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Is Morality a Talent? Essay

One typically wouldn’t think of morality when it comes to the nature versus nurture debate about the origin of personality, but after being faced with this issue I have realized that the origin of morality can be debated about all the same. With the classic nature versus nurture debate I myself have come to a conclusion that we are composed of a little bit of both nature and nurture, and I am still finding myself coming to that same conclusion with morality. I believe that morality is not only a talent, but is a learned skill as well.

Just like personality, certain environments or events can lead to a manifestation of certain traits within us. I think that morality can exist at different levels amongst different people based on their genetic traits as well as their environmental or cultural experiences. Based on what I learned after reading Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape,” I have gathered an understanding of moral truth, and how that can apply to morality as being a talent and learned. His disagreement with moral relativism, analysis of psychopaths and the theories behind the nature versus nurture debate have lead me to my conclusions.

Moral truth is the belief that there is a universal code of ethics that has lead us through the ages and has impacted our society’s understanding of morals today. I agree with Harris on the subject of moral truth. I think moral truth supports both the nature side and the nurture side because it exposes the universal aspect of morals, which is learned, and shows the natural desire in humans to want to exceed primitive standards through morals in order to promote survival. Many ethical codes truly are universal, such as “don’t kill. ” If we don’t run around killing each other in our day to day lives, we will survive and thrive.

That is an example of a known moral truth. By comparing first world civilizations to Western civilizations you will find that yes, we have all survived, but it is quite clear that one civilization is thriving more than the other; Westernized civilizations. They are less primitive, more technologically advanced, have better medicine and are as a whole wealthier. Why are these third world cultures not advancing? Out of many reasons, I think that one could possibly be that their ethical codes are far less developed than those of modern Western culture. This observation has led me to believe that there are cultures that are superior to others.

Although moral relativism is a widely accepted theory, it is clearly incorrect. Moral relativism would seem like a pleasant theory to believe wouldn’t it? It removes intolerance of other cultures, religions etc. and allows us to “justify” or “understand” certain events based on specific, or relative, codes of ethics. While certain events or behaviors may not be right to one culture, they may be considered normal in another and everyone can go about their lives as if nothing wrong had happened. These assumptions are terrible flaws in the thinking of our society and of the world.

Harris uses an example of moral relativism that he encountered in a conversation with a woman after an academic conference. He provided her the scenario of a culture that would pluck the eyes out of every third born child based on their religious beliefs. The woman stuck to her moral relativism, and said that this culture was not wrong since they were doing this for religious reasons (Harris, 33-34). How can this possibly make any sense? Morality and ethics lose all meaning if they are merely “relative” to every culture where horrendous rituals are practiced.

If things like ritual murders were allowed in our society, we would not survive, we would not thrive and we would degenerate the human race intellectually, morally and psychologically. This brings meaning back to morality and ethics. There are universal codes that exist in order to promote our survival and happiness, or well being. Based on this understanding of moral truth, I believe that morality is both learned and genetic because moral truth and its implications show the experiences in which we have learned moral codes, and the promotion of survival that is instilled within the human race.

If morality was solely genetic, or a talent, then the research on psychopathic brains would be highly disturbing. In an NPR articled called A Neuroscientist Discovers a Dark Secret by Barbara Bradley Hagerty I learned about the actual discoveries that neurology has made about the psychopathic brain. In an abnormal brain found in serial killers by research conducted by James Fallon, a neuroscientist of the University of California-Irvine, the orbital cortex exhibits a major lack of functioning or is completely non-functioning.

While describing the abnormality of the orbital cortex Hagerty said that it is “the area that Fallon and other scientists believe is involved with ethical behavior, moral decision-making and impulse control. ” The orbital cortex also controls the amygdala which controls aggression and appetite (Hagerty). Fallon ended up discovering that he also had the same error in his brain. He even specified a gene that he had found in all but one of his family members, descendents of multiple murderers. However, none of these people had become serial killers, but could they?

“He doesn’t believe his fate or anyone else’s is entirely determined by genes. They merely tip you in one direction or another. ” (Hagerty). This research goes to show that genes are not entirely responsible for your predispositions to act violently or otherwise abnormally. These results are showing that it is possible that the orbital cortex controls our ethic and moral actions, but abnormality or damage to this process does not ultimately control our actual thoughts and actions. These conclusions provide actual evidence to support my claim that morality is both talent and learned.

