Where Morality Comes From – a Rawlsian view

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by Neil Godfrey

Revised some hours after initial posting.

This post introduces the general idea of the fundamental principles of morality being universal and innate in human beings, yet being tweaked and expressed in different ways according to culture, much the same way different languages derive from the same basic principles of grammar that are part of our unconscious makeup.

According to this theory, we rationalise moral judgments and respond emotionally to them. That is, the moral judgments to acts that we witness come first (intuitively, unconsciously) and we react emotionally to these and may attempt to explain our judgments rationally. But reason and emotion are not the origins of our moral judgments, as Kant and Hume thought respectively.


Immanuel Kant: It is through our reason and rationality that we determine what is right and wrong. Emotions incite us to acting selfishly and foolishly so true morality ought to be guided by reason alone. We should use our reasoning faculties to determine general moral obligations that would apply universally. Hence his “categorical imperative:

I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will my maxim should become a universal law.

This principle meant that we should never treat people merely as a means to an end, be we should respect others as having their own desires and goals.


David Hume: Our moral judgements come to us through our emotions. Just as we recognise immediately a beautiful painting or an ugly one, so our emotions tell us immediately when an act we witness is virtuous or immoral. Some personality traits, Hume said, are innate, while others are acquired through our culture. An innately generous person who gives to charity is recognised as doing a morally good thing. One who has learned from society the importance of acting fairly and who resolves to act fairly even against self-interest, is also recognised as a morally good person.

It is our emotional response to some action that is the basis of our judgment on whether or not the act is moral.


John Rawls: Not emotions, nor reason, but unconscious principles drive our moral judgements. We accordingly cannot always explain why a certain action is right or wrong — it just “is”.

We possess an innate moral grammar akin to the Chomskyan notion of an innate and universal linguistic grammar.* Just as we have a faculty for language, one that is hidden beneath our conscious awareness, so we also have a faculty for moral judgments.

We are all born with the same “repository of principles for growing a language”. We are not aware of these principles but they determine our ability to understand and acquire language, whether Chinese, French or English.

The theory of innate language faculty or generative grammar says that we are all born with fundamental rules that apply to all languages and that enable speakers to distinguish between nonsense sayings and meaningful ones even in cases where they are hearing the words for the first time. Examples:
* Languages differ in how they frame questions, but no language takes the order of words in a statement of fact and then reverses that order to create a question (e.g. “Christmas comes once a year” never becomes “A year once comes Christmas?”
* Most languages use either subject-verb-object or a subject-object-verb order. This is a rule-constraint in languages: we do not find as many different sentence orders as we find cultural or dog varieties in the world.

The environment feeds [the child] the particular sound patterns of the native language, thereby turning on the specific principles of only one language, or two if the parents are bilingual. The problem of language acquisition is therefore like setting switches. Each child starts out with all possible switches, but with no particular settings; the environment then sets them according to the child’s native language. (Hauser 2006, p.38)

Moral grammar works the same way in Rawls’s theory. We are all born with the principle of distributive fairness, for example. But the specifics of what is fair will vary according to cultural upbringing.

One experiment that demonstrates this is a game in which one person is given $10 and is given the option of sharing it with you. If one person gives you nothing out of the $10 then when it is your turn to share, you will very likely not give them any share of your $10 either. Even if they give you a little, say $2, you are likely to consider even that an unfair offer. But another person who shares her $10 half and half and gives you $5 (or close to $5) is someone you will probably consider is acting fairly and when your turn comes you will reciprocate and give them $5 (or close to it) of your $10, too.

But such experiments are performed mostly on Western university students. What happens in other cultures?

For the Au and Gnau in Papua New Guinea this game is played quite differently. The persons given the equivalent of $10 may offer to share what Westerners would consider reasonably fair (generally around 40% of their booty) but more than half of the would-be recipients reject the offer. Why? In their horticultural society gift-giving has a central cultural function and the recipient is obligated to repay with an equally large gift. The anxiety of receiving a gift leads many to reject a fair offer.

