UPDATE/CORRECTION: I’ve heard via email from Paul Bloom, who sent me a correction that I requested permission to post. Having gotten permission, I’m putting Bloom’s email below, and apologize if I misrepresented his argument (I was more or less riffing on a review of a book I hadn’t read—but will).
I enjoyed your discussion of JB on WEIT, but you end with this:And the rapidity of such changes imply, contra Bloom, that many of our moral sentiments are not hard-wired.This isn’t contra Bloom at all; I argue in considerable detail that many of our moral sentiments are not hard-wired, and actually give some of the same examples that you do. (Pinker’s new book had a big influence on me.) In fact, one main theme of the book is that our innate morality is tragically limited — we are, by nature, savage to strangers; an inclusive morality is the product of cultural innovation; it’s not in our genes.
In Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, University of Cambridge psychology professor Simon Baron-Cohen reviews Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom’s new book, That book, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, contends that much of human morality is innate, and therefore likely produced by natural selection. (That itself presumes, if morality is a genetic adaptation, that individuals with more “moral” feelings and actions left more descendants.) Baron-Cohen is highly critical of this view, for he sees the evidence as thin:
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.”
He describes a study in which 1-year-olds watched a puppet show where a ball is passed to a “nice” puppet (who passes it back) or to a “naughty” puppet (who steals it). Invited to reward or punish the puppets, children took treats away from the “naughty” one. These 1-year-olds seem to be making moral judgments, but is this an inborn ability? They have certainly had opportunities in the last 12 months to learn good from bad.
I suppose this depends on whether parents actually instruct children less than one year old in how to behave, and that’s an unknown, for of course children can pick up subliminal cues. Ideally, of course, the decisive experiment would be to bring up children without any instruction in “good” versus “bad” behavior, but that’s impossible as well as unethical. As Baron-Cohen notes:
Proving innateness requires much harder evidence — that the behavior has existed from Day 1, say, or that it has a clear genetic basis. Bloom presents no such evidence. His approach to establishing innateness is to argue from universalism: If a behavior occurs across cultures, then surely it can’t be the result of culture. An example he provides is that young children in many cultures expect to be treated fairly — they get upset, or even spiteful or vengeful, when faced with inequality. Supporting Bloom’s claim is the fact that similar behaviors can be seen in other species: Researchers report that a dog that gets a smaller share of a treat appears vexed. Dangers of anthropomorphism aside, this hints at nativism.
I’m not sure what Baron-Cohen is getting at with his accusations of “anthropomorphism” and “nativism,” for one can certainly observe wild animals—or captive animals that haven’t been “instructed” in morality—and see if they have behavior that appears to reflect a sense of “fairness.” Frans de Waal has written extensively about this, and made this video (which I’ve discussed before) of capuchin monkeys demonstrating what looks for all the world like a sense of fair play:
It’s hard to look at that and not agree with Darwin that some of our “moral sentiments” are present in our relatives.
I know others have criticized de Waal for relying largely on anecdotes to support his views of the evolution of specific moral judgments, and I’m not sufficiently familiar with the literature to evaluate this criticisms. But those anecdotes seem to have added up to at least intriguing speculation that some of our innate moral feelings were inherited from common ancestors.
Baron-Cohen is, however, properly critical of other studies in humans cited by Bloom as evidence of innate morality, some of which seem dubious from the outset.
Baron-Cohen implies that morality is purely learned, and that its “universality” simply reflects simply cultural inheritance from and between human ancestral groups. In that case its only “innateness” is the evolved ability of humans to learn from others.
But there is another possibility, one not explicitly discussed, but subsumable under Bloom’s notion that “moral foundations” are innate. This is the view that humans have an innate ability to learn morality—a “morality module” that differs from our simple ability to learn. Such a module would resemble the “language module”: our innate (and presumably adaptive) ability to learn languages and use syntax. In that case the ability itself is presumably genetic, but the specific language we learn depends on our culture. Similarly, a “morality module” would reflect our ability to quickly grasp what is “right and wrong” in different societies, but would involve parts of the brain different from those involved in learning other language and other things. This might explain that although moral sentiments are universal, the particular sentiments differ widely among cultures.
I don’t find that idea completely satisfying, since in our primate relatives some moral feelings do seem innate—or at least unable to be taught. It’s hard to avoid feeling that tendencies toward preferential treatment of one’s children and group-mates as well as reciprocal altruism within small groups and wariness toward strangers, would be subject to direct selection in our ancestors. Nevertheless, much religiously-based “morality” is surely learned: I doubt that we’re born with an innate hatred of gays (remember “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” from the musical South Pacific?) or an aversion to contraception.
I remain open about how many of our moral feelings and behaviors are “hard-wired” versus culturally inherited versus the combination encapsulated in the “moral module” I suggested above. But there’s certainly no evidence to support Francis Collin’s suggestion of an innate “Moral Law” in all humans that was bestowed by God; for that presumes (leaving God aside), a morality that is not only universal, but inborn—i.e., genetic.
Baron-Cohen’s conclusion is a bit unsatisfying, for it’s bloody obvious:
But to the extent that we have an innate moral sense, he [Bloom] concludes, humans are not prisoners of it. We can use our capacity for reason to override our emotions, our inclinations toward racism or revenge. “We are more than just babies,” he writes. “A critical part of our morality — so much of what makes us human — emerges over the course of human history and individual development. It is the product of our compassion, our imagination and our magnificent capacity for reason.” This is an optimistic view of human nature. The sobering message for me is that our abhorrent, corrosive emotions like racism or revenge will inevitably resurface, so we will always need to be on guard.
All this says is that some people are good and others are bad, and that will always be so. Insofar as Baron-Cohen suggests that we have “free will” to override our emotions, I won’t have any part of that. Yes, people can behave in ways that counter not only whatever morality has evolved, but also whatever morality is learned. But that doesn’t mean that such “overriding” is a choice. It could result purely from deterministic effects of our genes and our environments.
Finally, Baron-Cohen is overly pessimistic, for I agree with Steve Pinker that some corrosive emotions (or at least behaviors) will eventually be gone for good, at least as social norms. Those include the feeling that it’s okay to have slaves and kill your unwanted children, as did the Spartans. Others, like discrimination against gays and women, are on the way out. Pinkers’ last book, The Better Angels of our Nature, describes the huge changes over the last five centuries in what has been considered moral (or at least appropriate) behavior—behavior towards other people, towards women, towards children, and towards animals. These changes have occurred far too rapidly to be explained by genetic evolution.
Contra Baron-Cohen, once these forms of discrimination are gone (granted, some individuals will always be homophobic and misogynistic), I suspect that we won’t see their widespread recurrence. And the rapidity of such changes imply, contra Bloom, that many of our moral sentiments are not hard-wired.