The Sources of Morality
“Well what would you do?” I looked at my brother and sighed, turning back to the bright T.V in our foyer “I guess I can’t answer since I’m not actually in that situation” I told him, pulling our plush blanket closer. We watched in anticipation pondering, placing ourselves in a situation that I prayed neither of us would ever have to experience. “I volunteer- I volunteer as tribute” shouts the TV as me and Jaden burst out laughing, in a sarcastic mock but also as relief, knowing that we are both safe, that we don’t have to choose between murdering other people or saving our own lives as Katniss Everdeen must in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. Many different movies and media show protagonists facing moral dilemmas. For most, the only time we will consider what we will do in those dilemas is when we are watching tv or reading a book. But have you ever wondered why it is so hard to decide? Where do our morals come from and why do all of our answers differ?
What Is Morality?
The Oxford Dictionary defines morality as “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior”. With this definition, the idea of right and wrong is already implied, the issue is that everyone has their own comprehension of what is good and bad.
In These Charts Show How the World Feels About 8 Moral Issues Christina Sterbenz, journalist at Business Insider, elaborates on results from a survey conducted by Pew Research Center, where they asked people from different countries to vote on principles to determine moral standards within those regions. She concludes: “What people find morally acceptable and unacceptable depends on where they live in the world”(Sterbenz). This implies that morality differs within cultures.
A different idea is that morality is based on our “natural good” meaning it is human nature to have morality. This idea is analogous with Darwin’s theory of morality being evolutionary, suggested in his book The Descent of Man, and selection in Relation to Sex, that our morals are a byproduct of evolution. . In “Is Human Morality A Product of Evolution?” Emily Smith, author and researcher from The Atlantic, debates the validity of Darwin’s theory by explaining different experiments done by Tomasello involving the different reactions between chimpanzees and human toddlers. The findings were that humans have shared intentionality, unlike the chimpanzee counterparts who only have sympathy. This means that sympathy is natural and evolutionary but fairness is learned. She distinguishes: “Our enhanced ability to cooperate may be the most significant distinction between us and our closest evolutionary relatives''(Smith). Learned fairness saves morality from being solely evolutionary.
Others however, disagree completely on both evolution and upbringings being sources of morality. In “Dear Theophilus Where Does Morality Come From?” minister and educator Peter Anderson from Grand Canyon University demands: “God is the source of morality… God is the sole source of the truly good and beautiful.” This theory however is contradictory, as Anderson suggests: “Our heart stands in rebellion to God’s ways and only through the redemptive work of Christ and by the renewal of Holy spirit do we stand a chance to embrace God's way of life.” Once again this statement is coherent with the idea of morality being learned and also affected by our emotions.
How and Why Do Our Morals Differ?
Consider this, you and your friend are at the mall and you see two kids giggling and stealing a t-shirt. Would you tell the employees? Would you ignore it and shrug it off as kids being kids? Let’s say you decided that you should tell the employee because for you it's “the right thing to do.” You return to your friend who rolls their eyes and says annoyed, “Why would you do that? It’s not like they’re hurting anyone.” Would you then feel remorseful for getting those kids in trouble or feel content because now you don’t have to carry the guilt of letting them shoplift?
Skitka, a psychologist and researcher develops a theory about why we feel the way we do when faced with such a dilemma.. In The psychology of morality review and analysis of empirical studies published from 1940 through 2017 She talks about how there are social implications of judgment about right and wrong and that people hold up their own definition of it and continuously try to live up to their own standards. She agrees, “Individuals living together in social communities, for instance, to make them refrain from selfish behaviors and to prevent them from lying, cheating, or stealing from others”(Skitka et. Al). It is adamant How what we are taught to make us feel guilty and our evolutionary guilt/sympathy are what make us behave morally.
So what would happen when you are forced to choose between the lesser of two evils? Can you still make a morally correct choice even though you’d feel remorse for both of them? In Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, the main character Janie is forced to choose between killing her lover, who is trying to harm her because he is infected with rabies, and losing her own life. She saves herself by shooting him in the chest and then holds him as he dies. Later on in the novel she allows herself to let go of her guilt and remorse by understanding that he was suffering, and she did the morally correct choice by putting him out of his misery. Throughout Janie's childhood she was taught that killing is wrong no matter what. Skitka’s theory is visible in this situation, although Janie had accepted that what she had done was okay, she continued to feel embarrassed, and anxious about her choice because of what others thought about it. Our morals differ because no one lives the same life, they are similar because of our shared judgment and what we were taught to feel bad about.
