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Can we rely on our instincts?

Instincts: good and bad

We have seen the humanist case for where the origins of our morality lie: in our evolution as a social animal. It is our social instincts that make it possible for us to ask moral questions.

However, our evolved sentiments are not always the most helpful guide to how we should behave. We have evolved other less desirable impulses too. We identify more closely with our immediate group to the exclusion of strangers. We can react aggressively under pressure or when faced with a perceived threat. We also have incentives to cheat or to treat others poorly for our own benefit, if we can get away with it. Our evolution may explain the origins of our motivations to be good, but it does not make us good all, or even most, of the time. Human beings are capable of behaving in ways that are selfish and cruel. We now live in a very different world from the world our ancestors evolved to survive in. Inappropriate biases, prejudices, and fears linger on. The mistake, however, is to jump to the conclusion that this is our natural state. We have seen that our motivations for generosity and kindness have natural causes too.

‘The underlying assumption is that only purely selfish behaviour is natural to man; so that if it ever happens, as it not infrequently does, that people behave unselfishly, they must be inspired by a higher power. This assumption is false and the conclusion that is drawn from it is invalid… if experience shows that people act unselfishly as well as selfishly, we can only conclude that both types of behaviour are natural. If the capacity for evil is part of human nature, so is the capacity for good.’

AJ Ayer

However, our biology alone is limited in terms of how far it can motivate us towards what we commonly consider to be moral behaviour. We will learn later this week how humanists recognise that we need more than biology to help us divide our good instincts from bad.

Can biology tell us what we should do?

Biology can help to explain our moral intuitions. Science can also provide information that can support our moral decision-making: it can help to identify the potential consequences of the actions available to us, and it can undermine what some may claim to be self-evident moral truths (eg our obligations to our family), by revealing the biological origins of our instincts.

However, biology cannot tell us what we should do. On its own, a scientific understanding of our instincts and behaviour cannot tell us what our ethical values should be. Famously, facts about the world cannot tell us how we should behave: we cannot derive an ought from an is. Kicking someone in the shins will cause them pain, but that does not necessarily lead us to the conclusion that we should not do it. Only if we add the premise ‘We should not cause people pain’ can we reach that conclusion. The psychopath’s perfectly rational conclusion from the facts could therefore be very different.

‘To take an example well beloved by philosophers, the fact the bull is charging does not, by itself, entail the recommendation: “Run!” It is only against the background of my presumed desire to live that the recommendation follows. If I intend to commit suicide in a manner that my insurance company believes will think an accident, no such recommendation applies.’

Peter Singer, The Expanding Circle

The account given about the origins of human morality is descriptive. It explains where our needs and values may have arisen from. It does not provide us with any ethical conclusions about how we should act. Just because a particular moral instinct has a biological basis does not justify us acting on it, even if that instinct were universal. We need more to enable us to choose our moral principles.

However, to build a morality that had nothing at all to do with our instincts, desires, passions, and needs, one that had nothing whatsoever to do with what it was like to be a human being, would surely be an inappropriate, and largely futile, exercise.

The humanist challenge is, then, to try to understand and build morality from the bottom up. The focus of this week is to explore whether this is possible.

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This article is from the free online course:

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life

Humanists UK

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