Innate Morality: A Response to John Dunne


John Dunne has written at The Two Cities doubting innate morality, on the grounds of total depravity and the essential role of special revelation. He admits that he is ‘unaware of the bulk of philosophical discussions surrounding ethics’, and neither is that my expertise; nevertheless, I think I may have something worth saying to the question of innate morality.

By innate morality, I understand the natural, inborn capacity for moral reasoning, supported by some kind of moral instinct. As far as I know, this is a definition compatible with, and perhaps identical to, the one John is using. The question, then, is whether man has this capacity, and how it is related to our inclination toward evil.

Like John, I take a Reformed view of biblical anthropology, one that emphasizes the moral depravity of man since the fall of Adam. The Reformed teaching, over and against the teaching of the Arminian Remonstrants, is articulated most especially in the Canons of the Synod of Dordt. These canons say the following about the corruption of man (3.1–4):

  1. Man was originally formed after the image of God. His understanding was adorned with a true and saving knowledge of his Creator, and of spiritual things; his heart and will were upright; all his affections pure; and the whole man was holy; but revolting from God by the instigation of the devil, and abusing the freedom of his own will, he forfeited these excellent gifts; and on the contrary entailed on himself blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity and perverseness of judgement, becoming wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in his affections.
  2. Man after the fall begat children in his own likeness. A corrupt stock produced a corrupt offspring. Hence all the posterity of Adam, Christ only excepted, have derived corruption from their original parent, not by imitation, as the Pelagians of old asserted, but by the propagation of a vicious nature.
  3. Therefore all men are conceived in sin, and by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto, and without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, nor to dispose themselves to reformation.
  4. There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the differences between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment. But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God, and to true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.

According to the divines of Dordt, then, it is actually through retaining some knowledge of God that wicked men are held inexcusable before God. They are incapable, moreover, not of all good, but rather of saving good.

We do see, indeed, that not all good is departed from the societies even of the unregenerate. We who trust in God as he has specially revealed himself in the Scriptures can see that, whatever the cause, virtue exists among even those who cling to false gods and have not bowed their knees or their hearts to the true and living God. It seems reasonable, moreover, to distinguish between the ability to recognize evil and the will to avoid it, or conversely the ability to recognize good and the will to pursue it. The sinner knows he is a sinner, even though he sins. This much is certain.

Less certain is whether man knows his sinfulness through natural revelation or special. For everyone has access to natural revelation – the heavens declare the glory of God – but everyone who lives on earth today is equally a descendant of Noah, and heir to some society that owes its existence not only to his loins but also to his Ark, by which the Lord saved eight persons in all. Through the nurture of centuries, then, one may still receive traces of special revelation. The worship of deity, at least, is still there, as is the sense of shame that comes from breaking the laws that other men hold to be sacred, laws that have in some form or another come to us today. Something as important as knowledge of God, surely, could not be completely extinguished in the customs of human societies after Noah; the laws Noah received from the Lord cannot be wholly banished from the observance of fathers and kings.

For apologetical purposes, this may be enough. It is enough that people know somehow that there is a difference between right and wrong. It is enough that people know not to murder, steal, or commit adultery. That some kind of moral sense exists is enough for the use of him who would defend the faith.

Nevertheless, for him who would know whether we have by nature any of Adam’s knowledge of God’s law, this is not enough. We wish to know whether the wild child, deprived of human society, can know the law of God; or whether the sinner, hardened in his sinful pleasures, has any memory left of the sinfulness of sin; or whether both are wanting in all spiritual knowledge.

The unregenerate man feels pleasure in sinning, but it does not make him happy. His will is bound to sin, yet he sometimes is aware of his bondage. Indeed, does the drug addict really have no idea of his addiction? Though he deny it, is he not still, at times, ever so keenly aware of it, and desirous of its abolition? Has not his mind an apprehension that it is defiled, and does it not wish to become clean, though it know not the way?

Yes, sometimes he knows. The disquiet of his heart would not be there if no morality inhered in him apart from the Scriptures. He would gladly be a slave, giving no second thought to the shame of his condition, and he would have no conscience that professed anything true: for, even if he knew Christians who loved and adhered to God’s word – even his own parents – he would not recognize it as good. Not having innate morality, he would have nothing but absolute scorn for Christians and their morality: not only would he fail to respond to the gospel, but, his humanity not preserved by the Holy Ghost, he would finally have no common ground at all with the moral tenets of the Christian faith, for his unnatural mind would be freed from all infusion of grace and from all imputation of the name of human.

For, as soon as he knew he could sin without his parents punishing him, he would sin. And this is almost the case. Once our parents we turned around, we do often feel tempted to do what we would not do when they could see us. But most of us do learn something from our parents: not only do we learn what they consider to be right, but we also learn to have our own sense of right and wrong, so that we can judge, even when they are gone, what is right and what is wrong. And this is not a capacity that can be supplied from outside, but only by the preserving work of the Holy Ghost, keeping from destruction the moral sense with which the Word of God has endowed us by nature.


4 responses to “Innate Morality: A Response to John Dunne

  1. Speaking of Dort, we still need to read those together.

    This is an interesting topic, and its intersection with parenting deserves to be explored further. You mention, but have not actually addressed fully, what sense of morality you believe a “wild child,” deprived of human society, would have. You state only that children, once taught by their parents, develop their own sense of moral judgment over time.

    But perhaps the concept of a completely wild child is not worth discussing. No infant could survive on his own; in order to live, he must have experienced love from someone, even if only from apes (as in the case of a theoretical Tarzan). Knowledge of such love both stems from and grows into knowledge of God, for God is love, and those who know God also know something of the difference between good and evil. A totally wild child might indeed have no sense of morality, but a totally wild child can exist only in theory.


    • We do indeed still need to read the Canons of Dordt.

      I think my actual point concerns the usefulness and, indeed, the necessity of reasoning from natural revelation to persuade pagans and, yes, (incompletely) wild children. As you correctly point out, even a Mowgli or a Tarzan is so preserved by God that he retains a basic knowledge of love, though I cannot tell whether the love of a human and the love of a wolf are of the same kind.

      What remains, though, is that the very ability to use moral reasoning, even with extreme deprivation, seems almost impossible to root out. It seems that the learning of morals, though strongly influenced by upbringing, is not wholly determined by parents and others, because people develop views that do not exactly match those held by others. What this fact suggests is that humans do in fact have moral agency by nature and not by nurture, which in turn implies that, if all things have their natural orientation in God, humans also all have some moral sense that knows some basic facts about moral good.


  2. I think there is a hypothesis being floated analogous to Noam Chomsky’s nativist “Universal Grammar” that there is a sort of “moral nativism” encoded into our brains…


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