How Morality Is Born

People are born without a sense of morality. Little kids are vicious, brutish, and completely self-centered animals. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a survival mechanism.

Very slowly do the little animals turn into human beings. The first step is the awakening of an imagination.

Then, a sense of self that is separate from others begins to form. It’s a painful process, which is what causes the “terrible twos” and the horrid threes. During this time, a little kid gets a sense of the foundational loneliness of all human beings, and that causes extreme, uncontrollable rage. That rage is directed, first and foremost, against the mother who betrays the kid but turning out to be a completely separate person. (Eventually, the kid learns to enjoy and value her separatedness but that is a long journey that doesn’t end until adulthood).

At some point during the childhood you see the birth of an aesthetic feeling in a kid. A sense of beauty is slowly formed.

Finally, little by little, a capacity for kindness, a sense of empathy, and the beginnings of morality start to appear in a little human being.

I recently observed Klara developing a sense of morality. We were reading a children’s story about a shark and a crocodile. A shark was mean to a group of fish, bullying them and making them terrified. Then the fish recruited a crocodile who terrorized the shark into submission. The shark started groveling for mercy.

“I want to be the shark’s friend!” Klara declared. “Now he is lonely and scared, and nobody wants to be his friend. But I do.”

Not wanting to beat on somebody who is already down, being able to show mercy to a defeated enemy, siding with the underdog because he’s an underdog, reacting with compassion to signs of weakness – this is the foundation of morality that only human beings are capable of.

You can’t teach people to have this feeling by lecturing them about it. It’s got to awaken internally. If it doesn’t, a person might be able to fake empathy but will never really feel it. But it’s absolutely crucial if you are going to be a fully functioning human being.

Imagination, a sense of self, an aesthetic feeling, and a sense of morality make us human. We develop these capacities in early childhood. If that process is broken in some way, we end up with stunted human beings who don’t live to the full potential of humanity.

7 thoughts on “How Morality Is Born”

  1. How do you think the aesthetic feeling is significant? I think it is too, but I can’t explain it. It explains the hostility towards this feeling that I see from many totalitarians though.

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    1. “How do you think the aesthetic feeling is significant? I think it is too, but I can’t explain it. It explains the hostility towards this feeling that I see from many totalitarians though.”

      • There is a gigantic inequality in this area of life. If there’s IQ, there should be something like aesthetic IQ. It can be developed but up to a point. Some people don’t have it in them and can only develop a rudimentary one. A highly developed sense of the aesthetical is very individualizing. You are not a person who can be easily recruited into any totalizing ideology if you have it. Not completely impossible, of course, but so much harder. This is why all totalitarian regimes had very repressive policies towards art.

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  2. And so soon after my last comment, I find this very insightful thread:

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  3. Not only museums, but libraries I fear for as well 😦

    Regarding morality in children, there is a quote I have seen: “Every new generation born is an invasion of civilization by a group of savages that the existing adults must civilize.”

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