If our moral impulses are regulated by the orbital cortex, but our actions are not determined, this is leading me to believe that our genes are not fully responsible for our personality, morality, beliefs, talents, etc. but they do have the ability to gear someone towards one side or the other. Morality is partially genetic, however our environments have the ultimate responsibility. If we have an experience that manifests within our psyche, it can ultimately ignite something within us that turns on or turns off certain physiological processes in the brain.

Therefore, the classic nature versus nurture debate can and will never be resolved. Simply because there is no resolution. Neither nature or nurture can be held fully responsible for our actions or who we become throughout the effects of our daily experiences in life. Harris, however, disagrees with me. He believes that morality is purely a talent. He mentions this evidence from the neuroscientist James Blair who “suggests that psychopathy results from a failure of emotional learning due to genetic impairments of the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex, regions vital to the processing of emotion.

” (Harris, 99). Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? However, he doesn’t mention that there are plenty of people with the same genetic predispositions as psychopaths, who aren’t considered psychopaths and aren’t even aware that they have these genes. He’s giving nature full responsibility in this case, and states that people can exhibit moral talent. (Harris, 99). Although this is possible, that people can have moral talent, it is not the sole cause for our morality. Our society is governed by morals.

Social norms and constructs have developed and evolved throughout history that have lead to the health and growth of our society. These rules we live by are instilled in our culture, and regulated through our judicial system. But they did not just appear there over night. There were millions of events included in diverse human experiences that lead us to live by our guidelines, which are continually evolving as time progresses. Generally, some people are more predisposed to be more caring in their demeanor as well as more cautious and aware of the moral outcomes of their actions.

And then, there are those who are the opposite. However, for the most part those who are morally “challenged” genetically do not act out in immoral ways. Harris points out the biological aspect of this, “While it may be difficult to accept, the research strongly suggests that some people cannot learn to care about others. ” (Harris, 99). Well sure there are people like this. Of course there are! We aren’t all going to be cookie cut copies of one another. We are all unique. But if we are apparently so scared to accept this, I would like to know why?

Just because some people don’t have the compassion for other people doesn’t mean that they have a compassion for negatively impacting other people. Does a lack of concern fully constitute immorality? In some cases, yes it does. For instance if someone had a thought that would lead to actions that injured other people and they chose to partake in this action anyways, then that would be immoral. But if someone is just traveling through life alone and lacking of a concern for others deep down but just keeping to themselves, this does not constitute immorality at all.

We are afraid of something that is inevitable: diversity. Not to suggest that this diversity requires relativism, but to suggest that diversity is part of humanity and there will be negative or harmful people in the world. No matter what we discover about the neurology or origin behind morality, immorality will always exist and persist throughout humanity. With this being said, I agree with Harris’ statement that there are people who are less morally “talented” than others. Research suggests this, but it also suggests that environmental experiences also have their hand in our morality.

I also think that if morality was solely genetic, there would be grounds for moral relativism. If our brains made us do it, who can say that one thing is wrong or right? It does not match up. The effects on society would be detrimental, our moral responsibility would be diminished. Harris’ evaluation of the possibility of a moral talent continues to lead me to believe that morality is both a talent and learned. In conclusion, there are many different theories to explain why we are the way we are. We may be who we are strictly because of physiological brain processes and genetic hardwiring.

We may be who we are strictly because of our environments and experiences. But how can we decide which it is when there is so much evidence pointing to both nature and nurture? Well, like I said, we can’t. What we can realize is that both nature and nurture have major effects on our morality and ethics. Through the arguments of moral truth, we can see that there are learned moral concepts that we have acquired and have incorporated them into our societies. However, there is also the drive for survival within us that provides us with instincts to distinguish right from wrong.

Through the research of criminal brains, we can isolate parts of the brain, their processes, and even genes to confirm that morality may be fully genetic. However, we can also see that the brain’s functioning doesn’t completely determine our personalities, moralities or actions. Instead, our environments or experiences that we have learned from can shape who we are for the better. Harris’ evaluation of moral talents can show us that there is diversity amongst us, moral diversity. But we are not doomed to be what our brain may want us to be.

In fact, we may not even be conscious of what our brain “wants” us to be. We incorporate our experiences into our being, which can make or break our genetic dispositions. Based on my conclusions that I’ve come too after reading “The Moral Landscape,” I believe that morality is not only caused by nature, but that it is both a talent and a learned skill that we acquire through our lives. Works Cited “A Neuroscientist Discovers a Dark Secret. ” www. npr. org, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, 29 June 2010. Web. 20 Nov. 2011. Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape. New York: Free Press, 2010. Print.


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