On Tuesday night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, which featured the triumphant return of Yale psychologist and cognitive scientist Dr Paul Bloom. In July 2010, Dr Bloom lectured on the psychology of desire. This month, his lecture touched on the topic of his new book Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil.
Dr Bloom indicated that one major thrust in the study of justice is a shift from blame to biology- there is now a desire to explore the reasons behind immoral actions. The topic of the talk was the development of a sense of justice and morality in very young children. In the introduction to his talk, the good doctor related a study that found that judges were more likely to be lenient after food breaks. He then parenthetically noted that the crime rate in the U.S. doubled from the 1950s to the 1980s and then halved in the ensuing decades. Was this change in the crime rate due to a change in morals, or was there another reason for it? Certain behaviors once considered immoral, such as interracial marriage, were once considered immoral, but are now widely accepted throughout society. While morals are not immutable, ther seem to be universal aspects of morality.
In 1759, Adam Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In this work, Smith proposed that moral sentiments proceeded from a sense of instinctive empathy, or sympathy:
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.
On empathy, Adam Smith had this to say:
When we see a stroke aimed and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or arm. And when it does fall, we feel it in some measure and are hurt by it as well as the sufferer.
One thought exercise that psychologists have devised involves asking subjects a series of questions regarding off-putting actions that they would be willing to perform for a dollar amount- how much would one have to be paid to have a front tooth extracted, or to strangle a cat, or to never move from a farm in rural Kansas? Different people obviously stated different dollar amounts to perform the various actions, but it seems that just about everyone has a price.
Thomas Jefferson believed that one's moral sense, a capacity to tell right from wrong that could be likened to vision or the sense of smell, could be developed, much like any part of the body:
The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body.
The development of the moral sense in very young children was a topic of controversy- while some observers believed that children are "pint sized psychopaths", others cited the fact that children cry at the suffering of others as evidence of a conscience. Children often exhibit altruism- they often share food and toys with others. Much of the lecture was a description of experiments to determine if babies could understand helping versus hindering. Can babies distinguish between a mensch and a jerk?
Dr Bloom showed footage of an experiment in which babies as young as six months (he jocularly compared three month olds to little blobs) were shown vignettes involving a geometric shape scaling an incline, with other characters either helping or hindering it:
Six to ten month old babies preferred the "good guy" over the jerk, suggesting that they can distinguish between good and bad actions. Of course, this preference could be a matter of self-preservation, not moral judgment, as babies are dependent on the help of others. At any rate, the babies would gravitate toward a prosocial helper rather than a an antisocial hinderer. When neutral characters were introduced, they would prefer a "good guy" to a neutral figure, and a neutral figure to a "bad guy". Moral systems depend on reward and punishment and children asked to reward a figure tended to reward the prosocial figure, while children asked to punish a figure tended to punish the antisocial figure.
The next topic of the talk involved the distinction between "in" groups and "out" groups. Hunter/gatherer groups would typically share food equitably among themselves, but their compassion tends not to be "broad"- they do not value strangers as much as members of the group. Members of out groups are usually viewed with fear and hatred. Jared Diamond wrote of indigenes of Papua New Guinea:
To venture out of one’s territory to meet other humans, even if they lived only a few miles away, was equivalent to suicide.
Margaret Meade, writing a considerable time earlier, put it in starker terms:
Most primitive tribes feel that if you run across one of those sub humans from a rival group in the forest, the most appropriate thing to do is bludgeon them to death.
Tragically, most societies throughout human history have tended to demonize the "other". Even in the case of babies, they do not respond as well to strangers as they do to individuals they know. It's not natural to help a stranger.
In one experiment, children ages four to seven played an economic game in which they could determine to what extent a stranger they would never meet would be rewarded- they were given poker chips which could be redeemed for toys. In one instance, they had a choice in which they were given a chance to take one chip while giving one chip to a stranger, or to take two chips and give two to the stranger. Most children chose the 2,2 option- it combines the greatest reward with equity. In cases where the children have to choose between getting one chip while the stranger gets one, or getting two chips while the stranger gets three, most children will choose the 1,1 option. In a choice between 1,0 and 2,2 most younger children will choose the 1,0 option. In these cases, the children will tend to avoid a situation in which a stranger will have a relative advantage, and will prefer a relative advantage with a smaller reward to an equitable situation. Dr Bloom related an incident in which a lecture attendee related an old Jewish folktale in which an angel grants an envious man a wish, with the proviso that his neighbor will receive double, and the envious man wishes that he have one eye plucked out. Another student related an Irish tale in which the envious man asks the angel to beat him half to death. In the economic game, the children were willing to take less so that a stranger would not get more.
Dr Bloom then showed a video of two capuchin monkeys in a lab which received unequal rewards for performing a task:
Kids and monkeys don't want to get less than others do... getting more is not as personal.
Happily, our society has developed to the point where principles of equity are expanding to encompass other groups, mainly out of a sense of fair play. One possible way to extend empathy is through stories- by relating a story, one can increase familiarity with an out group, to make a stranger matter. Dr Bloom cited the possibly apocryphal quote attributed to Stalin, "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic." The flip side of that is Mother Theresa's quote, "If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will." Charities which use individual accounts will fundraise more effectively than one that just throws out statistics.
Dr Bloom then cited reason as a basis of morality. He cited Steven Pinker, the author of The Better Angels of Our Nature, who said that the Old Testament told him to love his neighbors, the New Testament told him to love his enemies, but in reality he loves neither, but he knows that it is not right to exploit them and under the right circumstances, he has an obligation to help them, not because of the pull of emotions, but because of the pull of reason. This is rooted not in love, but in rights, reason overrides one's gut feeling.
Adam Smith had a thought exercise in which he contrasted the death of thousands of lives to the knowledge that one would lose one's little finger the following day- learning of the a multitude of strangers will elicit sadness, but losing one's finger would shock one with horror:
If he were to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight; but provided he never saw them, he would snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred million of his brethren.
Would you sacrifice a multitude of strangers to save your little finger since the finger seems to matter more?
Smith poses the question:
When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble?
His answer, in part (the whole passage can be found here):
It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct. It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it
Dr Bloom characterized that last clause as impartiality- which lies at the core of most moral systems, whether religious or philosophical. Moral reason occurs in communities and develops over time- Dr Bloom compares moral reason to science, it is directional over time... as an illustrative example, Dr Bloom cited white attitudes toward interracial marriage over time.
To complement the "little finger" example, Dr Bloom cited a routine in which Louis CK confesses that he wouldn't sacrifice his nice car to save starving people:
In conclusion, Dr Bloom stated that our moral development has two components- there is a "hard-wired" component which is genetic, but there is a component that has to be developed, which somewhat goes against our genetic "hard wiring". Reason can override passions, and empathy can be extended to "others". Laws can be passed to override our basest instincts. Dr Bloom ended by indicating that the Constitution binds us, and serves to block our worst impulses.
In the Q&A, some bastard in the audience who is conversant in tropes asked Dr Bloom whether physically repulsive characters can override a child's perception of which characters are good guys or bad guys. Dr Bloom indicated that no such study has been performed, but said bastard thinks that the triangle in that skit has a mean and shifty look.
Dr Bloom's return to Brooklyn was triumphant, he played to a packed house, and the topic was a timely one, given the economic and moral conditions prevalent today. If you want a facsimile of my evening, just crack open a nice cold beer or six and watch this webinar, which covers the same ground as the lecture did: