back to news

Sixth Former, Jayden, wins prestigious Erasmus Essay Prize

Monday, 28 February 2022

Sixth Form pupil, Jayden, was awarded first place and a prize of £500 in this year's Erasmus Essay Competition. 

Erasmus is an annual essay competition run by Oxford University among top British Schools,  in collaboration with top Scholars who judge the best essay produced in a three-hour exam under timed conditions. A reading list is produced at the end of the Summer Term and pupils undertake independent research in preparation for the exam.

The topic this year was 'Science and morality' and Jayden wrote a compelling essay in response to the question ‘Are there any Moral Values?’ arguing that morality is defined by ‘a synthesis of our human nature and our customs’. In arguing so, he placed a particular emphasis on cooperation as fundamental to moral values. 

Congratulations Jayden on this outstanding achievement. 

You can read his winning essay here:

"To claim that there are universal moral values is to claim that morality must stem from a constant and almost unchanging source that determines the ultimate cause of ethics. It is only if there is an unnerving base of morality that we can then claim that there are moral values that are universal as a universal notion cannot be grounded by the fleeting and ever-evolving reality that we live in. Moreover, many philosophers and theologists such as Plato and religious figures have attempted to attribute morality to an existential source that precedes the universe and the morality of our universe in order to universalise the concept. This however is an unsatisfactory explanation for a universal morality for those who wish to find an explanation of morality without the need for a metaphysical entity who’s exist cannot be proven and who’s principles cannot be questioned. If morality was to be universalised, therefore, it would have to stand on the rigid pillars of science that are a constant factor of reality and are void of any subjectivity. The most appropriate way that one would approach the question of the interaction between science and morality is by looking at the role of morality in our evolution. Given that there is an element of morality that stems from our natural intuition and that regardless of social, historical or geographical backgrounds all societies largely share the same basic moral values that, it seems sensible to connect morality to human biology. The basic moral values that we hold are also shared by other animals and can be observed from a very young age in babies. These basic moral values shared by humans, other animals and babies do not however, wholly describe the plethora of complex ethical systems that can vary substantially from society to society. Morality cannot simply stem solely from our biology. Moreover, empirical observation suggests that we as humans are all given an innate understanding of what tends to lead to the goal of morality which is to promote the flourishing of oneself through the flourishing of their society. Whilst many moral values do depend on various social, historical and geographical factors, there are moral values that are innate in all humans that are necessary for the flourishing of a society and therefore can be labelled as universal.

To analyse the importance of our biological evolution on creating universal moral values, we can look at the similarities between the moral values of humans and the moral values of biologically related animals. Zoologist and anthropologists have carried out an abundance of research into the morality of species closely related to humans such as chimpanzees. The anthropologist Frans de Waal carried out several experiments that analysed the moral nature of chimpanzees and concluded that they are innately empathetic and extremely cooperative. One such experiment where the chimpanzee’s empathy and cooperation were amply exhibited placed two chimpanzees in cages besides each other. One chimpanzee was made to choose between a green and a red stick. Whichever stick they picked, they were fed, however if they picked the green stick, the other chimpanzee would be fed too but if they picked the red stick the other chimp would not be fed. After a few trials it seemed that the vast majority of chimpanzees only picked the green stick once they realised that it would benefit the other chimpanzee even though there was no direct benefit to the chimpanzee choosing the stick. This displayed the chimpanzee’s natural intuition of both empathy and cooperation, suggesting that such characteristics are necessary for the flourishing of the individual chimpanzee and their communities given that these attributes are a product of the chimpanzee’s biology. Similar behaviours also show that chimpanzees have a full understanding of the need for cooperation and empathy. Chimpanzees have been observed to reconcile valuable relationships after fights. Baboons act similarly but use sex as a tool for reconciliation. Capuchin Monkeys have been shown to react negatively to others being treated unfairly. The abundant evidence showing that primates almost always have tendencies of empathy and cooperation that are reflected in the behaviour of humans suggests that the human species’ desire to act cooperatively can be recognised as a product of our biology as opposed to our upbringing and education. Moreover as these values of empathy and cooperation are a product of our intuition, it would seem sensible to label them as universal as they are traits that all humans tend to share.

