The Beginnings of Morality
Our complex philosophies of morality and justice have humble beginnings. Long before we can articulate principles of right and wrong, or even speak at all, we learn our first lessons in fairness. In the crying and cooing of infancy, the foundations are laid for our lifelong sense of justice. Through distress, response, and the restoration of balance, an infant’s earliest experiences impart something profound – our actions can change the world for the better. Though only the faintest sketch, this childhood imprint contains the essence of morality. Our adult frameworks are merely elaborations on those primordial seeds. An unromanticised but honest view of morality is this: it begins with fulfilling one’s own basic needs. Only after an individual’s survival and resources are secured can an idealized morality extend to the fair treatment of others.
An Infant’s First Lessons in Justice
An infant’s earliest lived experience with cause and effect plants the seeds of our sense of justice. When an infant feels pangs of hunger, discomfort from a wet diaper, or other unmet needs, creating distress. The infant then reacts instinctively through crying and uncoordinated limb motions – the only means to exert control available. The caregiver responds by meeting the need, soothing the baby through feeding, changing, or comforting. This restores equilibrium, relieving the infant’s cries.
Through repeated experiences, this pattern gets reinforced in the infant’s mind: Feelings of distress lead to reaction, which prompts a response, which restores balance. This simplest of causal sequences teaches our newborn brains on a primal level to associate our actions with the restoration of justice and satisfaction. An exertion of control, no matter how awkward and limited, can prompt others to rectify imbalance and distress.
This rudimentary childhood lesson provides the foundation for our lifelong concept of fairness and morality. The original template of expressed need spurring reaction spurring resolution informs our maturing ideas of justice and ethical relating at exponentially more complex levels. But the seed is planted in infancy, through that primal loop linking action to equilibrium. All later elaborations build upon that seminal first experience.
We can see clear roots of ‘disordered’ personality complexes beginning here, revolving around an infant’s ability to clock the type and timing of the environment’s response to their needs.
Morality as Subjective Equilibrium
These infant experiences reveal an essential truth – our sense of morality and justice stems from a place of subjective experience, not objective universality. We understand equilibrium, and we understand the agreement of our equilibriums with others. Through this, we can feel out what might be best for the world. Right and wrong are defined by our early interactions, shaped by family and culture, not predetermined absolutes. What is moral is what restores balance and order in our world. We can extend morality to others once we have achieved predictable self-preservation.
This relativistic understanding of ethics centers morality within lived experiences, not idealized rules. At the primal level, justice is about remedying distress and instability. Seeing morality through this experiential lens makes it deeply personal, variable, and imperfect – but also recognizably human. We have all sought equilibrium from those first cries.
In connecting to our shared characteristics with honesty, not judging them, we may better understand ourselves without shutting off insight and investigation at the risk of submitting to shame. We may be able to ask ourselves “what of this person’s morality achieves equilibrium for them, and what of ours, for us?”