‘Just Babies – The Origins of Good and Evil,’ by Paul Bloom – NYTimes.com

Is morality innate? In his new book, “Just Babies,” the psychologist Paul Bloom draws from his research at the Yale Infant Cognition Center to argue that “certain moral foundations are not acquired through learning. . . . They are instead the products of biological evolution.” Infants may be notoriously difficult to study (rats and pigeons “can at least run mazes or peck at levers”), but according to Bloom, they are, in fact, “moral creatures.”

via ‘Just Babies – The Origins of Good and Evil,’ by Paul Bloom – NYTimes.com.

Related to the Radio Lab post yesterday, Simon Baron-Cohen reviews a book by Paul Bloom on the innate morality displayed by human babies.  I pretty much gave my opinion on this topic in yesterday’s post, they are similar to Bloom’s, but Baron-Cohen expresses some skepticism of the idea.

One of the problems in scientifically establishing innateness in humans is that it’s impossible to do it in a way to please a determined skeptic.  There are ethical limits on what can be done to test instincts in humans.  That means that the effects of culture can never be completely ruled out.

Behavior observed across cultures may be innate, or simply a very ancient cultural practice that is old enough to be in several different cultures today.  However, I think a case can be made that universally observed behavior does imply innateness.  Cultures are constantly adopting and discarding certain behaviors, and for a particular behavior to have survived in all observed cultures would seem, to me, to imply some kind of human innateness.

Of course, any theory of innateness is always subject to being falsified if cultures are found without that behavior.  That’s science.

But I suspect that in many ways, how you respond to this idea largely determines your attitude toward evolutionary psychology.  If you think establishing cross cultural behavior implies innateness, then you probably find evolutionary psychology to be a valid field.  If you are skeptical that such evidence actually implies innateness, then you probably won’t see evolutionary psychology as very useful.

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8 Responses to ‘Just Babies – The Origins of Good and Evil,’ by Paul Bloom – NYTimes.com

  1. nannus says:

    A very interesting issue. But the question is very hard to decide.
    Behaviours that are very wide spread might still be cultural. If certain behaviours give an advantage to a group that has them as part of its cultural tradition, such behaviours could be selected for, i.e. the group might thrive or the cultural trait might spread. It would be very difficult to distinguish this from genetically inherited behaviours. For example, if some form of aggressive behaviour means that groups embracing it win fights for resources, such a behaviour might spread during history even if there is no strong genetic basis for it. On the other hand, genetically determined behaviours might be overridden by a culture. There could be instinctive behaviours or innate moral ideas that are completely suppressed in some cultures.
    What I see, however, is that people from different cultures have extremely different moral ideas. People from different times within the same population might also have totally different moral ideas. Therefore, I tend to the opinion that even if there might be some innate moral values or ideas, these can be largely formed and changed by culture, so finding them would e interesting but not be so useful. You could not solve any ethical problem by referring to them and you could not base a system of ethics on them.


    • I agree. Moral rules can’t be proven. They can only be advocated for. We really have no choice but to do the hard work of figuring out codes of conduct that most of us can live with. Science and philosophy (and for some religion) can help, but they can’t make the decisions for us, as much as might wish they could.

      That said, I do think there is value in trying to learn what is generally innate to human nature. Once we understand our common drives, it can give us insights in how to understand each other. I’m a fan of Jonathan Haidt’s work in this area.


  2. Very interesting, but I worry that foundationalist epistemology is too quickly brushed aside for these claims, after all it doesn’t necessarily follow that if “certain moral foundations are not acquired through learning. . . .[then] they are instead the products of biological evolution” as this ignores the live possibility that moral foundations are known a priori.

    On your concluding comments: I think many people are skeptical of evolutionary psychology when applied to morality due to the strong resemblance innate knowledge has to a priori knowledge. Of course, you yourself, SAP, are an exception to this, as I am sure of your skepticism of a priori knowledge, and I am led to believe that you subscribe to innate knowledge. I for one think a priori knowledge is less strange than innate knowledge, but still, I think many persons are skeptical of innate beliefs due to an equivocation of the two.


    • Hmmm, not sure if I would call myself an a priori skeptic. I don’t give it the confidence of empirical knowledge, but I’ll accept it, provisionally, if it’s all we have to work with.

      I also don’t know if I would say I subscribe to innate knowledge so much as innate predispositions. Is our innate fear of snakes and spiders, or our motivation to protect our kin, knowledge or just instinct? Philosophically knowledge is supposed to be justified and I wonder if innateness would count.


      • Fair points. Are these intellectual predispositions or motivational predispositions? By that I mean, do innate predispositions only include an innate ability to sense the moral rightness or wrongness of acts, or also an innate interest in acting in those ways that are morally right? As difficult as it is to argue for innate ability of moral sensibility, I think it is even more difficult to argue for an innate interest in being moral. I say this because most people have a sense of right and wrong, but many ignore it, that is, they are not motivated to act in accord with what morality requires (I have in mind con-artists and scammers, and mafioso folks). I think that the claim “morality is innate” conflates these two separate theses together, causing skeptics to reject to the innateness of moral sensibility when they only have reason to reject the innateness of moral motivation. Perhaps you would disagree, and posit that the innate predispositions you have in mind are motivational?

        My apologies in putting words in your mouth regarding a priori knowledge!


        • Thanks but no apology necessary. I’m glad you gave me an opportunity to clarify.

          On intellectual versus motivational innateness, I think it’s a messy mix. Instincts vary in their intensity, and often clash with each other. The mixture is a little different in every human being. Our prosocial instincts are probably not as strong in most cases as our self preservation instincts, except perhaps where our kin are involved.

          But most of us cluster close enough together to make society work. Most but unfortunately not everyone. Psychopaths and others might be deficient in some prosocial instincts, and others might learn the habit of overriding them from harsh life experiences.


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