Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Conversations with Angie: Internal conflict as possible evidence for moral knowledge


Last night I got to thinking about what you said--about our moral instincts being the result of basically social evolution or something like that. I guess it was sort of an accident that this thought came to my mind last night, because I was also thinking about a paper I had written on Friedrik Nietzsche a few years ago. I was writing about how Nietzsche rejected morality because it negated or suppressed the instincts. At the time, I was criticizing Nietzsche, because he seemed to be advocating total indulgence in our most basic animal instincts. It seemed to me that morality was a good thing precisely because it did negate the instincts. But that's when I got to thinking about what you said, and it all seemed interesting to me. It looks as though we have two sets of instincts, and they are opposed to each other. On the one hand, we've got these natural instincts to behave in certain ways, but on the other hand, we've got these moral instincts telling us we should suppress the other instincts. You can see this especially in children. Children have no qualms about lying, being selfish, and generally "bad". Parents make it their goal to train their children to develope better habits--moral habits--that are contrary to their natural inclinations. But these inclinations never go away. Even adults are constantly tempted to lie, to be selfish, and to do all kinds of things they know they shouldn't. But these urges are natural. Everybody has them. They are instinctual.

The reason I bring this up is that it would seem odd to me that if our instincts were all developed through a process of natural and social evolution, that we would develope instincts that are exactly opposed to each other such that one suppresses the other. Our sense of morality constantly opposes our natural inclinations. It's our sense of morality that prevents us from basically living like animals--giving in to every natural urge.

If these natural urges we have were developed through evolution, then I don't see how morality could have. Or if morality developed through evolution, then I don't see how these natural urges could have. If our behavior is the result of evolution, I would think there would be no difference between a moral urge and a natural urge. We would simply have urges to behave in particular ways, and then we would act consistently with those urges. There would be no internal conflict.

Obviously, I haven't given this a whole lot of thought, but I thought I'd run it by you to see what you'd think.


Conversations with Angie:  Update on Alvin Plantinga


At 8/10/2005 2:40 PM , Blogger daleliop said...

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At 8/10/2005 2:42 PM , Blogger daleliop said...

2 things:

(1) What if our sense of morality is taught, rather than being ingrained in our genes? That might explain the conflict between our instincts. As you mentioned, a child does not seem to know/acknowledge the difference between right and wrong until (s)he is repeatedly conditioned from a young age. Perhaps the concept of morality stem from nurture rather from nature.

That reminds me of a story that we talked about in psychology class one day. There was this boy they found in the jungle that had been abandoned since he was a baby and who lived with the monkeys. He didn't speak any human languages and acted very wild, just like an animal. We don't know if he had any moral intutions, since only he would. But by the looks of it, he seemed to only embrace his natural instincts.

(2) I think it's quite possible for moral instincts to have developed at the same time as natural instincts through evolution. Perhaps there was an error in the genes of an early human which allowed him/her to eventually develop a second, more rational instinct that inspired him/her not to give into certain animal instincts. Obviously, these creatures would have an advantage and eventually they would survive. The natural instincts were still needed for basic survival, but the second set allowed them to rise above the natural instincts for the good of the race (and themselves).

At 8/10/2005 10:15 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...


I don't think the fact that morality is taught and encouraged in children shows that it isn't also ingrained somehow. Children are also taught addition and subtraction. People are taught logic. That doesn't mean these things are not intuitively grasped.

Also, morality can't be unlearned in the same way history or something can be unlearned. People who have been taught something false can easily be corrected, but morality is not so easily changed.

At 8/10/2005 11:45 PM , Blogger daleliop said...


That's true, but I was just giving the possibility of nurture as the cause behind our moral knowledge. It could very well be a mixture of both nature and nurture, or even nature itself. That's a nature/nurture debate topic.

At 8/13/2005 6:45 PM , Blogger 2Tal said...

At what point must we refrain from entertaining ideas of the source of these things? Creative design? This is not really related to the discussion. I am wondering though if debate here exists.

At 8/14/2005 1:14 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...


You could definitely take the argument in that direction. I think if we can make a case that (1) everybody has a sense of morality that corresponds to reality, and (2) there is a God who is the source of this morality, it seems reasonable to believe that (3) God made us in such a way that we are able to apprehend morality. In other words, it was part of God's design that we know moral truths. He made us that way.



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