The Origin of Morality: Intuition or Culture?

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How is morality defined? What is the origin of morality?

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt believes that morality is better defined by what it does rather than what is moral. He argues that, contrary to what many people think, morality isn’t innate. The truth about the origin of morality is more complex.

Read on to learn more about the definition and origin of morality.

What Is Morality?

Based on all of the information we’ve learned, we can finally define morality. 

Haidt argues that moral systems work to advance the interests of the group over the self and make society possible. They use established practices, societal norms, and agreed-upon values and virtues to succeed. 

This definition is complex, but you can see how what we’ve discussed already add up to this definition. It’s also important to note that this is functionalist: Morality is defined here by what it does rather than what is moral

In contrast, when thinking about definitions of morality, a lot of philosophers are more concerned with a normative definition than a descriptive one. They want to know what is moral, not what people think is moral. Consider deontology or utilitarianism. This book, though, has been descriptive, and thus so is the definition. 

Utilitarian societies use this definition, or something like it, to build society. It’s an impossible task to decide how people should live in the privacy of their homes from a normative perspective. But when considering how governments make and implement laws, especially in Western democracies, utilitarianism is the most just system. All laws should aim towards producing the most total good. 

The Origin of Morality

Morality is primarily intuitive. To understand that, we first need to understand the origin of morality and how it evolved.

The question of where morality comes from has plagued scholars for centuries. One of the most common answers is that morality is innate. However, the truth about the origin of morality is more complex.

In fact, morality is culture-dependent. For example, Westerners are unique in their prioritization of individual rights over the common good. The individualistic society, in which Westerners live now, is a product of the relatively recent Enlightenment. In individualistic societies, the role of society is to serve the individual. However, most societies subordinate the needs of the individual to the needs of the group—they are sociocentric.

Individualistic and sociocentric societies make different moral judgments. For example, in a sociocentric society, it might be morally wrong to move away from your family to pursue a promotion, whereas this is expected in an individualistic society. This shows that, contrary to what many people think, morality isn’t innate. 

Once we understand the definition and origin of morality, we can more easily see how morality is primarily intuitive and culture-dependent.

The Origin of Morality: Intuition or Culture?

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Righteous Mind summary :

  • Why we all can't get along
  • How our divergent moralities evolved
  • How we can counter our natural self-righteousness to decrease political divides

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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