Calibrating our Moral Compass: Biology vs. Dogma

By Genevieve Shifke | December 15, 2012

The idea to “treat others the way you want to be treated” is a common lesson taught to children across the globe, but what makes us want to follow this idea and lead a life of compassion?

Are humans born with an innate sense of morality, or is it a learned habit based upon the environment in which each person is raised? A classic case of nature vs. nurture but with a twist: examining the prevalence of God, or lack thereof, in both sides.

Most are taught the differences between “right” acts and “wrong” acts, but with so many different cultures spanning humanity’s existence, that which constitutes acts as right or wrong has some variability.

Assuming that compassion is a “right” trait to most, how does this universality factor into worldwide cultural differences? One argument could be that we are simply born with this trait. We are born with this need to be nice to others, or at least to try to be. This would account not only for the variety of cultures on this planet that all carry their own weight when it comes to compassion (toward family, strangers, elderly, etc.), but would also explain why the “top” portion of society that often has to tear down others to get to where they are (politicians, big business owners) is so small—a mutation in genetic structure, perhaps?

Look at relief funds donated for victims of Hurricane Sandy. Throughout November and continuing now in December, hundreds of millions of dollars have been raised by charities and, similar to Obama’s grass roots campaign, the multitude of money from average people donating smaller amounts has added up quite quickly. From Mobwives Saving Lives to NBC’s telethon to the Red Cross’s efforts to the 12-12-12 benefit concert, celebrities who are more than capable of donating as well as those lesser off, many of whom are not as capable, have come together to help those in need.

This is compassion for your fellow man, this is what every religion preaches, what parents try to teach their children, what kindergarten teachers attempt to instill in their students. This sense of compassion, this drive to help and share with those less fortunate, even though what you are doing is not benefiting you, is something quite unique to humans.

Based on Darwin’s theory of natural selection, it would only make sense for humans to be ruthless and to throw morality to the wind in order to be the most successful, the most fit in the scientific sense (longer lives, more and better offspring), since those that appear less moral seem more successful—politicians, big business CEOs, etc. While there have been some cases where non-human animals have shown compassion, that is not the defining feature of the animal kingdom; rather, animals do what they must to adapt to their environments so that they can best survive.

Does this lead way to a possible explanation of a higher power that instilled this superiority in the human race or does it simply have to do with our unique way of life? Some religions teach that God made man superior to other animals because He gave us free will. With this free will people can make their own choices instead of simply relying on base animal instincts. Having this moral compass ties into having free will—our moral compasses help us in making choices in our lives. God gave us this ability to choose, and since we are taught to do the right thing, choosing to be compassionate would be the natural choice for many people.

At the same time, however, in human populations people must be compassionate in order to not be disliked or outcast, so perhaps what makes us fit into our societies better is that sense of compassion—if we are accepted we can find mates, we can reproduce, we can survive and so can our progeny. Regardless of whether God instilled this innate sense of compassion into us, it has become a necessary tool for survival for many, so humans have evolved to utilize it.

If we take God’s hand out of the equation, various dogmas, both religious and nonreligious, ingrained into our minds by authority figures, peers, and personal experiences mold us into feeling compassionate toward others. With this idea compassion is learned behavior.

On the religiously dogmatic side, according to a recent poll carried out by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, approximately 83% of American adults identify with a particular religion or faith. Religions across the globe have deities, prophets, and iconic figures that encompass the ideal form of a moral and compassionate being: The Dalai Lama, Jesus Christ, The Buddha, among others. These are figures that serve as icons for people to look to, they set examples for how to behave and go about life.

How many times have you seen a “WWJD” bumper sticker glaring at you from the truck you’re behind at a stoplight or a quote from the Dalai Lama on an inspirational picture on the internet? We come across these religious icons and the messages they send out on a daily basis whether we try to or not. While some sects can take their religious dogmas to the extreme and actually go completely against the tenets their religion preaches (ever been told you’re going to burn in hell by those guys with megaphones wearing sandwich boards? I have), it is hard to say that the lessons taught by these theological groups are not rooted in good heartedness. Take out the parts about God and you still have lessons of morality and compassion that are extremely valuable.

Taking a step away from religion, from a young age children are often rewarded for good acts and punished for bad, so if performing acts based in compassion evoke positive responses, it would only be natural to adopt a want to be compassionate, to have that sense of morality, and to do what is right. Not only is it a classically conditioned behavior based upon rewards from others, but also many will say that doing good feels good.

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When families struggling to make ends meet still found it in them to donate $10 to help Sandy victims, they weren’t doing it to get anything in return. They gave up money that they will never see again for the sole purpose of helping someone else because it made them feel like they did the right thing; it made them feel good, regardless of whether religion or some other factor prompted them to do it.

Of course there is also the great possibility and probability that nature and nurture are compounded to work together and that this mix accounts for varying levels and emphases in compassion: we are born with the potential to be compassionate and moral, and our environmental factors influence how we develop these moral compasses. Family life, religion/spirituality or a lack thereof, poverty, wealth, education, work—all of these factors work to continually shape and mold each of our moral compasses, so each person’s is going to point in a different direction.

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