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.

5 Answers 5


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 Commented Jul 30, 2019 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 Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 5:07
  • Your final remark also appeals to the internationalist in me too Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 5:09
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    'Learn' from the perspective of nature, is almost synonymous with 'adapt'. See the point? Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 5:09
  • Absolutely thanks for your time Commented Jul 30, 2019 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. Commented Jul 30, 2019 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 Commented Jul 30, 2019 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 Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 13:02
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    @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
    Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 14:39
  • well my Wikipedia for tonight is sorted Commented Aug 1, 2019 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 Commented Jul 31, 2019 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 Commented Jul 31, 2019 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 Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 4:27

Aside from genetic differences in empathy and self-control, moral compass is almost entirely acquired. As with other skills, one's ability to gain awareness depends on various facets of innate capacity, but one's perspective and understanding build and progress with experience. The topic of moral reasoning was studied by Lawrence Kohlberg, who found an individual's reasoning style to develop through up to six plus stages. A couple of key trends from one stage to the next are (1) larger circles of consideration and (2) fitness for more complex moral dilemmas. The stages, from Wikipedia and copied from another answer of mine, are as follows (emphasis mine):

Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)

  • 1. Obedience and punishment orientation [might makes right]
  • 2. Self-interest orientation [ends justify means]

Level 2 (Conventional)

  • 3. Interpersonal accord and conformity [make peers happy]
  • 4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation [make powerful happy]

Level 3 (Post-Conventional)

  • 5. Social contract orientation [ends before pleasing others]
  • 6. Universal ethical principles [ideology before individuals]

[suggested by Kohlberg]

  • 7. [Transcendental or Cosmic] [focus beyond the flesh]

The way these stages work is basically a person starts life at the very beginning, then as experience finds a given stage to be insufficient, cognitive dissonance arises, leading one to seek solutions. Higher reasoning builds upon lower reasoning, so stages are progressed consecutively, without skipping. Generally a person progresses only if significant dissonance is found, and even then, only when higher reasoning is available. Later stages, in particular, can take years or decades to traverse, especially as one's habits have become deeply seated. Many if not most people stop somewhere before the last stages, presumably when no further show-stopping dilemmas are encountered.

Empathy is often referenced as synonymous with morality, but this is simply false. Rather, empathy is an emotion whose function is to share feelings between those of the ingroup. When someone from the ingroup is seen in pain, one perceives that pain through mirror neurons and feels it through empathy. This experience leads to an automatic understanding and motivation to alleviate or prevent suffering in others. A couple of important points ought to be given here:

One, empathy is disabled or diminished for members of the outgroup. Hence, when an undesirable is cast out and dehumanised, that person or group is no longer subject to receiving normal empathic consideration.

Two, empathy is only a heuristic substitute for morality. Its nature may be innate and automatic, but its logic and depth are limited like in other instinctual intuitions. Such gut instincts are understandable from a survival perspective, in large part for requiring little if any training or higher thought. But heuristics ought not be the final word when making important judgements for which higher reflection is possible.

The primary problem when someone lacks empathy, whether psychopathically by birth, or sociopathically by upbringing, is that moral reasoning must take the place of gut empathy. This issue is analogous to a person who lacks a sense of physical pain and hence must assess physical risk cognitively to prevent too much harm. No doubt, a higher mental burden is presented. As far as individuals lacking empathy, the real problem is when higher moral reasoning is unavailable, such as when (a) lacking intelligence, (b) lacking education, and or (c) lacking good examples.

In short, empathy covers for reasoning while reasoning covers for empathy. Having either gets the ball rolling on morality; but only higher stages of reasoning can solve higher moral dilemmas.

In the case of lacking self-control, a person may well have the right thoughts and right desires but lack the right actions. This is more a deficit of function than morality, similar to learning disorders. The goal for these individuals should be to prevent harm while facilitating positive action, like for persons with other disabilities.

In conclusion, evil actions are the result of ignorance; uncontrolled actions the result of disability; and moral actions the result of empathy or reasoning. Experience and education can supplement low empathy while good example can supplement low intelligence. A moral and just society is one who recognises which factors can be adjusted to provide the best outcome for the most inclusive circle.


People become exactly the type of people they want to be. If you want to change you will. All part of humanities God-given free will. There is an inherent capability in every person on earth to change the world. Whether you change it for good or bad is your choice. Life is just a series of choices.

Although the beatings I had to endure as child were more numerous than what I care to admit. I promised myself that no child that I came into contact with would experience anything like that. For 10 years I worked with children and there bright young faces never had to endure the cruel crack of a PVC pipe on there backside.

This was my choice. This was the person I became. Did I consider my experience to be an excuse to perpetuate the circle of abuse to the next generation, absolutely not. Did it effect my life, profoundly? Did it effect other people negatively, I don't think so.

We are not slaves to circumstances. Humans are strong creatures. We can endure. We can rise like the Phoenix from the ashes and become quality human beings. The choice is ours.

Every minute of every day things happen that influence our lives but none of it is an excuse to do evil. It is all to do with that most precious gift that the Father has given humanity. The freedom of our OWN free will.

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    So you must believe that all the numerous people who fail to achieve their dreams didn't really want to after all.
    – D. Halsey
    Commented Mar 1, 2022 at 0:18
  • I feel dumber having read that. I'm sorry I know it may sound harsh but I believe the total opposite of what you just said. I think we have deluded sense of control over the world. As far as definitions of success or failure, for a long time I felt hard done by, and have been underated at various points in my life, but the beautiful part about mathematics is the moment you comprehend just how many have been and gone and are virtually unknown to even the niche branch of math they contributed. I'm sorry i am carrying on because I don't want to b rude Commented Apr 16, 2022 at 19:41

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