A common question throughout history has always been about human morality. Because of our higher thinking capacity, we are hardwired to adapt and refine our basic instincts to survive; therefore, it is obvious this question would be disputed throughout time. Are humans innately good, bad, or plainly neutral? The position that any one person takes may be derived from any number of ideas, be them philosophical thoughts or scientific inquiries. This essay asserts that morality is innate, and uses both scientific studies and ideas from philosophers to support this argument. Man is essentially good, and the different ways people are nurtured—from societal influences to parental influences—creates the large spectrum and variety of behavior that may not be deemed “good” or “moral.”
The magazine Smithsonian published an article named “Born to Be Mild” in January of 2013 on morality in young children. This article wrote about a few different studies done on children by three different experimenters. In one of the studies titled “Spontaneous Altruism by Chimpanzees and Young Children,” Felix Warneken tested the morality of humans through young babies (because they have had little to no socialization) and also tested morality of chimpanzees, the closest relative to humans. In this study, 18-month-old toddlers were tested to see if they would help others in need by retrieving a dropped item that an adult struggled for. In almost all instances, the child returned the item. Warneken stated, “[Helping at that age] is not something that’s been trained, and [the children] come to help without prompting or without being rewarded” (Tucker 39). Not only did the toddlers help people in need, they also helped without social cues (such as the distress someone in need has). Many toddlers in the experiment Warneken created helped retrieve a can that had fallen off a table next to an adult and the adult failed to realize something was amiss. When Warneken tested the chimpanzees to see if they would return the same answers, he tested chimpanzees that were nursery-raised and semi-wild chimps. Both tests displayed the same results as the tests on the toddlers—chimpanzees were willing to help both humans and other chimps in need with no reward for themselves (Tucker 39-41). The fact that most of the toddlers and human relatives, the chimpanzees, helped others in need both with and without social cues strongly points to the idea that human morality is innate.
A second study highlighted in the Smithsonian article was a reproduction of a previous study from the mid-2000s. The original study was an animated presentation shown to six to ten month old babies in one group and three month old babies in a second. The animated presentation consisted of a red circle attempted to climb a hill. In one instance, a triangle helped the circle climb, and in another, a square knocked the circle down. When the square and triangle were presented to the older group of babies, almost all babies chose the helping triangle over the hindering square. For the younger group, the researchers tracked the eye movement of the babies to either the triangle or square, because the babies could not physically grab the object. In the reproduction, done by another experimenter, the results were the same. Once again, evidence suggests that because babies seem so morally good, humans are innately good, and it is the nurture we receive as we are socialized into this culture that may cause some people to seem morally corrupt (Tucker 38-39). It should be noted that because the reproduction provided the same results as the original study, an even stronger case was created for the idea of innate human morality.
The messages that Machiavelli gives in “The Qualities of the Prince” may cause one to believe that humans are innately evil because through “The Qualities of the Prince,” Machiavelli details how to be cunning, take control, and maintain control as a ruler of a province. His teachings seem to create humans as greedy people, hungry for more. This is actually very incorrect. Machiavelli clearly states, “it is necessary for a prince…to learn how to not be good” (42). I emphasize that Machiavelli wrote a man must learn to not be good. One can assume from this that Machiavelli is saying man is at least in some degree, wholesome and moral. After all, humans were never meant to civilize and evolve. We are, in true form, animals that have an instinct to survive. Ruling and gaining power is a man-made idea. Opponents to the idea that humans are moral might suggest that if ruling is man-made, evil is already within us because we created the concept of ruling others; however, if man were truly evil, he would not take murder as a heavy offense, and would kill others in his way to get what he wants instead of just gaining control. The examples of rulers that Machiavelli writes help to reiterate this point. These men were not born thinking of war and control. They were raised and socialized to lead and gain power.
Steinbeck and the messages he delivers in The Grapes of Wrath also point to the idea that human morality is innate. The author often writes of the distinct line of those with, and those without—in other words, the owners and the migrants or farmers. Steinbeck makes a point to write about how close-knit the migrants are in many instances. Steinbeck writes “‘I lost my land’ is changed…[to] ‘We lost our land.’,” ‘I have a little food’ plus ‘I have none’….is ‘We have a little food’” (151); “the twenty families became one family” (193); and “when a baby dies a pile of silver coins grew at the door flap” (195). All of these quotes show the goodness in others, to do something for someone in need. This is all in contrast to the owners, which on multiple different pages Steinbeck writes how disconnected they are from the land, and “the quality of owning freezes you forever into ‘I’” (Steinbeck 152). These owners are so encompassed by the material culture around them, by the greed and the blanketed reality that they cannot see with a moral compass anymore. Of course they have one, for at one point they might have been like the farmers, caring for others and instituted into the “we” group. Proponents for human neutrality might argue that the owners were never at any point good, that they were neutral and socialized into the owning culture, unlike the farming culture. This is not the case, however, through a passage that Steinbeck wrote very early in The Grapes of Wrath, which said, “Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold” (31). This insinuates that in all types of owners, there is a moral compass. Even in the coldest owners, deep within them, they acknowledge the idea that the work they do is wrong. Because the owners know what is wrong, they know the opposite as well—what is right. If the owners were not innately good, their views on what is right or wrong would be skewed by their societal influences.
While people will never give up the argument of human morality, it is a safe bet to argue that humans are innately good. We possess the ability to help spontaneously and without reward, as shown in the scientific studies, and we understand what is right and wrong. Our societal influences and the way we were raised affects if we will channel our morality or go against it, as shown by Machiavelli in “The Qualities of the Prince” and by Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. “The Qualities of the Prince.” A World of Ideas. Ed. Lee Jacobus. 8th e. Boston: Bedford, 2010. Print. Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin, 1939. Print. Tucker, Abigail. “Born to Be Mild.” Smithsonian Jan. 2013: 35-41, 76-77. Print.