Guiding and Influencing: Where Does Morality Come From?

So this past weekend I stumbled upon this article in The Guardian.  For those who just want the short story, it talks about a study that found that children with religious upbringings (specifically Christian and Muslim) tend to be more mean than their non-religious counterparts.  Essentially, religious children tended to be less altruistic and more judgmental of their peers, which seems to fly in the face of the common belief that our morality comes from religion itself.  If this study can be reproduced, it would go a long way toward squashing that myth.

Now why is this important?  Well when I was young, I was often told I was going to hell and that I was a bad person because I didn’t believe in God.  If this study is accurate, it could help other non-religious children growing up to not feel so bad about their beliefs (or lack thereof) and not become bitterly antagonistic toward religion.  We don’t need more hate in the world.  There’s already more than enough.

It got me thinking.  Where does our morality come from exactly?  I think the answer is more complicated than I can probably address in a simple blog post, but I’ll do my best.

A lot of it comes from society in general.  We are raised to think and act a certain way, not just by our parents but by what we see in society at large.  If we see society as being hateful toward a certain group, we tend to grow up with similar feelings.  If a certain thought or belief is praised, we grow up with positive thoughts about it.

This goes in many different directions as well.  If a child is taken to a church and told that this particular school of thought is right and all others are wrong, they tend to grow up not understanding why other people think differently.  The same goes for any non-religious children who are raised the same way.  If you as a parent display hostile feelings toward a particular group, philosophy, religion or so on, then your children will take after that.

Never underestimate the power of the parental and societal influence.  It shapes us in far more ways than we often want to admit.

But I don’t think this is the only source for our morality.  Have you ever seen a child cry over killing a bug?  They play with it because they’re curious or bored, and then when they realize that they killed it they start bawling their eyes out.  Why is this?  Why does a child cry over something as insignificant as that?  A bug is a bug right?  The life of one mosquito doesn’t really matter in the long run.

Maybe.  Maybe not.  It’s all a matter of perspective after all.  And to a child, a bug’s life might mean more than you think.

As human beings, we have something within ourselves that gives us perspective on things that we might not have otherwise.  We are able to put ourselves in another’s shoes, to think as they would think and to feel as they would feel.  We have the capacity to see other points of view, if we just allow ourselves to do it.  It’s an incredibly powerful tool.

And it goes by the name of “empathy”.

Empathy is defined simply as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”  We have all used empathy at some point in our lives, even if we don’t realize it.  Often, our feelings of regret come from our understanding that our actions might have negatively impacted the life of another.

This is, I argue, where a lot of our base morality comes from.

We can create complex systems of thoughts and beliefs.  We can debate over whether or not there is a divine being of some form or another that willed the universe into existence.  We can debate whether or not human beings evolved from apes or whether they were created by that same divine being.  But in the end, I don’t think it all really matters.  Because all we really need is empathy.

Empathy asks us “hey, would you like it if that was done to you?”  It’s the natural version of the Golden Rule, the innate instinctual process by which we weigh our actions.  This is why, I think, a child begins to cry when he/she realizes that they killed another living being, no matter how insignificant it is.  They haven’t matured yet.  They don’t distinguish between lower and higher life forms.  To them, a life is a life.  And when it dawns on them what they did, it brings them sadness.  Because on some fundamental level, they know pain is bad.  And to bring pain unto another creature is a terrible thing to them.

I realize that this might not apply to all children.  Some children actually take joy out of frying an anthill with a magnifying glass (like the stereotypical bully in an animated movie).  But they are usually older kids.  At a certain age, I believe that all children are naively innocent.  They’re just coming into the world and are still trying to understand how it all works.  Empathy is one of the few tools they instinctively know how to use.  And understanding the importance of empathy is crucial (especially in a world where people are getting angry over something as silly as coffee cups).

I may be a little naive myself in believing that this is the way the world works, but honestly?  I want to believe that it works like that.  And in some way, I need to believe that.  Because if I didn’t, if I no longer had any hope for the human race, there would be nothing stopping me from throwing up my hands and saying “I give up completely”.  It keeps me driven.  It keeps me sane.  Hope tells me that someday, things can change for the better.

Because without hope, what’s left that pushes us forward?


That’s all I have for you this time.  Thanks for sticking with me on this little philosophical rambling.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.


One thought on “Guiding and Influencing: Where Does Morality Come From?

  1. Pingback: Picking up the Pieces: The Aftermath of the Paris Attacks | Rumination on the Lake

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