Chapter  8: ETHICS

Stages of Moral Development

(NOTE:  You must read only those linked materials that are preceded by the capitalized word READ.)

Where does morality come from?  Does it come from religion?  Many people think so but evidence indicates otherwise.

READ: Morality is not in need of a belief in a deity.

READ:Morality is independent of both a belief in a deity and religion itself. 

READ:Do Our Values Come from God?  The Evidence Says No  by Victor J. Stenger at

READ:A non-religious basis for morality is superior because religious morality is too rule based (principles) and restrictive and less flexible than alternative approaches. People often think and many claim that morality is dependent on religion.  Some claim religious morality is superior to secular morality.  Some refer to the nearly universal association of morality with religion on planet Earth as evidence in support of their claims.  This is backwards!!


Research is showing that morality is linked with and dependent upon both physical structures and functioning of the brain and on cultural inheritances.

MORALITY results form both GENES and MEMES !!!

Neuroscience is finding the brain structures and functioning that make for the "ethical brain".  How is this so?  Humans are social animals and as Aristotle put it zoon politikon.  As such they have evolved in part due to a capacity to relate to others and have empathy and sympathy for others that serves as the base for acceptance of basic rules of conduct needed to live with others in relative peace sufficient to support social or group life and then the advantages of social life.  Evolutionary Psychology is finding/hypothesizing the evolution of moral notions as an expression of the hardwiring. The brain appears to have structures evolved and passed on through our genetic makeup  (GENES) that provide for EMPATHY and SYMPATHY and CONCERN for OTHERS.  These each in some way enhanced survival ability for the social species of homo sapiens.  Morality is a result of and expression of those operations.  Particular moral expressions or rules are enunciated and passed on as cultural inheritances and thus MEMES (cf. Richard Dawkins work).

The primatologist, Frans de Waal, was on of many who have argued that the roots of human morality lie in social animals such as the primates, including apes and monkeys. The feelings of empathy and expectations of reciprocity are necessary for the behaviors needed to make any mammalian group exist as individuals living in the midst of others.  This set of feelings and expectations of reciprocity may be taken as the basis for human morality. Neuroscientists are locating that sense in mirror neurons in the brain.

“Morality is as firmly grounded in neurobiology as anything else we do or are. Once thought of as purely spiritual matters, honesty, guilt, and the weighing of ethical dilemmas are traceable to specific areas of the brain. It should not surprise us, therefore, to find animal parallels. The human brain is a product of evolution. Despite its larger volume and greater complexity, it is fundamentally similar to the central nervous system of other mammals.”---Frans de Waal’s Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (1996)

Everywhere humans are found and where evidence exists of human culture there is evidence of a sense of morality.  While the particular moral rules may not be the same there is significant similarities and a commonalities in purposes served by moral codes.  Morality is needed for human community and humans demonstrate this world wide.  There is evidence that all societies have morality.  Is this because they could not exist without some sense of how we are to behave? Human beings are social beings -they have language which is a social creation. Humans could not live in groups without some sort of sense of how to behave in ways that enhances the survival of the group- hence sympathy and empathy are needed and they are part of the basis for morality: a moral sense.

There is now the study of Evolutionary Ethics and part of that is James Rachels’ Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism (1990) and Frans de Waal’s Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (1996). Both claim that coming to grips with our moral sense involves looking not toward heaven but rather toward our fellow members of the animal kingdom, particularly the three great apes."--Tim Madigan

“The moral nature of man has reached its present standard, partly through the advancement of his reasoning powers and consequently of a just public opinion, but especially from his sympathies having been rendered more tender and widely diffused through the effects of habit, example, instruction, and reflection. It is not improbable that after long practice virtuous tendencies may be inherited. With the more civilised races, the conviction of the existence of an all-seeing Deity has had a potent influence on the advance of morality. Ultimately man does not accept the praise or blame of his fellows as his sole guide, though few escape this influence, but his habitual convictions, controlled by reason, afford him the safest rule. His conscience then becomes the supreme judge and monitor. Nevertheless the first foundation or origin of the moral sense lies in the social instincts, including sympathy, and these instincts no doubt were primarily gained, as in the case of the lower animals, through natural selection.”--Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, "Conclusion"

Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior

“Morality is as firmly grounded in neurobiology as anything else we do or are,” Dr. de Waal wrote in his 1996 book “Good Natured. READ Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior

