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BOOKBIZ: Do we contain the seeds of morality at birth?

Book Biz logoWhere does our sense of right and wrong come from? Do we develop our morality from our specific culture or religious teachings, or are there some universal facets to it that all of us, as humans, possess? And what do we even mean by the word “morality?” How can we define it in way that everyone can relate to when it’s so fraught with emotion and opinion?

Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom explores these questions and more in his book Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil. He combines studies and research from multiple disciplines including anthropology, philosophy, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience, as well as his own field of developmental psychology. In the book, he puts forth his own theory about how some important early beacons of morality are embedded in us from the very beginning.

As part of his research at Yale, Bloom conducted lots of studies involving babies and small children, trying to gauge whether or not they had any innate sense of right and wrong. Specifically, he was looking for evidence of babies knowing when something was fair or not, whether an action was cruel or kind, whether a punishment was just, and whether or not babies related to other people’s suffering in a way that showed empathy or compassion.

Sounds like a lot to ask from little ones, right? You’d be amazed what he found, though. One experiment with babies as young as 6 months or 10 months old showed that they not only realized which character in a scene they watched was a “good guy” and which was not, but they overwhelmingly preferred the good, helpful character to one that was mean and unhelpful. As another example, young children also reacted to perceived pain around them by “soothing” the person in pain.

To be clear, Bloom writes, “The brain, like the rest of the body, takes time to grow, so I am not arguing that morality is present at birth. What I am proposing, though, is that certain moral foundations are not acquired through learning. They do not come from the mother’s knee, or from school or church; they are instead products of biological evolution.”

This book provides a compelling look into something that affects us all: how we treat one another. Bloom is careful, though, to point out that because not all aspects of morality are apparent at an early age, our development in society and our ability to logically reason are also important. Still, it was interesting to learn that some sense of morality appears instinctual.

— LouAnn Lofton, mbj@msbusiness.com


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