Current understanding of the roots of morality reveal that it is more deeply ingrained in making us human than we might have thought. Ethical (and unethical) awareness is not underpinned merely by prescribed social and cultural norms. Nor is ethical awareness just a pre-installed faculty of the the mind that comes from being born a human being. A faculty, as many people believe, that has been given to us by a creator God to known how we should behave. Nor are ethical values and principles simply passed-on knowledge  which we are taught to try and live in accordance with for our own and other people’s good in society, and in particular to avoid conflict.

Instead, at a deeper level, some neuroscientists and philosophers  believe we have an innate moral instinct or moral sense. It arose and developed naturally as an advantage to our species in its evolutionary struggle to survive and adapt in a threatening and hostile world from predatory animals and natural disasters. During a long evolutionary process, an instinctive pattern of what would later be called moral responses became laid down in the neural networks of the brain.

Through scanning the workings of the brain, and producing images, neuroscientists discovered that an instinctive response to some behaviour or situation that regards it as right or wrong, good or bad, comes first and foremost before any consideration is given to it, or reflection on it. The images show that when we respond to a particular behaviour or issue, such as kindness or re-wilding nature, a part of the brain associated with a feeling of reward is activated, signalling to us that we regard our response as right or good. Conversely, when we respond to hostile behaviour or an issue such as human trafficking, a part of the brain associated with distress is activated, signalling we regard this practices as wrong or bad.

This research has not (yet) proved that our instinct rooted in brain patterns of activity is the cause of our moral sensibility. But it does show there is a co-relation between instinctive brain activity and morality.

Nor does the research mean that our instinct  is always right. It is open to being altered and refined through giving thought to it. But it does show that, at a root level in the brain’s physio-chemical  neural networks and entanglements, a moral sensibility is in play. Moral and ethical responses (and initiatives) are a deep part of who or what we are as a human species from their initial presence in our brain as it developed throughout evolution.  From their presence in the brain, they continue to prompt us about how we should behave in all kinds of circumstances where we feel certain, or uncertain, or challenged.

This is not an altogether new understanding of morality’s roots. Long before Darwin and the discovery of human evolution Irish-Scotch philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) believed that moral judgements (and aesthetic ones) are initially based on feeling. A mental sense or feeling comes first, operating in a way similar to the body’s five physical senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.   And by reflection on the feeling, in particular by assessing the consequences for ourselves and others if we act on it, we can develop a more informed judgement.

Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) also maintained that “morality is more properly  felt than judged.”

What, then, about the different moral theories or philosophies  that have been developed in the course of history? (See below for a brief synopsis of some of the main examples) How are they to be regarded if the root of morality is understood to be an instinct?

The existentialist distrust of moral theories, in favour of trying to live as authentically can, wary of aligning ourselves with false beliefs out of some need for them, is an ethical understanding close to one based on instinct. But other theories can seem removed from according instinct any role. They include Aristotle’s theory, which while based on feeling, nevertheless requires developing a habit of living by rationally ascertained virtues to have a good life; Kant’s adherence to rationally justified duties; and the utilitarian formula of providing as much pleasure, and the least pain, as possible, while trying to estimate and take account of everyone’s interest on an equal basis. But such theories can still be seen to have developed out of instinct and to have enlarged the range the moral ideas, concepts and language.

With instinct as the source of moral sensibility, the age-old problem of moral relativism remains, since people can and do differ in what their instinct is prompting them to think. But it also shows that  a moral pluralism in society is understandable, and that what is instinctively thought to be right or wrong can change over time for many matters, especially as a result of changed circumstances and further thought.  In effect, to take instinct as the source of morality points up a need to return to it, and draw from it, to find our way when lost or confused. Instinct can be likened to a needle in an in-grown moral compass, sensitive to surrounding factors and circumstances. To see it in this way is to keep in touch with an understanding that is continuing to evolve.

Instinct also helps to make evident that morality is not just about high profile issues and problems, such as economic justice, treatment of refugees, and failings and malpractices in business, politics and personal behaviour.  Initially, we go by our instinct in how we respond to what is going on in the world and in our lives. It is what draws us towards what we value and don’t value. It inaugurates the priority or weight or moral colour we give to matters. It leads us to see a matter in terms of black or white or some subtle shade of grey. (July 2023)


Growth in Interest

Interest in Ethics has greatly increased in recent decades, including an interest in exploring the philosophical sources for values and principles. There are a number of reasons for this.

Reasons include less acceptance of traditional sources of moral authority in society.   This has come about partly as a result of the media’s exposure of wrongdoing and bad practice by some in high profile sectors of public life, such as in politics, business, law enforcement and the Church.