In The Ethical Brain by Michael Gazzaniga (Dana Press: NY, 2005) the neuroscientist describes experimental evidence to support his claims that the left hemisphere of the brain operates to unify the various systems within the brain and serves as an interpreter to fashion stories that become the personal beliefs of each person.     Humans need beliefs and belief systems to make sense of their sensory inputs.  The human species reacts to events and the brain interprets the reaction.  Out of those interpretations there arise the beliefs by which people guide their actions.  Some of the beliefs lead to rules by which people will live.  And so there emerges a a moral sense upon practical considerations.  The left hemisphere continually functions to interpret events and to create stories to accommodate the sensory and ideational inputs.  Whenever there is information that does not fit the self image created by the interpreter or the conceptual framework or belief system previously held and operative, then the interpreter will create a belief to make sense of it in some manner or hold it in some way relation to previous information and beliefs.  The human species has a core set of reactions to challenges. Humans share similar reactions to situations.  They share the evocation of empathy and sympathy.  Humans have mirror neurons that evoke this reaction.  Other primate also have such mirror neurons.  They appear to make a social life possible. Gazzaniga holds that there exists some deep structure in the brain driving not only a certain common set of values as expressions of the evoked responses but also the need to create cultural edifices or social constructs for moral codes.  Thus religion evolves to satisfy that drive.

Religions may have begun from a instinctual reaction common to humans.  It evolved into a social support system and system of rationalizations (beliefs) that attempt to make sense of the individual responses to one another and to situations faced by all humans.

Gazziniga holds that there are neural correlates of the religious experience in the temporal lobes of the brain.  Temporal lobe epilepsy has as one of its symptoms a hyper religiosity.

Gazziniga holds for the possibility of a universal ethics for all humans based on the most basic of evocations shared by all humans.  Current research utilizing moral sense testing is producing interesting findings in support of the hypothesis of a genetic base for morality in humans.

For Gazzaniga humans want to believe, they want to believe in a natural order and they want a codification of their most basic empathetic responses towards others.  Gazzaniga wants science, as neuroscience to assist the human community to have what it appears to need and based on the best information available.

So humans are hardwired and programmed for morality and religion rides in on that as a context in which the programming results in producing a fuller expression.  This in turn is culturally transmitted and thus the human impulse is most often being routed through religious institutions and practices.

READ On scientific versus religious explanations of ethical behavior The Basis of Morality  by Tim Madigan  in Philosophy Now at  

There is consideration given to the impact of looking at morality as rooted in the evolution of the species and in the neural endowment of human brains.       READ: Is “the new neuromorality” a threat to traditional views of right and wrong? by Cathy Young in reason on line August/September 2005


Marc D. Hauser, a Harvard biologist, in Moral Minds (HarperCollins 2006) holds that humans are born with a moral grammar wired into their neural circuits by evolution. This system in the brain generates instant moral judgments.  This was needed in part because often quick decisions must be made in situations where life is threatened.  In such predicaments there is no time for accessing the conscious mind.  Most people appear to be unaware of this deep moral processing because the left hemisphere of the brain has been adept at producing interpretations of events and information and doing so rapidly thus generating what may be accepted as rationalizations for the decision or impulse and response that is produced rapidly by the brain without conscious attention even being possible.

Hauser has presented an argument with a hypothesis to be tested empirically.  That process is underway . There is considerable support for it already gathered in work with primates and in close examination of the works of and research now being conducted by moral philosophers as well as by primatologists and neuroscientists.

"Morality without religion" by Marc Hauser and Peter Singer, December, 2005


Consider the following three scenarios. For each, fill in the blank with morally “obligatory”, “permissible” or “forbidden.”
1. A runaway trolley is about to run over five people walking on the tracks. A railroad worker is standing next to a switch that can turn the trolley onto a side track, killing one person, but allowing the five to survive. Flipping the switch is ______.
2. You pass by a small child drowning in a shallow pond and you are the only one around. If you pick up the child, she will survive and your pants will be ruined. Picking up the child is _______.
3. Five people have just been rushed into a hospital in critical care, each requiring an organ to survive. There is not enough time to request organs from outside the hospital. There is, however, a healthy person in the hospital’s waiting room. If the surgeon takes this person’s organs, he will die but the five in critical care will survive. Taking the healthy person’s organs is _______.

