Moral First Draft

Where do our morals come from?

This is a question I get a lot. It’s one of those, if you don’t believe in God, where do you think morals come from questions.  The answer, for a naturalist like a Humanist, is that we evolved to have morals.  They aren’t magical things. There are, in fact, common human morals that are pretty consistent across cultures.

Jonathan Haidt – an evolutionary psychologist, and others, have posited a moral foundations theory, which basically states that we evolved to have morals. More specifically, they posit that there are several innate psychological systems that form the foundation of intuitive ethics. The variations of morals we see around the world are attempts by humans to create cultures that support these innate intuitive ethics we all seem to share by virtue of being born human.

You can read more about this theory at: And/or get the book: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathon Haidt.

The innate psychological systems they claim form the basis of our morality are:


When I read through this list – I agree – but I do think our sense of compassion seems to underlie quite a bit about this.  Compassion for self mostly. After all, when you look at this list, it’s clear why we as individuals would care. If someone causes us harm by cheating, oppressing, betrayal, subversion etc, we are harmed.  And, if we are cared for through the fairness of others, given autonomy etc, we are helped, for the most part.

It’s compassion for others combined with rational thinking that allows us to understand that others have similar responses to ours and that we can benefit when we help others. Which is why when people think rationally but don’t add in compassion, their morality seems so askew to the rest of us.

Humanism, it’s not just about critical thinking. It’s also about a compassion based ethic. For ourselves and for others.

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