The first step in understanding the human mind is to recognise that the concept of morality varies greatly, depending on a person’s situation and standing, even within the same society. Then, we have to discover where all these various definitions of morality derive from; how do children, for instance, distinguish right from wrong? There are two obvious answers to this question: nature, or nurture. The first camp, the nativists, believe that the answer to the question is nature, and that moral knowledge is native to the human mind; empiricists, on the other hand, believe in nurture, and that moral knowledge comes from our education.
The basis of psychological rationalism is that people grow into their rationality just as caterpillars grow into butterflies. Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget argued that children approach morality just in the same way as they understand concepts such as the conservation of volume: they figure it out for themselves as they get older, but only when their minds are cognitively ready; in other words, it is not innate, but learnt over time.
Many decades later, American psychologist Elliot Turiel’s research and studies showed that, contrary to Piaget’s assumption, children do not treat all rules equally. Although children are unable to express themselves like moral philosophers, they nevertheless sort through social information in a highly evolved way, in order to understand what is right and what is wrong, and above all, the reason why it is right or wrong.
When approaching morality from an anthropological perspective, we see that there is no real distinction between morality and social convention, especially in children, so we might say that distinction is a cultural artefact, a necessary side effect of the individual response to major social issues. At the end of the day, however, morality can be both innate and learnt: people are born just, but they have to learn what, exactly, they should be just about.