Thursday, May 6, 2010

Morality in Our Tender Years

Here is a bit from a fascinating article on babies and morality written by Paul Bloom and published in the NY Times:
Not long ago, a team of researchers watched a 1-year-old boy take justice into his own hands. The boy had just seen a puppet show in which one puppet played with a ball while interacting with two other puppets. The center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the right, who would pass it back. And the center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the left . . . who would run away with it. Then the two puppets on the ends were brought down from the stage and set before the toddler. Each was placed next to a pile of treats. At this point, the toddler was asked to take a treat away from one puppet. Like most children in this situation, the boy took it from the pile of the “naughty” one. But this punishment wasn’t enough — he then leaned over and smacked the puppet in the head.


But the current work I’m involved in, on baby morality, might seem like a perverse and misguided next step. Why would anyone even entertain the thought of babies as moral beings? From Sigmund Freud to Jean Piaget to Lawrence Kohlberg, psychologists have long argued that we begin life as amoral animals. One important task of society, particularly of parents, is to turn babies into civilized beings — social creatures who can experience empathy, guilt and shame; who can override selfish impulses in the name of higher principles; and who will respond with outrage to unfairness and injustice. Many parents and educators would endorse a view of infants and toddlers close to that of a recent Onion headline: “New Study Reveals Most Children Unrepentant Sociopaths.” If children enter the world already equipped with moral notions, why is it that we have to work so hard to humanize them?

A growing body of evidence, though, suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life. With the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone. Which is not to say that parents are wrong to concern themselves with moral development or that their interactions with their children are a waste of time. Socialization is critically important. But this is not because babies and young children lack a sense of right and wrong; it’s because the sense of right and wrong that they naturally possess diverges in important ways from what we adults would want it to be.


Does our research show that babies believe that the helpful character is good and the hindering character is bad? Not necessarily. All that we can safely infer from what the babies reached for is that babies prefer the good guy and show an aversion to the bad guy. But what’s exciting here is that these preferences are based on how one individual treated another, on whether one individual was helping another individual achieve its goals or hindering it. This is preference of a very special sort; babies were responding to behaviors that adults would describe as nice or mean. When we showed these scenes to much older kids — 18-month-olds — and asked them, “Who was nice? Who was good?” and “Who was mean? Who was bad?” they responded as adults would, identifying the helper as nice and the hinderer as mean.


In fact, our initial moral sense appears to be biased toward our own kind. There’s plenty of research showing that babies have within-group preferences: 3-month-olds prefer the faces of the race that is most familiar to them to those of other races; 11-month-olds prefer individuals who share their own taste in food and expect these individuals to be nicer than those with different tastes; 12-month-olds prefer to learn from someone who speaks their own language over someone who speaks a foreign language. And studies with young children have found that once they are segregated into different groups — even under the most arbitrary of schemes, like wearing different colored T-shirts — they eagerly favor their own groups in their attitudes and their actions.


The aspect of morality that we truly marvel at — its generality and universality — is the product of culture, not of biology. There is no need to posit divine intervention. A fully developed morality is the product of cultural development, of the accumulation of rational insight and hard-earned innovations. The morality we start off with is primitive, not merely in the obvious sense that it’s incomplete, but in the deeper sense that when individuals and societies aspire toward an enlightened morality — one in which all beings capable of reason and suffering are on an equal footing, where all people are equal — they are fighting with what children have from the get-go. The biologist Richard Dawkins was right, then, when he said at the start of his book “The Selfish Gene,” “Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly toward a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature.” Or as a character in the Kingsley Amis novel “One Fat Englishman” puts it, “It was no wonder that people were so horrible when they started life as children.”