The moral values that babies tend to hold are also further evidence that certain moral values precede our interaction with society and are therefore natural products of our human nature and can be categorised as a universal feature of our morality. Jean-Jacques Rousseau claimed that ‘babies are the perfect idiots’ and that they possess no knowledge prior to their interaction with society. However, psychologists have proven since that most babies do indeed show signs of empathy and fairness from as young as 6 months old, despite their extremely limited social experience. Felix Warnersten conducted an experiment in which toddlers saw a random person, unrelated to them, struggling to reach for an object. The conclusion of is experiment was that almost all babies spontaneously attempted to reach out for the object and try to help the person. This was evidence of a baby’s inclination to help others regardless the expectation of reward. Babies not only possess a nature of cooperation but also express an understanding of fair exchange. When two babies are placed next to each other and one is given 5 sweets as a reward while the other is given ten for the same task that they both completed, the baby with ten sweets often gives the other baby some of their sweets in order to balance out their rewards. This trait of impartiality, as Peter Singer notes, can be observed from religious and secular notions of morality from Christianity’s golden rule to the teachings of Confucius to John rawl’s landmark teachings of justice. Furthermore, the notion of fairness and impartiality seems to be another moral value that all humans intrinsically hold and therefore must be universal.

Clearly there is strong evidence to suggest that there are moral values that seem to be a part of our biological nature and that therefore if our morality stems from our human nature then we should classify these values as universal. However, it is not entirely evident that our morality should stem from our nature or that the applied ethics of our societies does not diverge from what we are biologically programmed to do. David Hume highlights a vital flaw with suggesting that what is natural is necessarily right. This is the ‘is/ought’ problem that many philosophers and theologians who look to what tends to happen in nature without any external, synthetic factors for what ought to be right. Seemingly there is a false inference when suggesting that just because we can observe natural tendencies of cooperation, fairness and empathy in humans and other animals therefore these traits must be what ought to be the case for our morality and this should be the guidance for our morality. We cannot base our values solely on nature as nature lacks a consistent, and justified explanation of what our moral values should be. For example, in the animal kingdom, there is undeniably a lot of occurrences of rape, something that we as humans find abhorrent and simply wrong. By following the notion that nature should guide our values, it would follow that in some cases rape is justifiable. However, this is clearly a notion that is unacceptable in our societies and seen as one of the worst crimes that can be committed. Moreover, it seems sensible that moral values should not be based solely on our nature as nature is not suitable as an absolute and consistent arbiter of morality.

This being said, the criticism that nature is at times unpredictable and lacks the unwavering authority of other absolute ethical systems such as Divine Command theory has, misunderstands, the utility of nature when it comes to morality in particular. Nature, for the most part, makes clear what can be considered right or wrong and its utility should not be disregarded due to minimal evidence of its contradictory nature. The roots of morality, as evidenced by the studies of babies and other animals, is a product of our biological evolution. Although at first glance it may seem as if nature does not provide sufficient guidance for our ethical dilemmas, humans have little to no problem with understanding the core concepts of our natural morality that guides societies all around the world. Oliver Scott Curry conducted research into the key concepts of morality that seem to be prevalent in all humans and concluded that there are seven key values can be seen in societies worldwide: Kinship(Loving your family), exchange(returning favours), respect for elders, heroism(being courageous), fairness, not stealing, and cooperation. In his study of over 130 countries, he found that these values were key tenets of all societies with one exception where in one society open theft was seen as admirable. It is evident that regardless of the social, historical, or geographical context, nature and our biology seem to be consistent and dependable roots to hold our moral values on. Moreover, despite the seemingly contradictory and ambiguous guidance of nature, it is clearly a reliable source to base our values.
One could make the retort however, that our values have drastically changed over time and that there are multiple examples of societies that reject the fundamental moral values that we hold today. One example is of Nazi’s Germany lack of fairness towards Jews, homosexuals, and black people. In fact, this discrimination against various members of societies is prevalent in human history, from the Jews In ancient Egypt to Apartheid South Africa. In these situations, it was seen as morally acceptable to discriminate against these people. However, I would argue that these examples show the necessity of using nature to determine our moral values as they are examples of our parochial nature overpowering our natural inclination towards fairness and cooperation. Abigail Marsh suggests that the reason why our societies have become more liberal and reflect the Oliver Scott Curry’s seven basic values is that we are better able to express our human nature as we have become liberated from the shackles of poor living conditions, war and poverty that poisoned our benevolent nature and caused us to behave increasingly for the benefit of ourselves rather than society. Moreover, it seems that what has changed about humans is not necessarily the values that we possess but rather the freedom to express out true nature that determines the moral values necessary to help our societies flourish.

It would be misleading to suggest that our morality is based solely on or human nature and is a product of our biological evolution. Morality does change accordingly with the customs of our society. However, morality is defined by the synthesis of our human nature and our customs and as we are liberated from the burdens of poverty and poor living conditions, it is our nature and its values of cooperation that will define the core values of our morality. Therefore there are universal moral values that stem from our nature."

Jayden wrote a compelling essay in response to the question ‘Are there any Moral Values?’
back to news