A leading cognitive scientist argues that a deep sense of good and evil is bred in the bone.
From John Locke to Sigmund Freud, philosophers and psychologists have long believed that we begin life as blank moral slates. Many of us take for granted that babies are born selfish and that it is the role of society—and especially parents—to transform them from little sociopaths into civilized beings. In Just Babies, Paul Bloom argues that humans are in fact hardwired with a sense of morality. Drawing on groundbreaking research at Yale, Bloom demonstrates that, even before they can speak or walk, babies judge the goodness and badness of others’ actions; feel empathy and compassion; act to soothe those in distress; and have a rudimentary sense of justice.
Still, this innate morality is limited, sometimes tragically. We are naturally hostile to strangers, prone to parochialism and bigotry. Bringing together insights from psychology, behavioral economics, evolutionary biology, and philosophy, Bloom explores how we have come to surpass these limitations. Along the way, he examines the morality of chimpanzees, violent psychopaths, religious extremists, and Ivy League professors, and explores our often puzzling moral feelings about sex, politics, religion, and race.
In his analysis of the morality of children and adults, Bloom rejects the fashionable view that our moral decisions are driven mainly by gut feelings and unconscious biases. Just as reason has driven our great scientific discoveries, he argues, it is reason and deliberation that makes possible our moral discoveries, such as the wrongness of slavery. Ultimately, it is through our imagination, our compassion, and our uniquely human capacity for rational thought that we can transcend the primitive sense of morality we were born with, becoming more than just babies.
Paul Bloom has a gift for bringing abstract ideas to life, moving seamlessly from Darwin, Herodotus, and Adam Smith to The Princess Bride, Hannibal Lecter, and Louis C.K. Vivid, witty, and intellectually probing, Just Babies offers a radical new perspective on our moral lives.
With wit and passion, Yale psychology professor Bloom (How Pleasure Works) explores the nature of morality, drawing on current research in psychology, evolutionary biology, and philosophy while discussing which factors appear to be innate and which are culturally determined. Bloom's discussion of choices made by babies three-month-olds through two-year-olds and researchers' ability to assess those choices is fascinating and relies heavily on original research performed by him and his colleagues. He documents both good and bad news: "Babies are moral animals" who appear to have the ability to judge others' actions and to prefer both fairness and kindness; but they also are distressed by strangers and "prone toward parochialism and bigotry." His analysis spans the moral spectrum from empathy to disgust and demonstrates how labile and open to manipulation some of our emotions and opinions are. When asked about their political leanings, for example, college students who were approached near a hand sanitizer in a public hallway claimed to be more conservative than students questioned elsewhere in the hallway. Because the vast majority of the research conducted has been on individuals in Western societies, drawing robust conclusions is difficult. Nonetheless, Bloom convincingly establishes that the nature of morality is open to scientific investigation.