Morality, then, is a synthesis of the biological and the cultural, of the unlearned, the discovered and the invented. Babies possess certain moral foundations — the capacity and willingness to judge the actions of others, some sense of justice, gut responses to altruism and nastiness. Regardless of how smart we are, if we didn’t start with this basic apparatus, we would be nothing more than amoral agents, ruthlessly driven to pursue our self-interest. But our capacities as babies are sharply limited. It is the insights of rational individuals that make a truly universal and unselfish morality something that our species can aspire to.
When I was a kid, people were considered "blank slates" ready to be educated into any culture, any concepts, any morality. But all of that has been undercut in the last 40 years. Humans, like most animals, are born with instincts and inner models (like "naive physics") that guide them in understanding the world. Without this boost, it is really hard to understand how little kids master so much so quickly. Language learning happens quickly because we have a built-in "universal grammer" that preps us to learn the specific syntax of our culture. We are born with an instinct to orient towards faces. Babies have reflexes that quickly let them build a well-structured interaction with their mother. So this new study about morality isn't a surprise. The article goes on to discuss all these capabilities of babies.

Read the article. It is fascinating.


thomas said...

I read this this morning. It is of interest to me because I so often wonder where morality comes from. It does seem to be hardwired into us to some extent at least. This is something that I got kind of stuck on as I read The Virtue of Selfishness; where does ethics and morality come from and how do you know so emphatically that one thing is wrong or right and make everything so "black and white"? Where do these rules or values or laws come from? This study seems to indicate that even early on we know or feel some sort of moral values. I still ponder, but I am going to go to the article and read the whole thing... I still marvel at how much we can realize that we don't know..

RYviewpoint said...

Thomas: I'm not a fan of Ayn Rand (or presumably of her book "The Virtue of Selfishness" which I haven't read).

She is the epitome of libertarian philosophy, i.e. we are each individual atoms with no moral or social obligations to others. We bounce around the world with only "contractual" obligations that we freely enter. What a bunch of hooey! Since when does a baby come into the world signing a contract with his parents?

Alan Greenspan was a disciple of Ayn Rand. He convinced himself that regulation was a "burden" because individual rational beings in a free market would always come to an optimal agreement. He thought financial fraud was impossible (until the trillion dollar meltdown and he went before Congress to admit he was wrong... think of that, a multi trillion dollar mistake that has left millions unemployed and thrown out of their houses!)

Morality as innate vs. convention is just like the debate of nature vs. nurture. Each side is too extreme. We are a mixture of both.

What this science studying babies shows is that we have a rudimentary moral "sense". It doesn't address the fact that this moral sense can be "shaped" by a culture. It doesn't look at the tension between innate and learned. It doesn't explore the limits where you can shape but the innate can't be infinitely "shaped" by convention or culture.

The example I like best is the innate sense of moral disgust at sex with a sibling. This shows up best in the Israeli kibbutz. These are not siblings, but unrelated kids raised together who, because of constant contact, fail to see each other as potential sexual partners (just like siblings in a family with constant contact develop are primed by nature to fail to see each other as sexual partners). This is built in as a kind of "incest taboo" to prevent inbreeding and help us outbreed. It isn't completely 100% effective. (Remember, in the Egyptian royal families during Pharaonic times brothers and sisters wed.)

I remember when I was a kid and first consciously considered moral values I came up with a U-shaped scheme. We have our highest obligation to ourselves, then our family, then our circle of friends, then our local community, then our nation, then our world, then to "the whole of the universe including the future". The highest obligations are at the two extremes: ourself and "the whole universe". The lowpoint was the intermediary point, the nation.

I puzzled over my personal conception because it was not what my culture taught. Christian religion says we have a duty of "universal love" (despite the fact that most Christians don't exhibit this). And nation states, especially the fanatical Nazi and Communist states stress that your highest duty is to "the state" and that you should be ready to sacrifice yourself and your family to this higher order obligation.

So there I was with 3 different moral schemes: U-shaped (my conception), flat (Christian), and an inverted V shape (fanatical nationalism).

In short, the raw feeling inside each one is a need to belong and a sense of us vs. them. And this can be shaped into selfishness, into racism, or into a universal love. The culture shapes the raw natural bit into a conventional ethic.

So I end up again at my muddly, middle-of-the-way view of the world. It isn't simple. We are a mixture. Our ethics is partly in-built and partly learned.