An Introduction to Evolutionary Ethics

By Scott M. James | Go to book overview

5
The Science of Virtue and Vice

To pity distress is but human; to relieve it is Godlike.

(Horace Mann, Lectures on Education)

Why does everyone take for granted that we don’t learn to grow arms, but
rather, are designed to grow arms? Similarly, we should conclude that
in the case of the development of moral systems, there’s a biological
endowment which in effect requires us to develop a system of moral
judgment and a theory of justice, if you like, that in fact has detailed
applicability over an enormous range
.

(Noam Chomsky, Language and Politics)

Children can be cruel. Insects do not stand a chance around a group of boys with access to fire. Little girls can steal with impunity. Children do nothing to hide their displeasure at having to kiss old Aunt Bettie or getting socks for Christmas. They tease, bully, and harass. They’re the inspiration for characters like Dennis the Menace, Bart Simpson, and Lucy from Peanuts. So it might come as a surprise to learn that children are a favorite source of evidence about the historical roots of our moral minds. Why? Because their grasp of morality is – in all honesty – impressive. Whether or not they regularly do the right thing, they invariably know what the right thing is. And this has led psychologists to speculate that maybe morality is not taught. Maybe morality is innate.

Here’s the thinking. Suppose children can demonstrate a certain sort of competence from a very young age. And suppose that it is unlikely that they could have learned all the skills associated with that competence from their surroundings. Well, if that competence didn’t come from the outside, then it must have from the inside. That is, the competence must be innate.

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