So how we act on what is a fair proposal appears is culturally determined.

Among the Ache of Paraguay people do accept low offers and generally offer more than 40%. This generosity and acceptance has a parallel with their hunter-society custom of sharing their catch with the rest of the camp.

The Machiguenga of Peru, slash-and-burn horticulturists, made the lowest offers — as low as 15% — and these very low offers were most often accepted. Their culture involves very little cooperation and exchange beyond their family units.

Overall, each society expresses some sense of fairness, but societies vary with respect to their perception of inequity and their willingness to punish by means of rejecting offers; some societies reject offers when they are deemed unfair, while others never reject, regardless of the amount offered.

These simple economic games suggest that fairness is a universal principle with parameters set, presumably in early development, by the local culture. (Hauser 2006, p.84)


Other posts on this theme are stored in the ethics and human nature archive.



Hauser, MD 2006Moral Minds: how nature designed our universal sense of right and wrong, HarperCollins, Pymble.



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Neil Godfrey

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21 thoughts on “Where Morality Comes From – a Rawlsian view”

  1. If memory serves me, Hume believed that morality was determined by the society in which one lives. The word derives from a Latin root referring to custom. Such ideas account for the variations we see in the morality of different cultures both temporally and geographically identified. On the other hand, Kant’s emphasis on reason broke with Hume’s empiricism, and took a curious turn with regard to the origins of morality, because Kant believed that belief in God was a desideratum of what he called “practical reason,” the idea being that we need God in order to provide a basis for moral conduct. At the same time, Kant acknowledged that, using pure reason, one could not possibly arrive at a determination of a first cause (e.g., God). This provides some context for the ideas of “emotion” and “reason” referred to above, and I hope is helpful.

    1. Cool. I see I need to rewrite the post. The views of Kant and Hume as I presented them were in fact preparatory for the Rawlsian perspective and limited by their application or relevance to Rawls’s ideas. (I took them entirely from Hauser’s Moral Minds and his discussion of the morality in comparison with the generative grammar theory of linguistics.)

      Many thanks.

    2. I have rewritten the introduction and modified the title to indicate something less pretentious than a balanced comparison of three views of the origins of our morality.

  2. These are very complicated issues; e.g. I agree myself with Nietzsche, Rand and Hospers that “morality” should not be a synonym for universal, indiscriminate and self-subordinating “altruism”, whatever “Jesus” had to say about it.

  3. A short question that would require a long answer, impractical here and now.

    A short answer is that I simply don’t think individuals or families are required to devote their own lives to the “service” of anyone or everyone else, unless of course it is their own “thing”. I am not against kindness, charity, babycare, hospitals, helping hands, emergency rescue, or the implicit “social contract” in the Golden Rule. I support a polity at home and abroad, which would enable people peacefully to take responsibility for, and find enjoyment in, their own lives. I refuse to feel guilty for never doing enough for other people, and dislike the tendency of some “selfish” people to exploit the generosity and benevolence of others.

    As for Nietzsche and Rand, this is hardly the place and time to discuss their philosophies in any detail, either the similarities or differences. I do not support the “neo-conned” Ayn Rand Institute.

    As for Jesus, the ancient “moralist” identified maximally by e.g. Belliotti and minimally by e.g. Crossan is problematic, and yet another huge issue. We are indebted to Christianity historically for emphasis on compassion in a cold and cruel world, whatever the supernatural “angle”. (And should also acknowledge the cultural achievements this religion has inspired in art, music, literature, &c.) But why accept any alleged ethical precepts (wholesale or not) on the “authority” of some elusive personality in first-century Galilee-Judea? The atheist Nietzsche pressed home this latter point, without fully developing a positive alternative, which is something we should undertake – independently of the “Bible”. Personally I favour human upliftment, educational improvements, humanitarian eugenics, &c.

