Saturday, June 28, 2014

Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, by Paul Bloom

I reviewed Paul Bloom's latest book for the December 2013 Literary Review; it is reproduced here with permission.

Why are we good? More interestingly, perhaps, why aren’t we better? As a species we are able to demonstrate astonishing capacities for kindness to others, but only to some of them (to other others we can be perfectly horrid). Explaining why our morality is so selective has been a perennial problem for moral philosophy and these days attracts as much interest from those who probe the mind and brain with scientific methods.

Many of the recent morality headlines have centred around so-called ‘trolley’ problems. Would you flip a switch to change the path of a runaway railway trolley from a track where there are five incapacitated people to a track where there is just one? Probably. Would you push an overweight fellow from a bridge into the path of the trolley if it had the same net effect? Probably not. The growth of ‘trolleyology’ and other experimental methods has allowed psychologists to describe the often trivial factors that weigh on our moral judgements and cognitive neuroscientists to get busy tracing their neural underpinnings.

In his new book, Paul Bloom, a developmental psychologist at Yale, argues that we should not seek the origins of moral behaviour exclusively in either nature (our innate instincts to behave well or badly towards others) or nurture (the assimilation of moral norms through enculturation). Instead, he claims, our capacities for behaving in good ways or bad stem from interactions between what we are born with and what we acquire through experience. Citing the philosopher Adam Smith, Bloom argues that the foundations of our morality – what Thomas Jefferson called a ‘moral sense’ – are an innate endowment crafted by natural selection. These inbuilt capacities are then shaped by experience to form the sense of right and wrong that we rely on as adults. Against this background, getting developmental about morality seems eminently sensible. If you want to know what degree of good and evil we are born with, why not watch how babies behave?

Modern developmental psychology reveals that Jefferson’s ‘moral sense’ turns out to be not so much an impulse to do good or evil as a capacity to make moral judgements. Six-month-old babies are more likely to reach towards a puppet seen to help a ball move up a hill than towards one that had hindered the ball’s passage. It’s not enough merely to be able to tell good from bad behaviour; true morality is accompanied by certain feelings as well. Toddlers will soothe someone in pain or distress, demonstrating that empathy can motivate compassion even very early in life. Little kids are also big on fairness, as any parent will confirm. All is not rosy in the nursery, however: game theory studies show that children only really care about equality if they are the ones to miss out on their fair share. Children’s appetites for punishment and revenge also reflect what Bloom calls the ‘darker side of morality’. A desire for punishment, he argues, is ‘an accidental spillover of a more narrow proclivity toward revenge’ – we retaliate against those who have harmed us and then, through the exercise of empathy, extend that thirst for retribution to those who do harm to others.

There are of course other limits to children’s innate goodness. Bloom spends some time wondering whether racial bias and other forms of bigotry might be parasitic on the biologically adaptive tendency to form exclusive coalitions. When it comes to moralising about sex, the more primitive emotion of disgust comes into play. There is no satisfactory evolutionary story to explain a phenomenon like homophobia (if anything, straight men should thank gay guys for leaving more women to go around). For Bloom, the only explanation that works is that sex is about bodies and bodies trigger evolved reactions of disgust that are subsequently shaped by laws, religion and culture. Moral outrage grows out of more primitive (and scientifically explicable) instincts. Whisper it among consenting adults, but sexual morality isn’t about morality at all.

When your starting points are evolutionary biology and developmental psychology rather than moral philosophy, questions of right and wrong begin to look rather different. Our differing responses to the two trolley problems mentioned before make little sense from the perspective of consequentialism (the idea that we make moral judgements on the basis of their outcomes). The traditional alternative, deontology, proposes that we follow certain broader moral principles even if they lead to worse outcomes. But the idea of a universal moral code can’t account for a phenomenon such as slavery: tolerated and practised for so long and now almost universally reviled. In Bloom’s view, the recognition of the wrongness of slavery was a moral discovery, not the exercise of innate insight (the industry could not have lasted so long otherwise). We create the environments in which the natural moral sense of a baby is transformed into an adult’s sophisticated moral code.

Just Babies reads rather differently from those pop-psychology blockbusters that uncritically seek counterintuitive findings, bombard the reader with neuroimaging or claim that we are all the blind slaves of our passions. Bloom is perhaps not as vocal about the limits of his developmental method as he might have been: the evidence from babies is necessarily patchy, and there could have been more on arguments about what exactly should count as ‘innate’ and why some individuals’ moral capacities fail so spectacularly. ‘Strong is the Power of the Dark Side’, as Bloom imagines Yoda saying, and his witty, elegant account understandably leaves a few questions unanswered. It may not be fashionable, but Bloom’s sober stance at the frontier of the science of morality is much to be admired.