Nature and Nurture of Morality

June 10, 2018 Morality No Comments

Evidently, there is nature and there is nurture. Much less evident is how they relate to each other. Nevertheless, we can learn and take appropriate action.

A mollusk has no morality

because it’s pure nature. No nurture, very small degree of freedom. Obviously. What the mollusk teaches us is that ‘morality’ starts where hardwired structuring ends and ‘freedom’ begins. The latter can be seen as composed of nurture (societal) and context-sensitivity (individual). OK, these concepts are a bit shaky but quite usable towards the endeavor of this text.

We must take nature into account.

If not, then huge problems are guaranteed. More subtly: if not appropriately done, then any changes become more difficult than they should be. People develop resistance, consciously and nonconsciously. In the latter case, without knowing why, things don’t turn out as well as possible.

We must take nurture into account.

People are always very flexible. Giving too much weight to nature only, one risks putting people into categories that are inhumanly narrow. One sees way too much of this, with catastrophic results.

Let’s look at just two prototypical examples.

Testosterone: hormone of aggression?

When an overly aggressive man is chemically castrated, then he will on average display a clear diminishment of aggression. However, the more experience he had being aggressive prior to castration, the more aggression continues afterwards, as a function of social learning.

Testosterone seems to be like a key to a door to a room full of aggression. Whether the room is indeed full of aggression, is a result of nurture and context dependency. Testosterone of course also plays a role in these factors, complicating the picture.

Thus, testosterone is about aggression in certain circumstances, not in others. A hypothesis is that the underlying and most distinguishing factors are challenge and maintenance of status, gender related in many cases. When circumstances make aggression the preferred method towards this, the result is indeed aggression. When it’s composing beautiful songs, the result will be such.

The circumstances make the man.

Oxytocin: the luv’ hormone?

Oxytocin is released during all kinds of positive social interactions. For instance, during breastfeeding, it’s released in the brain of both mother and infant. Gazing goes back and forth, attachment deepening.

At the other side, in shunning and isolation, oxytocin levels fall while stress hormone levels rise. The result is a very bad feeling and a desire to avoid it. This can be very strong, leading also to very strong in-group bonding.

Effects of oxytocin are also very context-sensitive. Injected in male rats for instance, while decreasing aggression toward pups, it also increases aggression towards an intruder. In people, oxytocin can easily be administered through a nose spray. It thus makes one – on average, as always – more trusting and prosocial to people like oneself, but in many occasions worse to everyone else, especially when seen as a threat. Does this look more like ethnocentricity than like universal love?

The category ‘people like oneself’ is, again, a result of nurture and context dependency.

The circumstances make the loved ones.

The way forward: nurture building on nature

as according to the ‘ACE’ principle [see ‘ACE in a Moral World‘]: adopt what’s already there. Don’t try to fundamentally change that: it either won’t work or it engenders a lot of mishap and resistance. Then make new combinations and enhancements, just as much as is needed for the next step in competitive fitness or whatever you want to achieve. It’s a kind of aikido on nature/nurture level, possibly accomplishing much with relatively little effort.

Respecting nature, nurture can go very far in a positive direction

This of course bears huge implications on domains of education, judicial system etc. Unfortunately, there is a lot of work still to be done in all this. In my opinion, we’re only at a beginner’s stage.

Looking at the bright side: good, so much progress can still be made!

You want to co-create? Please let me know.

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