Interest in ethics has also come from an increased recognition that people have rights as individuals to live as they see fit.  They are entitled to make up their own minds.

There is also increased recognition that we live in an interdependent society and world in which our own good is bound up with the good of others.

Recognition is also growing that the response we  have to major social and political problems draws essentially from ethics, problems such as abject and consistent poverty, armed conflict, human trafficking, and the exploitation of people, including children, for their labour.

The response we have to the major problem of global warming  is now seen as essentially an ethical problem. This is because  our behaviour in burning fossil fuels for energy supplies will adversely affect the quality of life for others on the planet, as well as ourselves,  and the lives of future generations. Predicted adverse climate conditions include drought, rising sea levels from meting ice caps, and floods and storms, together with economic and social consequences, such as food shortages and mass migration from the worst affected areas. Global warming challenges us to think and act now according to the big picture of providing for everyone well-being into the future.

The growth of interest in the importance and relevance of ethics is now also seen in books and articles and academic subjects in specific areas, such as in business ethics and environmental ethics.

Some Philosophical Sources

Character Ethics

Virtues are one of the main sources for ethics.  Aristotle was the first to give an account of virtue ethics, and his account is still highly relevant today.

A virtue is a quality a person has and tries to put into practice. There are many virtues, including honesty, consideration for others, courage and trustworthiness.

To say of someone today that they have ‘virtues’ or are that they ‘virtuous’ might suggest they lead an overly-restricted life lacking in pleasure.  But for Aristotle a virtue meant  a ‘power’ or ‘excellence’, which enables a person to live well by enjoying a good and pleasurable life.  While the word ‘virtue’ is still  much used, it can suggest a certain moral high-mindedness.  In more familiar terms, virtues are also known as good qualities of character.

Duty Ethics

Duty ethics is another main source. It is associated with Kant in particular. He tried to establish that we have duties to behave in particular ways, such as to tell the truth, and to treat other people with respect. His ethics is associated in particular with the idea that we are all equal in the sense of having equal worth, especially from our possession of the capacities of will and reason.

To distinguish between an action that is right or wrong, we have to see if we can will it in the light of it applying for  both ourselves and others. If we can will it and logically accept the implications it entails, the action is morally right. If we can’t, it is morally wrong.

In basing his ethics on each person having his or her our own will and reasoning capacity, Kant provided one of the main philosophical sources for the idea that people are individuals who have human rights.

As for Aristotle and character qualities, Kant did not see living according to duty as imposing restrictions on us. He understood duties as the rational way to behave through which we become freer or more autonomous than we otherwise would be if we acted only from our inclinations and desires.

Care Ethics

Care ethics draws from the natural response of caring which people have for each other’s well-being in close relationships within families and among friends.

From this basis, care is seen as a response which should inform all our relationships in society, including work, business and professional relationships, and the relationship between government and citizens.

In its recent development (from the 1980s), care ethics arose (from mainly women philosophers) as a reaction to ethics based on rationally required duties. They criticised duty ethics for ignoring  or underestimating  the pivotal role our emotions  have in facilitating moral intuitions and understanding .

Existentialist Ethics

Existentialist philosophers differ in their understanding of what ethics means. Common to them is the significance they give to being open to the world and having personal freedom to choose how to live authentically. Most do not believe that our values come from a pre-given authority, such as God, or from a system of rational argument. Instead values are something we create to give meaning to ourselves and our outlook on the world. Camus, for example, opposed moralism and compliance with strict ethical codes because they stifle freedom and present a restricted picture of the world. As he wrote:

“There can be no question of holding forth on ethics (moralism). I have seen people behave badly with great morality and I note every day that integrity has no need for rules.”

For Camus, we live in a world that has no intrinsic meaning in itself, and this makes our efforts to engage with it absurd. He described our human condition in terms of the mythological figure of Sisyphus who was condemned to a life of rolling a rock up to the top of a hill only to see it roll down to the bottom and have to resume rolling it up again. For Camus there is something heroic in facing up to the reality of our condition and trying to live as best we can. This requires continuing to try to fulfil our  tasks in “a campaign” in which we are “defeated in advance”.

In doing this, ethics is not set aside. He recognised its central importance. We should be open to taking account of difficulty and complexity in our own and other people’s circumstances, at both a philosophical and practical level. In particular we should keep in mind that our choices and actions have consequences, for ourselves and for others. And for him this means “consequences must he considered calmly”, with no rush to judgement.

We should also note the promptings of our conscience and take them into consideration. As he memorably put it, conscience “moves swiftly or withdraws within itself. It has to be caught on the wing, at a barely perceptible moment when it glances fleetingly at itself”.