Our Genetic Moral Code

Dec 29 2013 @ 3:31pm

Back in November, in an interview with Sam Harris, Paul Bloom explained the thesis of his new book, Just Babies:

Certainly some morality is learned; this has to be the case because moral ideals differ across societies. Nobody is born with the belief that sexism is wrong (a moral belief that you and I share) or that blasphemy should be punished by death (a moral belief that you and I reject). Such views are the product of culture and society. They aren’t in the genes.

But the argument I make in Just Babies is that there also exist hardwired moral universals—moral principles that we all possess. And even those aspects of morality—such as the evils of sexism—that vary across cultures are ultimately grounded in these moral foundations.

A very different misconception sometimes arises, often stemming from a religious or spiritual outlook. It’s that we start off as Noble Savages, as fundamentally good and moral beings. From this perspective, society and government and culture are corrupting influences, blotting out and overriding our natural and innate kindness.

This, too, is mistaken. We do have a moral core, but it is limited—Hobbes was closer to the truth than Rousseau. Relative to an adult, your typical toddler is selfish, parochial, and bigoted. I like the way Kingsley Amis once put it: “It was no wonder that people were so horrible when they started life as children.” Morality begins with the genes, but it doesn’t end there.

In an excerpt from his book, Bloom explores how toddlers make moral choices:

Children tattle. When they see wrongdoing, they are apt to complain about it to an authority figure, and they don’t need to be prompted to do so. In one study, 2- and 3-year-olds were taught a new game to play with a puppet; when the puppet started to break the rules, the children would spontaneously complain to adults. In studies of siblings between the ages of 2 and 6, investigators found that most of what the children said to their parents about their brothers or sisters counted as tattling. And their reports tended to be accurate. They were ratting their sibs out, but they were not making things up. …

Part of the satisfaction of tattling surely comes from showing oneself to adults as a good moral agent, a responsible being who is sensitive to right and wrong. But I would bet that children would tattle even if they could do so only anonymously. They would do it just to have justice done. The love of tattling reveals an appetite for payback, a pleasure in seeing wrongdoers (particularly those who harmed the child, or a friend ofthe child) being punished. Tattling is a way of off-loading the potential costs of revenge.

Another excerpt looks at the other side of morality:

Not all morality has to do with wrongness. Morality also encompasses questions of rightness, as nicely illustrated by a study of spontaneous helping in toddlers, designed by the psychologists Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello. In one condition of the study, the toddler is in a room with his or her mother present. An adult walks in, his arms full, and he tries to open a closet door. Nobody looks at the child, or prompts him or her or asks for help. Still, about half do help—they will spontaneously stand up, wobble over, and open the door for the adult.

This is a small example for a small individual, but we see this kindness writ large when people donate time, money, or even blood to help others, sometimes strangers. This behavior too is seen as moral; it inspires emotions like pride and gratitude, we describe it as good and ethical. The scope of morality, then, is broad, encompassing both the harsh, judgmental elements and the softer, altruistic elements.