What opinions vary so much; is it a result

What it means to be moral remains an area of discussion that
provides uncertainty. Different people have diverse ideas on behaviour and continually
discuss what defines right from wrong. It is questioned why opinions vary so
much; is it a result of genetic, innate differences or perhaps being brought up
in different environments? In this essay the concepts of both nature and
nurture will be discussed and how they both contribute to the development of moral

Generally what people mean when they debate the innateness
of morality is whether morality can be understood and explained in genetic
terms. Innateness does not mean that a trait will develop regardless of environmental
influence, but that it may contribute to the development of a behaviour, in
this case morality. (Joyce, 2006).

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Evidence for morality being innate appears in a study
performed on 6-10-month-old babies. In this study babies are presented with wooden
shaped characters playing out a scenario. This involves a climber repeatedly
trying to reach the top of the hill, and two other characters; one offering
help to push the climber up the hill and the other hindering the climber by
pushing him back down. After being shown the scenario the infants had to make a
choice between the two characters. The results demonstrated that the majority
of infants chose the helpful character. (Hamlin, Wynn, & Bloom, 2007). From this we can conclude that even at a very young
age, before infants have had the opportunity to adapt moral standards and
behaviours from their caregivers or their surrounding environments they have
distinct ideas on which character they believe to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’. This
gives strength to the idea that morality has some innate basis.

While there is possibility that this study suggests an
innate origin, the results are perhaps only demonstrative of the infants being
goal-driven and wanting to see the climber reach the top of the hill. The
helpful character assisted and made it possible, this could be reason for the
infants choosing that character over the hindering character. The infant didn’t
possess any understanding of the characters intentions, they just wanted to see
the climber reach the top of the hill. However, this could also be viewed with
the perspective that the infants did understand the intentions of the climber
so acquired a preference for the helper and became unfavourable of the
hindering character. The infant acquired an understanding for the climber’s
intentions, and wanted to see the character succeed. This indicates that 6-10-month-old
infants do possess a basic moral understanding when it comes to helpfulness.

In a similar study, also involving young infants, conducted
by Warneken and Tomasello (2006), the idea that
morality is innate can be demonstrated. The researchers presented 18-month-old
infants with 10 different situations that included helping an adult male
achieve his goal. For example, the adult dropping his pen on the floor and
making an unsuccessful reach for it. All of the scenarios gave the infants an
opportunity to offer their help to the adult. In no way was the act of offering
help prompted, the child was acting on their own accord. Results present that
infants helped the adult in 6 out of 10 tasks. With these scenarios the infant
offering their help had no benefit to themselves. (Warneken & Tomasello,

From this we can infer that the infants understood the
intentions of the adult; wanted to help them achieve their goal and overall
think in moral, altruistic ways. We can gather that the infants understood the
intentions of the adult because when the adult deliberately threw a pen across
the room, they did not go to retrieve it. It was clear to them that the adult
did not want the pen. This also tells us that the infants were not just
completing the tasks for the sake of foreseeing a task being completed, they
were acting on the adult’s intentions.

The key element to both these studies discussed above is the
ages of the participants; they are young infants. This helps us to understand
the concept of morality further and whether moral behaviour is innate or in
opposition, developed through learning. Their young ages decrease the amount of
influence from the environment that older people have acquired.  Having young participants allowed the
researchers to investigate how much of morality is genetic.

This being said, contrary to the researchers understanding
that moral and social faculties have already begun to develop in the first year
of an infant’s life, they did not place importance on the maternal role that
plays on an infant’s development. Many areas of research within psychology
demonstrate the importance of the first year of life for a child’s development.
Particularly the impact a mother has on her child. Having considered this
element within their studies, it could impact the extent to which innateness
plays on morality. (Aner, 2014).

Despite the suggesting results of innateness of morality, it
is never fully possible to completely separate the effects of nature from
nurture; the two are intertwined. On one hand we have the concept that morality
demonstrates innate routes but on the other hand there is the idea that
morality is perhaps learned or acquired through experience. Strong evidence
from this side of the coin weakens the argument for morality being innate.

A study carried out by Yarrow, Scott and Waxler (1973)
suggests there is strong evidence for environmental impact behind moral
reasoning; Again, weakening the argument for innate contribution to morality. They
aimed to tackle the question of whether the people we are surrounded by, be it
our parents, teachers, friends, influence our moral standards or behaviour. The
researchers assigned 3-to-4-year olds to a caregiver who modelled different
levels of altruistic behaviours. Strong altruistic behaviour was clearly
demonstrated and observed by one group of children. Another group of children
was presented with less altruistic behaviour. A few weeks following this the
children visited a mother and her baby while at home. The mother struggled in a
situation, whereby she dropped her sewing and could not reach it. The researchers
were assessing how the two different groups of children would act in this situation.
Would they offer their help to the mother? (Yarrow et al., 1973)

They found that those children assigned to a consistently
altruistic caregiver presented the mother with their help and reached for her
sewing. In contrast the children who had a caregiver modelling behaviour that
was only partially altruistic were not so forth coming. Yarrow et al. (1973)
establishes from these findings that children can be heavily influenced through
the behaviour that they observe, it reflects in their own behaviour. It is
quite clear that effects of the surrounding environment had impact on the
children’s behaviour. These results significantly provide weakness for the idea
of morality having an innate basis.

When considering different cultural practices, it is quite obvious
how they embrace moral behaviour differently. Certain behaviours and laws
within individual cultures appear to become universally appreciated. Shweder,
Mahaptra and Miller (1987) identified thirty-nine
different practices that seem to vary culturally relating to morality.
Practices may include forms of dress, dietary practices, monogamy, physical
punishment of children, begging and protection of persons from physical and
psychological harm. One key aim of his study was to investigate how different
practices such as these varied amoung Indian and American cultures. Both
similarities and dissimilarities were found. These results suggest that moral
behaviour and reasoning is not universal.

While morality is culturally relative, it is questioned how
an innate basis stands. Surely if morality were to possess an innate origin
then behaviour would not vary so between cultures. It would be thought that the
result of such variety throughout the world in terms of morality comes from
morality being learnt and acquired. Moral standards are observed by younger
generations and those youngers adapt the same moral standards held by their
elders and the process of morality being learnt remains in a cycle.

However, this notion could be questioned by the fact that in
this modern-day people travel around much more, associating themselves with
others from many different cultural backgrounds; not just experiencing
behaviour of their own culture but from many others. Not only this but the mass
use of social media within our world today allows the intertwining of different
moral values to be expressed to all different cultures. This weakens the
conception that morality is learnt because it proves that different kinds of
moral behaviour is no longer restricted to one’s own culture.

In conclusion to whether aspects of morality are innate;
research suggests elements of both sides to the nature, nurture debate. However,
as with most behaviours or traits a combination is the case. Often both
genetics and environmental influence contribute to the development of a trait
in a person’s behaviour. Despite this, after considering research into the
topic of innateness of morality, the conclusion that morality is innate has
been reached. Hamlin et al., (2007) and Warneken and Tomasello (2006),
established that even at a very young age, before infants have had the
opportunity to adopt moral standards and behaviours from their caregivers or
their surrounding environments they have ideas on moral behaviour. This gives
strength to the notion of innateness of morality. The flawed research into
moral development by means of learning and observation by Shweder et al (1987)
strengthens the argument for innateness of morality. The impact of travel and
social media means that specific practices are no longer culturally restricted
therefore questioning the legitimacy of moral acquisition through observation.