are we born with a sense of right and wrong?

May 9, 2010

Babies are much more complicated little creatures than we tend to assume, summarizes a recent NYT article which tackles the question of whether babies have a sense of morality. Contrary to some popular beliefs, a baby’s mind isn’t just an empty canvas waiting to be painted. Instead, their little minds are busy making sense of the world around them and their instincts are advanced enough to start distinguishing fair and unfair, which seems to be an evolutionary basis for more complex concepts in morality and ethics. Rather than being a totally feral and rudderless animal from birth, humans, and perhaps their evolutionary cousins, are endowed with a basic sense of morality from the start and develop it into complex and nebulous abstractions over their lifetimes, with the learning process starting almost right away as babies form the precursors of biases and try to establish their territories and possessions. As you can see, this is a fascinatingly complex area of research which can lead us to answers to very profound questions about what exactly makes us humans and why.

For those who’ve been watching the work on infant behavior at the Max Planck Institute, this shouldn’t be a big surprise. Over the years, researchers watched the behaviors of babies and toddlers as they played, saw a nearby adult drop things on the floor, and react to different scenarios illustrating both fair and unfair behaviors by puppets and people. They learned that little kids prefer friendly social interaction, they don’t mind picking up dropped pencils and pens for adults, and balk at behavior they find odd, such as taking a roundabout path to a toy. Not only that, but they’re alarmed when people don’t react to their attempts at communication and cry if people refuse to engage them. And should they see a fellow infant crying in distress, they cry too, and they cry louder then they would when they hear recordings of themselves crying. At about one year of age, kids comfort each other, touching their upset playmates and offering toys. We could attribute all this to modeling behaviors they see from their parents, but in reality, the babies generally studied by researchers are too young for formal education and display a surprisingly consistent range of behaviors which indicates innate abilities. In short, a baby will generally prefer to act in ways that we would describe as nice from the start.

These findings agree with the evolutionary perspective of human behavior. Being nice, social, and helpful can help the species, so of course it only makes sense that the kind of brain wiring that would push more people towards being nice and friendly is going to be favored by natural selection. Even in the case of violent criminal behavior, the matters aren’t black and white since even the most worst offenders who aren’t mentally ill could relate to others and form friendships, and it’s more likely that they’re the results of modeling terrible behavior, or became criminals because of very complex socio-economic factors which changed their moral compass in ways most of us would find abhorrent. But unfortunately, towards the end of the article, we’re forced to make a U-turn from good science and in depth explanations into the relevant research to read about the opinions of a certain pseudo-intellectual demagogue who fancies himself a social philosopher: Dinesh D’Souza. I would be vary of the advice this sophist gives about changing light bulbs, much less psychology, but nevertheless, it seems that the article’s author, Paul Bloom, wanted to indulge the religious aspects of morality…

The general argument that critics like Wallace and D’Souza put forward, however, still needs to be taken seriously. The morality of contemporary humans really does outstrip what evolution could possibly have endowed us with; moral actions are often of a sort that have no plausible relation to our reproductive success and don’t appear to be accidental byproducts of evolved adaptations. Many of us care about strangers in faraway lands, sometimes giving up resources that could be used for our friends and family; many of us care about the fates of nonhuman animals, so much so that we’ll deprive ourselves of pleasures like rib-eye steak and veal scaloppine. We possess abstract moral notions of equality and freedom for all… Of course, our actions typically fall short, often far short, of our moral principles, but these principles do shape, in a substantial way, the world that we live in.

While I will give credit to Bloom of countering D’Souza’s pseudo-theological blathering in the article itself, I just can’t help but feel that this passage was a conciliatory nod towards religious groups who like to portray basic abilities to tell right from wrong as a gift from a deity. And as a conciliatory gesture, it makes statements which are highly debatable. Sure we care about strangers in faraway lands and give them money and aid, but at the same time, we give what we can afford to give and still feed our families to our standards, and there are quite a few extremely selfish people who scoff at the notion of giving anything to anyone, period. There are plenty of animal rights activists who become full blown vegans, and some reset their moral constructs to terrorize and take violent action against animal researchers with no regard for the well being of other humans, but they’re in the small minority. Finally, far from all of us possess the notion that all people should be free and equal. It’s been less than a few centuries since the West abandoned slavery, and racial and religious discrimination still goes on to this day with absolutely no end in sight. Just witness how nations like Saudi Arabia treat women or the sectarian wars of Iraq, as well as the hatred towards, well… everyone from white supremacists.

Ironically, the same religious institutions which go ballistic the moment anyone dares to say that morality isn’t solely the realm of religion and which tolerate horrific moral abuses, actually play a very significant part in hampering our notions of equality for all. Many of them are focused on their own communities and helping other faithful, asking those with different beliefs to convert after receiving aid, or as a precondition for their help if not just giving out their holy texts and saying they’ve given “the most important aid of all.” Organized faiths, far from bucking the evolutionary trends they decry, actually follow them to a tee. Yes, even babies have some ideas about morality, but when they grow up, their ideas of right, wrong, compassion, and inclusion produce a wide spectrum of responses to situations where human morality is put to the test. We still prioritize those who we see on a daily basis over strangers in distant lands and the specter of racism, sexism and discrimination heavily weighs on societies across the world. Sadly, even Western notions of freedom and equality for all are more of an ideal than practice. But at the same time, the good news is that evolution has been pushing us to be nicer and better to each other for millions of years. We’re social animals and we need each other to stay a strong species. If all of us were just kind enough to a small group around us, we would’ve never spread as far and wide as we have across this planet, and it’s likely that our technology would still be sticks and stones.

