Do You Have a Predetermined Morality?

In a change to the previously advertised topic, we are going to focus on the role of genetics for personal ideology and, ultimately, morality. We shall explore if our genetic make-up has any influence on our moral disposition. I feel it is important to acknowledge that an extensive exploration is beyond the scope of the blog format. However, to broaden the scope of this exploration as best we can, let us first look at two related areas and the influence of genes.

Genetic Legacy and Ideology Formation

A analysis of nine studies from five differing democracies with a sample of 12,000 twins over four decades found genetics have a role in ideology formation (regardless of how ideology is measured) (Hatemi et al, 2014). The role of genes in regulating the emotional, cognitive and hormonal states determine our response to ideology-forming environmental stimuli. This is not to dismiss environmental factors as a key influencing variable but, rather, to acknowledge it is the combination of the both which offers the most comprehensive explanatory model. A common criticism of studies in this context are that ideologies are a manifestation of personality (thus, the genetic influence of personality is actually being measured). However, a number of studies have found that the genetic variance remained unique to political ideologies (Verhulst et al. 2010, and Verhulst, et al. 2012). Indeed, the breadth of Hatemi et al’s study indicates genes offer a robust predictor for ideology formation regardless of differing democratic or environmental influences.

The Other Side of Empathic

Another factor which may be important to consider is the role of empathy as a genetic inheritance. Simon Baron-Cohen’s fascinating book Zero Degrees of Empathy proposes a re-evaluation of the word ‘evil’ to the measureable concept of ’empathy erosion’. That is to say, replacing a generalised and subjective term with a measurable, objective construct for evaluating cruelty. It is important to note that empathy in this context consists of two components:

1) Cognitive Empathy – Understanding another person is distressed in response to a situation.

2) Affective Empathy – Feeling the distress of another person’s response to a situation.

The interactional differences between these two components can produce contrasting outcomes. For example, both individuals with psychopathic traits and those with Asperger Syndrome are classified as ‘zero empathy’. However, these conditions are, in essence, the ‘mirror opposite’ of each other in terms of processing. That is to say, psychopaths have high functioning cognitive empathy but zero affective empathy (i.e.: they understand someone is in distress, they just don’t care). In contrast, an individual with Asperger will have high affective empathy and would care if they could recognise the signs (when informed of another’s distress, they do!) (Dziobek et al, 2008). These differences are important to consider when discussing the role of genetic vs. environmental factors on empathy.

Studies (Davis, Luce and Kraus, 1994, and Matthews et al. 1981) have found that, among monozygotic (identical) twins, an estimated 68 per cent of affective empathy is heritable (as opposed to influenced by environment). In contrast, comparisons between monozygotic and dizygotic (non-identical) twins found environment to be the predominate factor in terms of cognitive empathy. As both types of twins share environmental factors, differences in behaviours/traits among these two types of twins indicates a genetic influencing component. Thus, it seems that affective empathy may have a strong foundation in our genetic make-up. However, please don’t leave this blog with the impression that an ’empathy gene’ exists as this would be a ‘the world is flat’ level miscomprehension. Rather, a combination of genes (two such examples: CYPIIBI = sex-steroid group, and WFSI = social-emotional behaviour) offer strong associations with an individual’s Empathy Quotient (and this is merely the beginning of the journey in terms of gene-identification!) (Baron-Cohen, 2012).

Gene-based Morality?

So, how does the influence of genes on ideology and empathy impact our moral reasoning process? Well, it seems that empathic variations are correlated with differences between liberalism and conservatism. In the US, the General Social Survey found that higher self-reported empathy was correlated with socially liberal policies towards government spending (Davis, Smith, and Marsden, 2007). Furthermore, a negative correlation (Backstrom and Bjorklund, 2007, and McFarland, 2010) has been found between empathy and Social Dominance Orientation (the endorsement of social hierarchies associated with conservatism). Whilst easy to over-generalise this aspect (especially if it suits one’s political perspective!), the research indicates empathy differences and implications for morality. For example, if we return our focus to the previously discussed Moral Foundation Theory, we know that liberals are predominantly concerned with care/harm and fairness/cheating issues. Indeed, recent research (English and James) found a strong correlation between empathy and high care/harm endorsement. Thus, if affective empathy has a strong heritable basis, if could be that we are, to a certain extent, ‘predetermined’ to have higher empathy for specific moral issues. Furthermore, if ideology formation is influenced by genes, then the inherent moral values associated with a political ideology are, by extension, also determined by genes. However, as before, it’s likely predetermination must combine with environmental influences for empathic predispositions to be nurtured.

Implications and Consequences

In discussing the role of genetic influences on morality, does the evidence indicate that our genes entirely determine our moral outlook? Absolutely not! However, an inclination towards high/low empathy could be a determining factor in our social liberalism and, thus, determine our moral endorsements. Indeed, a genetic inheritance of emotional, cognitive or hormonal predispositions determining our response to ideology, also provide a means for moral views to emerge from such constructs. The research offers a rather fragmented picture of how genetic inheritance influences morality at present. Indeed, a direct line from genetic inheritance is elusive at present and only by exploring related areas can inferences be made. However, there seems to be enough prima facie evidence to ascertain that genetic variances have implications for differentiation in moral reasoning at some level.

Next Time

This has been a mere whistle-stop tour of the research on genes and ideology (I encourage you to delve further into the reference list for a comprehensive exploration!). However, it seems fitting to move from the role of heritability directly to the neurological differences that exist between liberals and conservatives (and what that means for moral reasoning!). I hope you can make it next time.


Backstrom, M., and Bjorklund, F. (2007) Structural modelling of generalised prejudice: The role of social dominance, authoritarianism, and empathy. Journal of Individual Differences. 28 (1): 10-17.

Baron-Cohen, S. (2012) Zero Degrees of Empathy, London: Penguin Books.

Davis, M. H., Luce, C., and Kraus, S. J. (1994) The heritability of characteristics associated with dispositional empathy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 62: 369-391.

Dziobek, I., Rogers, K., Fleck, S., Bahnemann, M., Heekeren, H., Wolf, O., and Convit, A. (2008) Dissociation of cognitive and emotional empathy in adults with Asperger Syndrome using multifaceted empathy test (MET). Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 38: 464 – 473.

English, A., and James, T. Morality in Action? Testing the Predictive Validity of Moral Foundations Theory on Prosocial Behaviour. Preparing for publication.

Hatemi, P. K., et al. (2014) Genetic influences on political ideologies: Twin analyses of 19 measures of political ideologies from five democracies and genome-wide findings from three populations. Behav. Genet. 44: 282-294.

Matthews, K. A., Batson, C. D., Horn, J., and Rosenman, R. H. (1981) The heritability of empathetic concern for others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 49: 237-247.

McFarland, S. (2010) Authoritarianism, social dominance, and other roots of generalised prejudice. Political Psychology. 31 (3): 453-477.

Verhulst, B., Eaves, L. J., Hatemi, P. K. (2012) Correlation not causation: the relationship between personality traits and political ideologies. American Journal of Political Science. 56 (1): 34-51.

Verhulst, B., Hatemi, P. K., and Martin, N. G. (2010) The nature of the relationship between personality traits and political attitudes. Personality and Individual Differences. 49 (4): 306-316.

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