A Sociopath's Morals: The interview
What if remorse and guilt were taken away and we only felt indifferent about what other people thought about us? Antisocial Personality disorder, also called ASPD is a spectrum where mental/behavioral disorders fall upon such as sociopathy, psychopathy and narcissism. According to Tanya J. Peterson, a knowledgeable researcher and journalist at Healthy Place, “A sociopath is incapable of feelings such as empathy, regret, and remorse.”(Do Sociopaths Cry or Even Have Feelings?). I decided to interview a real sociopath to better understand how one can have morals when they don’t have the emotions that drive “correct” moral behaviors. I went on Reddit, a forum social media platform, to try to get in contact with someone diagnosed with ASPD. That’s where I met Jamari Adams, a 24 year old diagnosed sociopath from Massachusetts.
We set up a virtual interview conducted through zoom on October 28th 2022 where he’d be able to give me more insight on how a sociopath’s behaviors are directed without the feeling of guilt. “I don’t try to make people feel bad” he digressed, “Usually I’ll be confused when someone gets offended but I don’t really want people to think I’m mean it makes me feel embarrassed, sometimes it’s just annoying.” If other emotions can drive a person's morality could the good feelings such as happiness also be a driving force? I asked Adams if he pursued being happy and if he can even feel joy. He elaborated “Joy sounds better than happiness, mostly I just don’t care, like I can’t get sad if I don’t care about you know, being happy.” He explained that being happy isn’t a priority to him and that he doesn't chase it.
I asked him why he does anything then since he doesn’t care about being happy and can’t feel empathy. He told me a story about something that happened in his childhood. His family was having a cook-out for Veteran’s Day and he found a box of sparklers that was meant for him, his siblings and cousins to play with together later. He decided to light them all and when confronted by his father Adams simply said “I don’t care I wanted to play now.” He knows that it was bad because his family said it was. My understanding is that sociopaths are taught what’s right and what’s wrong but don’t have the same feelings that will make them care about choosing the moral choice. They know that something is bad and actively choose to do the “good” thing because they are just supposed to.
Secret Influences of Moral Maturity
There is a point in our lives where we reach moral maturity. At this stage, the justification for our moral choices and behaviors is literally just “because I’m supposed to.” On Askdrsears in “5 Stages of Moral Growth of Children” it is explained as the following:
One of the technicalities that can change someone’s perspective of family values is socioeconomic status. The theory is that having more money can mean that you’re able to pay for things that you’d otherwise rely on the people who you’ve formed previous meaningful relationships for. Because of that, there’s less incentive to make/keep relationships and can mean you don’t have to worry about being nice since you don’t need others to think you’re a good person. Chelsea Fagan explains this phenomenon well in “Why Rich People Become A**holes” on The Financial Diet. “They’re not going to worry as much about how they are perceived by others or how they make others feel, they frankly don’t need them,” she elaborates, these connections are just not needed for those individuals.
She makes an analogy, a person with wealth is more likely to pay $40-$60 for an Uber to the airport but a person of lower socioeconomic status would likely rely on a friend or family member for a ride, they would hire a TaskRabbit instead of asking a neighbor (Fagan). Having these values can lead to isolation and lower exposure of diverse individuals, leading to reaffirmation of their values. This is not to say that rich people have bad morals, but rather an explanation to the “rich people are rude” stereotype. This also isn’t saying that less fortunate individuals only keep their friends and are nice because they need things from others, rather that they can have a stronger incentive to be empathetic. Family values are instilled for many different reasons and what’s right to one person can be wrong to another.
What It Means
Morality does not have only one origin or source. We can try to do the good thing all of the time but it is impossible to be correct for everyone and everything. The only thing we can do is understand that we are human, and our principles have meaning that guide who we are. The many different concepts and theories about what morality is and does should be considered together instead of against one another. The same is true about our perspective on the self, on others, and on morality. No one stops developing morally because we continue to experience new things that actively change our perspective. Our morality continues to mature forever. One truth that I believe is that when it comes to moral dilemmas, we will choose what we have been taught is correct, and we will let our own conscience guide us. Despite all of the theories, culprits and conclusions about morality, the question will always remain, “Well, what would you do?”