ISRE, 2002


Patricia Greenspan

Department of Philosophy

University of Maryland

College Park, MD 20742




For a full-length paper on this topic, click here.



Two sorts of factors come up in recent arguments for an innate basis of ethics:

My discussion below is an highly abbreviated version of a paper in preparation for a conference on innateness. I allow for both types of influence but suggest that more attention should be paid to mechanisms of social transfer of emotions, as a possible innate source of plasticity in moral learning via emotions - and hence of cultural variation in moral codes.


Griffiths 1997 (cf. 2002) argues against use of the term "innateness" on the grounds that it blurs together three distinct concepts, roughly:

Like Griffiths (and others) I think we should avoid the suggestion that innate and developmental sources are exclusive alternatives - as in sense (1) - but we can accomplish this without abolishing the concept of innateness.

I'll allow the term "innateness" here as a brief tag for abilities and proclivities that don't initially depend on learning or social influence - though they may not emerge until well after birth, may require experiential "triggers," and may be modified by social factors.

This is essentially what Griffiths has in mind when he interprets basic emotions as evolutionary affect-programs - in line with his sense (3).

The contrast is to "socially constructed" emotions (cf., e.g., Averill 1980), which Griffiths interprets as mere social pretenses of emotion.

Griffiths also raises questions about the derivation of moral and other higher cognitive emotions from the "basic" set. I'll suggest that they needn't be thus derived for ethics to be said to have an innate basis.


Evidence for basic emotions in psychology comes from studies of cross-cultural universality - as in Griffiths' sense (2) - initially focusing on facial expression (see Ekman 1971).

There are at least two other ways of expanding the basic set suggested by work outside psychology:


Note that this work contrasts in important ways with sources in 17th- and 18th-century philosophy (Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, Adam Smith, etc.):

For the higher cognitive emotions, facial and other expressions of emotion will be subject to modification by culture, in ways that can affect the nature of the emotion.

Love, e. g., is a morally significant emotion initially based on parent/child interaction that would seem to be experienced differently - as wild or subdued, say; possessive, dependent, or devoted - on the basis of cultural norms.

Competing mechanisms of emotional reaction and social transfer of emotions - love vs. anger, empathy vs. retributive sentiment - may be subject to different cultural mixes resulting in divergent moral codes.


Another recent line of argument for an innate basis of ethics in Griffiths' sense (2), apparently independent of work on emotions, comes from findings of a distinction made cross-culturally by preschool-age children between moral and merely conventional rules or prohibitions (see, e.g., Turiel 1983).

What's in question is a particular way of explaining these findings in terms of innate mental categories: a kind of Universal Grammar of morality, by analogy with Chomskian linguistics, proposed by Dwyer 1999.

Dwyer suggests that Chomskian "poverty of stimulus"arguments apply to moral learning.

However, if we consider mechanisms of social transfer of emotions (see, e.g., the account in Witherington, Campos, and Hertenstein 2002), we can locate a rich array of forms of moral learning via emotion that don't depend on explicit moral instruction or use of moral language.

Moral teaching in this sense might fail to differentiate moral and conventional rules, in the way that we lump together moral and prudential prohibitions at an early stage, postponing the distinction until the child becomes capable of categorizing different sorts of reasons.

In short, we have ways of teaching morality before a child can deploy all the (innate or other) conceptual equipment that comes into reflective moral knowledge.


Some everyday examples of how moral education via emotion precedes explicit use of moral categories include our exaggerated portrayal to children of

We also teach morality when we encourage or discourage display of certain emotions such as sadness at one's own hurts or anger toward playmates or authority figures.

Note that, besides sympathy, guilt, sadness, joy, anger, and the like, a wide range of other emotional reactions is available for use in moral education - with different emphases in different social codes - including:


Gibbard 1990 sketches an evolutionary account of some central moral emotions as involving acceptance of certain reactions on the part of others (on the model of the submissive posture in animals):

Note that this account doesn't derive moral emotions from basic emotions in one's own repertoire but rather as attributed to others (those whose anger or contempt is felt to be justified).

The evolutionary argument in Frank 1988 suggests a reason for thinking of guilt, shame, and other moral emotions as themselves included in a set of preprogrammed clusters of affective responses:


Note that psychologists' initial evidence for a basic emotions was gathered on the criterion of cross-cultural universality of expression, which fits Griffiths' sense (2) of "innateness." Current literature assuming a basic or more primitive set tends to think of them instead as evolutionary affect-programs, corresponding to sense (3).

An argument like Frank's for the evolutionary function of moral emotions in social communication works out more neatly if emotions amount to stereotyped clusters of affective response that have been programmed into us as distinct types of emotion.

However, all that's strictly needed for the argument to apply is the reliable connection - and awareness of the connection - between some nonvoluntary expressive signs of emotion (e.g. blushing, submissive posture) and longer-range motivational aspects (an urge to conceal something, awareness of having violated a social rule).

Even if moral learning begins with evolutionarily preprogrammed clusters of response, their elements might later be separated and reconstituted into culturally variable affective complexes relevant to moral behavior (e.g. respect as an impulse to social deference combining elements of shame, guilt, love, etc.).

One main source of variation is the social transfer of emotions via culturally modifiable expressive behavior. Language also greatly expands the possibilities of recombination of affective response into new emotion types via differently specified propositional contents of emotion.


Averill, J. R. 1980. "A Social Constructivist View of Emotion," in R. Plutchik and H. Kellerman (eds.), Emotion: Theory Research and Experience, vol. 1. New York: Academic Press.

Dwyer, S. 1999. "Moral Competence," in K. Murasugi and R. Stainton (eds.), Philosophy and Linguistics. Boulder, Colorado: Westview.

Ekman, P. 1971. "Universals and Cultural Differences in Facial Expressions of Emotion," in J. K. Cole (ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, vol. 19. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Ekman, P., and Friesen, W.V. 1986 . "A New Pan-Cultural Facial Expression of Emotion," Motivation and Emotion, 159-68.

Frank, R. H. 1988. Passions Within Reason: The Strategic Role of the Emotions. New York: Norton.

Gibbard, A. 1990. Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Griffiths, P. E. 1997. What Emotions Really Are: The Problem of Psychological Categories. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Griffiths, P. 2002. "What is Innateness?," The Monist, 70-85.

Izard, C. E. 1977. Human Emotions. New York: Plenum.

LeDoux, J. 1996. The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Panksepp, J. 1998. The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.

Turiel, E. 1983. The Development of Social Knowledge: Morality and Convention. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Witherington, D. C., Campos, J. J., and Hertenstein, M. J. 2002. "Principles of Emotion and its Development in Infancy," in G. Bremner and A. Fogel (eds.), Handbook of Infant Development. Oxford: Blackwell.