Just Babies

“We can create the environments that can transform an only partially moral baby into a very moral adult” – Paul Bloom

Lessons learnt: Morality is innate. Morality needs to be shaped, strengthened and expanded by your experiences. Put yourself in other people’s shoes to expand your moral circle.

Just Babies

Thomas Jefferson once wrote to a friend “The moral sense, or conscience is as much part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings, in a stronger or weaker degree, as a force of members is given them to a greater or lesser degree.” Now, more than 200 years later, Paul Bloom confirms this earlier insight in his brilliant book Just Babies: The Origin of Good and Evil.

Just Babies follows the path laid by Predictably Irrational and Thinking, Fast and Slow, by combining fundamental research with understandable examples. The book also relies on cutting-edge discoveries and brain scanning techniques, as well as philosophical ideas pondered by Adam Smith, Sigmund Freud and Thomas Jefferson. In the end, it tries to answer the question: Where does morality come from?

Paul Bloom takes a strong stance about this at the beginning of the book: morality is innate. Babies are born with a feeling for right and wrong, they know the basics without having to learn them. But, and this is a big but, they do need training, feedback and exercise to further develop their moral senses. Let’s find out how!

Moral Insights and Moral Studies

First, what is morality? Morality is concerned with right and wrong (judgemental elements), and with generosity, humanity, kindness, compassion and friendship (altruistic elements). Morality is partially universal (e.g. to love thy neighbours) and partially cultural (e.g. whether to bury or burn the deceased). In essence, morality is the appreciation of the difference between right and wrong.

So how do you figure out why a person is moral? One way of doing this is by studying people that are clearly amoral, psychopaths for instance. Interviews with them have established that they can empathise with another person (and are actually master manipulators). But when they were asked about the suffering of their victims, all of them could not get their minds around the problem, they lacked compassion.

Research nowadays has made it possible to peak into the human brain. This has allowed us to find the mechanisms that are responsible for many of moralities underlying principles (e.g. compassion). One way this works is via mirror neurons. These are neurons that light up in your brain when you see someone experiencing something, as they would do if you engaged in it. In psychopaths, they didn’t fire when they saw people who experienced fear.

Paul Bloom states that compassion and empathy are two different mechanisms of morality. Both can exist independently of each other and without the one or the other you can still be a moral person. But, without caring for other people there would be no morality.

Other ways of studying the morality of mankind are through experiments. On the subjects of fairness, status and punishment many experimental games have been played. These games often offer participants the choice of sharing, giving away or taking away money (or coins) from other players. In most variations, it’s best for the whole group to work together, but best for the individual to have everyone cooperate and then sneakily take away all of the gains.

Through games like this and other games and experiments more suitable for babies, we can study the development of morality. Where babies at a very young age already get upset by seeing injustice done (e.g. not dividing candy appropriately), only at a later age do they see that they themselves also have to adhere to these rules. So without going through the book word for word, it suffices to say that morality is both innate and learned.

“Morality is not the doctrine of how we may make ourselves happy, but how we may make ourselves worthy of happiness.” – Immanuel Kant

How to be Good

Many seemingly altruistic (moral) acts actually serve a self-interested purpose. But whilst the rich man gives away money, he also improves his standing in society. And the volunteer at the homeless shelter truly helps but also gets renewed energy from the people he’s helping.

At the same time, there are people who give away their money without letting others know. People even sacrifice their lives to defend their loved ones. Although our morality is not innately perfect, we can make it better, we can enhance our morality.

One way to do this is to convert thoughtful moral behaviour into mindless habits. Intertwine your moral virtues into your daily life. For instance, make it a habit to always help people who are in need. Or if you are donating, make it an automated payment. Or say to yourself, every day I’m going to make the world a little better.

Another way to enhance your morality is to increase your moral circle. This is the circle, or range of people, you care (or even know) about. You can make this circle larger by meeting new people (i.e. via a meetup group). Another way is to read books that offer another perspective on life/politics/religion (fiction or non-fiction). And a third way to become more moral is to reason once every while, just to sit and think…