  4. I think this needs to be combined with the work of biologists like Patricia Churchland, who argues the evolutionary case for morality, thus giving us something more concrete than ” innateness.”

    1. Perhaps this is not one of my better posts and I failed to clarify a few essentials. Hauser does speak of the evolutionary development of the particulars of the innate grammar/principles — and it is these that he discusses. But thanks for mentioning Patricia Churchland. I see she has a more recent study of the topic that I look forward to reading.

      1. This article seems good enough as an introduction to a relevant topic: if religion isn’t the origin or last word in ethics or morals, then everyone needs to look for the deeper roots.

  5. We need to review the contribution of quite a number of biologists’ arguments on the evolution of the brain mechanisms, and its mental constructs, including ideas of social co-operation, “free will” and religious belief. There is room for continual investigation and debate.

    How inevitable was everything in the human past?

  6. The tests are flawed. Gift-giving may have nothing to do with fairness. Is there something else in theses cultures that might be a more valid test of the sense of fairness? Fairness with strangers might be different compared to fairness within a family or tribe or community. Something other than gift-giving should be looked for.

    1. Gift-giving can be seen as economic obligation in many cultures. But in my intermittent postmarxist materialist view, economics is behind many value systems. Even rightly. Since keeping many people physically alive would be a major moral goal for most, if not all.

      1. Like much else, there is something in a Vulgar Marxian analysis of human behavior, but far from everything. One needs food and shelter to exist, and these factors can get better, but there are other satisfactions to be sought once one is up and running physically – sex, play, art, &c. “Even in the full communist society, an individual would be allowed to own his favorite pen or violin” (Khrushchev, as remembered).

        1. But a person who has died from lack of physical nessities will not be doing much art.

          So we might see helping people stay alive as the sine qua non of morality. As the most basic right.

          1. This is part of the native instinctual code or morality we are born with. From our DNA: our survival instinct. Fear of death. Fighting things that try to kill us.

            The Rawlsians are partly right. Much of morality comes from variable cultural opinions. But lots of it seems biologically given too.

            Morality is half from varying cultural opinions. But half from nature.

            Nature and nurture.

    2. Sharing with respect to distribution of goods was taken as but one form of test or case-study to compare across cultures as part of an effort to understand the principles we share in common and those where we differ.

      There are many other applications of fairness, of course.

      The exercise was examining our responses, what we consider appropriate, when others distribute or give goods to us, or offer to do so.

      The question under study is the extent to which we share certain judgments and fundamental principles underlying these judgments, and the extent to which culture can lead to quite different parameters through which they find expression.

      It’s still something I am exploring. I have been reading an article by Mikhail that seems to sum up some of the evidence for the idea more succinctly but have not yet read Churchland.

  7. I fall somewhat towards the Kantian side—though I think a combination of Kantian and (Bentham) Utilitarianism would balance better for humanity. Kant proposes a universal framework—and I agree somewhat in principle—in that, insofar as human desires and aspirations are similar, we will have a degree of universality. But there is also diversity, not just in our geography but also generationally…each generation also faces its own unique environment….An unyeliding universal framework can become too rigid and lead to injustice…on the other hand, utilitarianism can lead to moral inconsistency and therefore inequality….thus both have a potential to bring moral bankruptcy if not balanced well.

    As Tariq Ramadan has pointed out “…the same values and principles can give rise to very different concrete applications and historical models”. Sharia exemplifies this concept—the Principles (values) are the same—but their application is varied (5 major schools of Sharia). Sharia also recognizes non-Islamic laws as applications of ethics/morality.

    Our paradigm/world-view can have an effect on our behaviors which in turn effects our environment…but the environment can also effect our paradigm/world-view which then effects our behaviors…..rather than thinking linearly—it may be more realistic to visualize a circular system of cause effect? Western philosophy as well as other areas of thought—suffer from too much linear thinking as well as thinking in binaries/dichotomies….when harmonizing and balancing may offer insights as well….

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