If you judged case 1 as permissible, case 2 as obligatory, and case 3 as forbidden, then you are like the 1500 subjects around the world who responded to these dilemmas on our web-based moral sense test []. On the view that morality is God’s word, atheists should judge these cases differently from people with religious background and beliefs, and when asked to justify their responses, should bring forward different explanations. For example, since atheists lack a moral compass, they should go with pure self-interest, and walk by the drowning baby. Results show something completely different. There were no statistically significant differences between subjects with or without religious backgrounds, with approximately 90% of subjects saying that it is permissible to flip the switch on the boxcar, 97% saying that it is obligatory to rescue the baby, and 97% saying that is forbidden to remove the healthy man’s organs. . When asked to justify why some cases are permissible and others forbidden, subjects are either clueless or offer explanations that can not account for the differences in play.
Importantly, those  with a religious background are as clueless or incoherent as atheists.
These studies begin to provide empirical support for the idea that like other psychological faculties of the mind, including language and  mathematics, we are endowed with a moral faculty that guides our intuitive judgments of right and wrong, interacting in interesting ways with the local culture. These intuitions reflect the outcome of millions of years in which our ancestors have lived as social mammals, and are part of our common inheritance, as much as our opposable thumbs are.

VIEW: Dr. Massimo Pigliucci Neuroethics & the Trolley Dilemma   

Research in Neuroscience has proceeded so far as to call into discussion how humans are responsible for their actions and the degree to which all ethical thinking or morality is merely post facto rationalizations for the near automatic responses made to situations by the brain. READ: The Brain on the Stand  by Jeffrey Rosen on recent scientific work and its implications.

Morality may be rooted deep in the evolved workings of human brains with its mirror neurons and the operation of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. READ: Morality and Brain Injury by Benedict Carey.  However, if you reflect a moment on the question of how people become moral (GENES for brain structures and functioning) and how they then acquire the exact moral precepts or rules (MEMES-moral codes and ethical principles)  by which they live you will probably realize that a number of factors come into play in the development of personal morality.  Indeed you will probably think that people become moral or learn about morality due to their involvement with:

  • Parents

  • Siblings

  • Friends

  • School

  • Religion

  • Media- television, films, videos, music, music videos

  • Advertising

How exactly each person develops their ideas about right and wrong is a subject being studied by psychologists.  This type of study is part of what is known as Moral Psychology.  One of the most famous of the psychologists who does such studies is Lawrence Kohlberg.  He has a theory of moral development based upon his research with people from very young ages through the adult years. 

His work confirms and expands upon an earlier theory by the American Philosopher John Dewey.

 Stages of moral development

John Dewey

Lawrence Kohlberg



I. Pre-conventional :  concern for self

1. Reward / Punishment

I. Pre-conventional concern for self

2. Reciprocity

II. Conventional: concern for self and others

3. Ideal Model -Conformity

 II. Conventional concern for self and others

4. Law and Order

III. Post Conventional: concern for others

5. Social Contract

III. Post Conventional  concern for others

6. Universal Principles



To understand each of these six stages read:

READ:   Kohlberg’s Theory by Robert N. Barger   or here

Kohlberg used scenarios to elicit responses from his subjects concerning their thinking about what makes an act right or wrong.  He was less concerned with their answer as to what they would do or approve of in others as he was interested in their reason for thinking as they did.  Here is a simplification of his famous Heinz Scenario:  

How would you solve the following scenario which Kohlberg used on his research subjects ?  

A man named Heinz had a dying wife. The wife had an almost fatal disease.

The local druggist owned a $20,000 drug that could save her.


Heinz could not raise the money in time and he certainly did not have the cash to buy the drug.

Heinz therefore made a decision and that night he broke into the drug store and stole some of the medication.

Should Heinz have done that?

Why do you think that?

Kohlberg thought that fewer than 25% of people ever progress beyond the fourth stage and do so because of some event that presses them to develop further.

Events can force a person to move further.  The decision to have an abortion, to resist the draft or to assist your mother lying on her death bed to die quickly and with less pain and suffering are the sorts of events for which individuals must come to face just what it is that makes an action right or wrong.  It is at those times and through those events that individuals come to learn what their values are, who they are and what their moral rules will be.  Consulting with friends and religious advisors about such matters will bring much advice but leave the decision-making about the rules and the actions to the individual.

For more recent studies READ:  Learning Right From Wrong

READ  The Moral Instinct by Stephen Pinker

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