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  • Hmmm, I’m seeing something more in the part of the paragraph you didn’t quote, and the remains of that article. Bloom points out that the “created with morality” argument falls flat when babies don’t show anything more refined than basic empathy, and that the traits we consider “high altruism” develop over time from immersion within a culture. This actually counters D’Souza’s argument that we have it as a divine spark, the voice of god in our souls. What it does not counter, however, is the idea that religion, as practiced within a culture, has some hand in this.

    Or, does it? It’s exceptionally difficult to argue that religion, as a method of dictating proper behavior, can and does lead to any particular morality. For instance, does a child respond to the idea that something is “good” because a god says so, or because the people that surround the child favor “good” behavior over “bad”? If you were to raise a child with little outside influence but a firm grounding in religious scripture, would the child be good to others? How long would it last in a culture that did not emphasize religion?

    Where the article seems to fall short is in seeing evolution as a refined process, and morality as a specific function. Neither is the case. Evolution favors things that favor the species, but does not necessarily produce refinement – some things are haphazard at best. Empathy, as a means to favor cooperative species, is fairly basic, as the infant studies show. We work better as a cooperative species, which is obvious, but we need something to reward cooperation. We get an endorphin rush from a smile – that’s fairly simple. Do we get it from donating money to others? Yes, to a lesser degree, but any nonprofit knows that it works far better if the donor is recognized publicly, or at the very least thanked directly. Very, very few donors do so with total anonymity – those that do often do so to avoid being hounded by others seeking donations. Now you have to measure the rewards of donating money to one recipient against the negative aspect of turning down someone else seeking money. Both of them are still basic empathy at work.

    Can it translate upwards to advanced moral concepts? Of course it can. Most of our behavior can be whittled down to simple responses from others. Sometimes, it’s not a black-or-white case, but involves many degrees of good/bad that all get weighed against one another. It still boils down to, “Which one is best? or more specifically, “Which one gives me the greatest pleasure?” Sounds hedonistic, put that way, but only if your pleasure does not derive from the pleasure of others.

    However, we have something else in the mix, too, and this is the one that many people fail to understand: we also have a strong sense of competition and protection. Other humans can be a source of pleasure, but they can also be a source of pain, loss, theft, and so on. Competition also is favored by evolution – in fact, this is how most people feel “the survival of the fittest” is interpreted, and while those that understand natural selection groan loudly at this misinterpretation, it’s not exactly wrong, either. Both work for the species, and one does not necessarily have to win out over the other.

    What it results in, however, is regular mental conflict for humans. Friend or foe? Does this real estate agent really want me to be happy, or simply want the money I have? (Think about this in terms of both male and female realtors – is there a difference in your mind? Why?) Competition for limited resources is yet another fact of life, and has to be taken into account when talking about us as a species. We like to think that we’re peaceful, but that’s obviously absurd.

    What’s really funny about this is, religion never wants to take the credit for this aspect of human behavior. What this implies, though, is that we’re somehow born with competitive tendencies despite what some god wants us to have. Morals come from religion, so without them we’re selfish and evil? How did we get this way, one has to ask? Sounds like a really warped game to be playing with a species you created in a loving way.

    That’s one of the reasons I wonder why so many people have issues with evolution. It makes so damn much more sense to see ourselves as a product of slight refinements over long periods, rather than as a deliberate and planned pile of shit ;-)

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Alas, ’tis all backwards.

    Infants do not have anything like adult morality.

    It’s just that adult morality is in its infancy.

    Oh, and this:

  • jimijr

    You might be interested in this short book by Jane Yolen about feral children.

  • This shows that we are born with a sense of morality, without the need for religion.

  • I have just retired as a nurse from the NHS after looking after sick newborn babies for 22yrs. I have stood and looked at rooms full of babies wondering whether any one of them has been born “evil” as some believe. I cannot and will not believe that any of these precious human beings has the inborn ability to be evil. I believe that babies are like pieces of plasticene, the basic material which has to be shaped and moulded by its environment. I have worried about the situations into which some of them will be going.. some won’t have a chance, aggression, bigotry and often yes, religion acting as a source of threat and fear. I went through the latter myself with the fear of sin=hell if I died and hadn’t been to confession. It’s abuse of the highest order by people held in the highest regard.

  • Brandon

    This is very interesting. I remember reading this article about newborns acting in a very altruistic manner. Especially that we do not view ourselves as an individual until it becomes socialized to be so. This is a great article and definitely a blog i will subscribe towards. I am surprised that no one has started quoting or making reference to moral philosophy. I was definitely expecting to see Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Aquinas, Eastern Philosophy, Dewey, Smith, etc,etc all over these blog comments!

  • Atiya

    well to my little understanding every individual has his own socio economic conditions and no child has given a choice to be born in the very blessed famillies but decided the God and for any reason if the baby is not being given the right directon or treated fairly as its already said that they are morally trainned naturally then the religion plays a very fair role to provide with extra ordinary support{ divine guidance }and energises your soul to be a good human being and this has been observes in many criminal cases a guilty person.