And also, our capacity to acquire is itself inherent. Very few people agree with any dichotomies in this issue.

Even regarding the judiciary, I think society by and large takes such a pragmatic view. The punishment for murder might be a death penalty, but a woman who kills her husband to escape domestic violence is likely to get a much lesser punishment in most judiciaries. Society does take into account, the context of the situation. Also many societies that agree on the necessity of the death penalty for the present, would debate the larger ethics and necessity of capital punishment in a more global setting.

  • I did get a solid laugh out of the ant colony remark but sure I see your point, I just feel as if solving some problems are beyond the scope of any objective judicial system that we develop, and that's not likely to be a very popular view in itself is it
    – Adam
    Jul 30 '19 at 4:40
  • I'm going to accept that answer on the basis of the point you made regarding the ability to shift perspective being inherent, it's the only tool in my shed I've had for as long as I can remember, that ability to change my mind about something and admit I'm stupid in some regard, yes I can see that being inherent
    – Adam
    Jul 30 '19 at 5:07
  • Your final remark also appeals to the internationalist in me too
    – Adam
    Jul 30 '19 at 5:09
  • 1
    'Learn' from the perspective of nature, is almost synonymous with 'adapt'. See the point? Jul 30 '19 at 5:09
  • Absolutely thanks for your time
    – Adam
    Jul 30 '19 at 5:10

I think the idea of the presence of a moral compass is one we can debate, but once you assume a person's actions follow a direction pointed toward notions of Good and Evil, you could continue to ask questions about how those actions come about. MBTI might be a useful framework to discuss the physical engineering of such a compass. How much friction is there between the needle and the spindle (how hard is it to repoint the needle), is the needle sprung from one side (if actions are performed aligned to one direction, will subsequent actions revert?), what is the effect of moving the compass into an area with a different strength/direction of magnetic field (does this compass align with the local direction, regardless of it's initial conditions).

  • What does MBTI stand for? If you have any references to others taking a similar view this would help support your answer and give the reader a place to go for more information. Welcome. Jul 30 '19 at 11:37
  • Yep sorry I second the unfamiliarity with that acronym philosophy is not my field, but yes I agree that the existence such a compass is worth exploring, but the most fundamental principle of my argument is such that such a consideration must be with the utmost attention to detail as to the events leading to any individual being deemed either side of the spectrum, to any extent
    – Adam
    Jul 30 '19 at 12:59
  • And again, it is in my belief impossible to assign complete responsibility to any particular individual as far as the outcomes of something is concerned, based on essentially the same reasoning as the uncertainty principle was proposed in physics really
    – Adam
    Jul 30 '19 at 13:02
  • 1
    @frank hubeny- The MBTI is the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator. It was devised by two Philadelphia women and was initially rejected by professional psychologists because both women were not trained or certified professionals. The indicator is a four letter series which represents what a persons 'personal preferences' are in respect of four 'quadrants'. For example mine is INTJ. This stands for Introvert, Intuition, Thinking, Judging. Basically everyone falls into I or E, N or S, T or F, P or J. Visit Wikipedia to see an overview. The indicator helps us to understand how we select our compass. C
    – user37981
    Jul 30 '19 at 14:39
  • well my Wikipedia for tonight is sorted
    – Adam
    Aug 1 '19 at 11:50

Our biology includes a moral sense. That biology is defective in rational psychopaths (perhaps 4% of men) who have diminished ability to experience the emotions of empathy, gratitude, loyalty, and guilt and concern for fairness and the well-being of others. The motivating mechanism of a rational psychopath’s moral compass is weak to non-existent.

For people with a biologically normal moral sense, circumstances that trigger moral judgements and motivate ‘moral’ behavior are shaped by the moral norms of their culture and their experiences, good and bad, in that culture which affects which of those norms they internalize.

Those internalized moral norms become what people’s conscience tells them that everyone ought to do (a wonderful trick of our biology). These internalized norms can include admirable norms such as “Do to others as you would have them do to you” as well some that are repugnant to more enlightened perspectives such as “women must be submissive to men” and “homosexuality is immoral”.

In broad terms, these are the innate and experienced based components of each individual’s moral compass.

Work of the last 50 years or so in game theory and the science of morality points to the primary selection force for both the biology underlying our moral sense and cultural moral norms being the benefits of cooperation our moral sense and cultural moral codes produce. For example, the moral norm “Do to others as you would have them do to you” advocates initiating indirect reciprocity, arguably the most powerful cooperation strategy known. And the moral norms “women must be submissive to men” and “homosexuality is immoral” increase the benefits of cooperation in an ingroup by exploiting outgroups. Women are being directly exploited and homosexuals are being indirectly exploited as imaginary threats to the ingroup which can increase cooperation in groups under threat.

From the perspective of morality as natural phenomena, it is universally immoral to act to decrease the benefits of cooperation and universally moral to act to increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others.

For example, it would be immoral (from the perspective of morality as natural phenomena) to follow the Golden Rule when doing so would predictably decrease the benefits of cooperation as when “tastes differ”, in time of war, or when dealing with criminals. These are the circumstances when cultures commonly abandon the Golden Rule. Wonderfully useful as it is, the Golden Rule is not a moral absolute but only a heuristic (a usually reliable, but fallible rule of thumb) for increasing the benefits of cooperation.

  • But how do you reason said individual as being rational? Is it not a fundamentally flawed logician to not see the value of civil discord and receptiveness to constructive criticism in debate, and finding a mutually agreed conclusion? I cannot see how they can be anything but delusional if they believe themselves to be rational by my standards
    – Adam
    Jul 31 '19 at 22:16
  • But thankyou for your contribution, It will take me some time to read this all properly, I have a learning disability that makes reading text much more difficult than it is the average person
    – Adam
    Jul 31 '19 at 22:17
  • I must however commend you in you fierce analytic competence, very few see these forces at work, but I also want to point out that the plight of the minority groups you mention also become the reactants for pseudo moralistic perversion of causality in propaganda machines
    – Adam
    Aug 6 '19 at 4:27

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.