The Moral Life of Babies

August 18, 2019

 

The Origins of Moral Judgement

 

In an article published in Scientific American in 2013, Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University summarised the findings of a fascinating study. Bloom and his team of researchers at the Yale Infant Cognition Center conducted a series of experiments on a group of infants, some as young as 3 months old and found that human beings are born with an innate sense of morality, justice and empathy. They concluded that infants are, in fact, 'moral creatures'.

 

These findings are a genuine paradigm shifting discovery. For one thing, it's a relief to learn that all neurologically normal human beings possess an innate moral code and it’s liberating to learn that that moral code isn’t rooted in religion and other forms of social conditioning, that we biologically inherit our 'humanity'. 

 

Bloom outlined a list of shared attributes that he observed in his test subjects, which included ‘an understanding that helping is morally good, and that harming, hindering, or otherwise thwarting the goals of another person is morally bad. A rudimentary sense of justice—an understanding that good guys should be rewarded and bad guys should be punished. An initial sense of fairness—in particular, that there should be an equal division of resources. And alongside these principles are moral emotions, including empathy, compassion, guilt, shame, and righteous anger.’

 

Righteous Anger

 

It was interesting to see those two words grouped together. 'Righteous anger' is a sub-category of anger we are all too familiar with. We have read about it in religious books, in plays and seen it play out in the news. We can identify irrational anger in other people and ourselves with ease but righteous anger is too common and subjective to be easily identifiable. It's a state of being that Bloom fleshes out in his book Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil in 2013. 

 

In an interview, when asked if moral emotions like ‘righteous anger’ could lead to immoral behaviour, he replied:

 

'Absolutely. Our emotions have evolved for simpler times. They are not well calibrated for the modern world, where we are surrounded by countless strangers and have access to cars, guns, and the Internet. It makes sense to be outraged when you are deceived by a friend or when someone you love is wronged. This can be a moral response. But it is irrational—and often immoral—when the same anger is acted upon towards someone who cuts you off on the highway. Worse, righteous anger can provoke international confrontations that can lead to the death of millions. Anger is one thing when you are armed with your fists and a stick; quite another when you have an army and nuclear weapons.'

 

Younger generations have every reason to feel angry about the state of the climate and the state of their futures which will be significantly compromised by climate catastrophe. Their anger is righteous and so far it's been effective but I'm concerned about what this collective righteous anger will mutate into when the planet really starts heating up. I'm concerned that as the planet degenerates, so will we and I am concerned that the switch from 'angry but hopeful' to 'angry and desperate' is just a few years around the corner.

 

It is so hard to be actively involved in anything when you are feeling desperate. It is so hard to be anything but desperate when you are feeling desperate. It would be an incredible injustice if we lost new generations to fear and despair, to see young people financially, emotionally and spiritually bankrupted by the generations that came before. 

 

Empathy Doesn’t Scale

 

Empathy might well be the most benevolent, most intellectual expression of humanity there is. It pays unexpected dividends. It's also covert in nature because you can never predict where you will find it. I had assumed that empathy was a sign of emotional intelligence but that hypothesis assumes that a lack in empathy signifies a lack in emotional intelligence. And that is not the case.

 

Empathy is a seemingly rare virtue but that could be because it's experienced at an individual as opposed to collective level. As Bloom puts it, 'Empathy does not scale' and that is a significant finding because it explains so much about how we as a collective engage with climate change. 

 

The reason we failed to recognise the threat posed by climate change up until recently was because back in 2013 climate change wasn't considered to have any identifiable victims. '...it is because of our empathetic responses that we care more about a little girl stuck in a well than about billions being affected in the future by climate change' he writes. 'The girl elicits empathy; statistical future harms do not.'

 

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