The idea of moral nativism posits that the ability to be “good” and “moral” is innate: that is, ingrained into our vary nature. However, this notion has been hotly contested in philosophical and academic circles ever since its inception: are we taught how to be good, or do we just know how from our own abilities and biological makeup? James, in his book An Introduction to Evolutionary Ethics, posits that moral nativism exists, and that our competence and empathy come from aspects of our psychology and biology hard-wired into us (p. 88). In this essay, the most compelling of James’ views on nativism will be examined – the ‘distress test.’ However, the usage and prevalence of distress is not universal, and often does not stop people from performing immoral acts; therefore, the issue of distress does not provide a convincing enough argument for the existence of moral nativism.
James presents several different arguments for the existence of moral nativism, the most compelling of which being the notion of ‘distress.’ Even from childhood, James claims that distress is one particular emotion that stands out amongst all others as being fairly common and intense. This “rudimentary form of empathy” shows that “infants appear to be wired to mirror the distress of those around them: cry and the whole worldcries with you” (p. 89). This idea is that the pain of others is ‘felt,’ or that it ‘resonates’ with children in particular. As a result, because the pain of others hurts us as well, we want to do whatever it is to make it stop. A person then acts on the behalf of another, which is often a moral behavior. While James argues there is a selfish reason for stopping the pain, the pain itself provides an emotional, biological compass for wanting to do good, thus forming the basis for moral nativism.
The primary barometer for James’ arguments seem to be children. According to James, “absent other powerful outside influences, most children will develop the range of moral capacities typical of adults whether or not the caregivers provided them with so-called ‘moral training'” (James, p. 88). As they are the beings least affected by world experience, which may color their morality somewhat, innate morality found in children is said to be evidence of morality present in adult humans we well. “Nobody seriously maintains that humans come into the world utterly blank – morally or otherwise. Even most non-nativists accept the idea that we’re hard-wired to respond to the distress of others” (p. 113).
Despite the fact that James presents a compelling argument for emotional distress being the basis of moral behavior, I am not entirely convinced by it. There are those people without morality, psychopaths and the like, who possess an emotional deficit which can lead to a lack of distress. When something bad happens to someone else, they are desensitized to it; as a result, they have no personal consequences for ignoring immoral acts or behaving immorally. Furthermore, there is often evidence that empathy and distress does not occur towards all people; in fact, it seems as though an individuals ‘in-group’ (a group to which people feel associated), is typically the recipient of a greater deal of distress than someone on the out-group. Because we are so selective about who we feel empathy for, the idea that it is a biological constant is somewhat flawed. “Our first candidate for a moral universal – the stricture against harm – turns out to be highly flexible because it applies only to select individuals and the selection process is quite unconstrained” (Prinz, p. 4). Moral nativism only works if the norms apply to all cultures, which is fairly untrue – the Aztecs regularly killed people for the sake of sacrifices, and Nazi Germany purposefully attempted to commit genocide against an entire race of people, and more. This is compelling evidence that moral universals like ‘do no harm’ do not exist in all cultures equally, and are therefore a product of those who make the culture (Prinz, p.3).
In conclusion, the argument James gives for moral nativism being true due to the concept of distress is flawed and ultimately unconvincing. While it is true that people will often feel bad if others are hurt, and will take steps to make that situation better, it is not true of all people. Furthermore, the recipients of distress and empathy are typically just part of the in-group. Why do children experience innate distress, then? This is not part of our biology, but merely part of a prototypical sense of ‘fair’ and ‘unfair’ due to pattern recognition understood in childhood (Sterelny, p. 19). With this in mind, it is very difficult to prove the existence of an innate morality when there are so many other potential causes for what selective distress is truly experienced in the world.
James, S.M. (2011). An introduction to evolutionary ethics. Wiley-Blackwell.
Prinz, J. J. (2004). Against moral nativism. in Murphy, D., & Bishop, M. (2006). Stephen Stich
and His Critics. Blackwell Press.
Sterelny, K. (2007). Moral nativism: A skeptical response. Presentation for ISHPSSB