Most of us have doubts about the content of morality- we question what is right and wrong. It is hard to determine if it is ever okay to lie, for example, or to distinguish the fine line between taking care of our self interest and being selfish. 

Some of us have had doubts about morality itself- we have questioned its status. We have wondered if there is morality at all: if there is a moral truth, or if it is just another cultural construct, a human illusion.

There are infinite truths. It is true, for example, that there is a city in the Netherlands called Amsterdam, that the planet we live in orbits around the Sun, and that two plus two is four. However, it is much harder to determine if there are objective moral truths. Objective moral truths are those that apply to every human being, no matter if they believe in them, care about them, or even if they go against our desires. 

It is a very hard question to find an answer to. After all, it seems extremely hard to find a justification for any moral truth. There might be no good reasons to be moral. And if there are reasons, in many cases they are contradictory, and point towards different objective moral standards. This is observed in different cultures, each with very different views on what morality is all about. Each with different justifications and reasons for their moral rules. People that have lived in different countries might have experienced this. While living away from home, after being confronted with sometimes opposite values, I did not only learn how to respect some of them, but sometimes, being submerged in that environment, it seemed like some were the only reasonable value to have. I do not know if my deep values ever changed- things that still make more sense to me are the ones that were closest in childhood- but it is true that my behavior changed in some aspects from country to country, and that sometimes I did not feel remorse for doing things that I would consider slightly immoral back in my city. 

This raised the concern that people’s beliefs are easily manipulable- or at least I am. To a certain extent, this would mean that our free will is much less than we think it to be. For, even if it is plausible that our actions are free, it is uncertain to me to what extent our thoughts and emotions are exclusively our merit. If so, do we have an option to get the truth when our reason is so conditioned? The most valuable aspect of cultural knowledge is that we get in touch with different thoughts. But this is also the biggest challenge- to have the deepest grounds of our belief systems shaken, those that constitute the basis for everything else. For, if we actually give up on them, then there is nothing to hold on anymore, and this is a cold thought. 

Luckily, it is most probably not a true thought. The more you get it touch with different thoughts, the more the ground is shaken, probably broken. But there seems to be a ground that solidifies. It is the instinctive good you know. And the good you recognize later in life, in a different context from your own. It is like the awakening of an instinct, a wave of clear light. A specific voice in our brain that knows and respects the universal human moral truths.

It seems that the voice knows that killing and slavery are wrong, for example. Philosopher Enoch defends that objective moral truths are not a matter of cultural disagreements, such as how it is polite to salute, personal opinion such as whether you like spinach or not, or a matter of circumstances such as whether a top is fashionable or not. This is instinctively clear from the moment we compare them. I can say, for example, that I do not like spinach, so I will not buy them. But I cannot say that I do not like a person, so I will murder him. It is not a matter of opinions that such proposal is morally wrong. 

The moral voice might be even part of our nature, as the advancing science of the moral sense is proposing. Philosopher Brown defends that it is intertwined with empathy, fairness, admiration of generosity, responsibilities, proscription of violence, and shame. It is also demonstrated that people diagnosed with antisocial personality disorders are likely to show morality blindness since childhood, being rude to children less powerful than them, acting violently, and torturing animals, even if the family background is normal. It has also been shown that damage in the prefrontal region of the brain further causes immoral behavior, and that children that suffer from such damage since high school are likely to become irresponsible adults. This all indicates that there is a human predisposition towards a certain behavior in our genes, in who we are, that in the natural language we have called moral behavior, but might be intrinsic, instinctive, to us.

And it seems that such nature does play a role in the cultural values that we respect- and that different cultural groups have respected throughout history. Anthropologists, philosophers and other scientists have long discussed what are the common cultural values across cultures. Psychologist Haidt named five: harm, fairness, community, authority and purity. For example, it is generally responded in most cultures to do good and not cause harm, to give back what others have given to you, to be loyal to your people, to respect power, and to exalt cleanliness and purity. The extent that these values are present in each culture, however, differ. And they manifest in many different forms and exact rules, thus causing what in the beginning seems irreconcilable behaviors. Some might be irreconcilable- it is undeniable that there are deep differences, and in the search for our ultimate morality it is definitely not consilience what we must search for- but there then seems to be something intrinsically human in the way cultural norms on morality come from. 

Until we understand what human morality is and where does it originate, and until we are able to distinguish it from the personal and cultural fog in which we are forced to learn about our reality, we will not be able to know what is the universal human moral truths and what is only contextual. However, this is only an added motive to deeply study our nature, and by no means a justification for the denial of such an fundamental part of us as morality is. Moreover, once we deeply understand ourselves, we will be able to go outwards and investigate what are the moral codes other living beings live by, and why. 


  • Irene Vega Ramón

    I am a Spanish student of both Business and Philosophy, especially interested in the variety and richness of human behavior. I aspire to always be curious and keep learning. My favorite time is to have a good conversation and quality coffee. If you do too, get in touch!