Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Studying the Development of Morality

Doug and Don have laid out their positions on whether morality is objective or subjective. There are a lot of these dichotomous views of things. Is knowledge innate or learned is one of these and perhaps a bit related to what Doug and Don where debating. Sometimes it is useful to take a different stance and see what makes sense. I wanted to add a few words on the morality issue coming from a different direction which sort of comes down in the middle of this. The perspective is ask where does (human) morality come from? Or put another way - how does it develop in us”. We might ask if we can objectively study its development. This understanding might tell us a bit about how we want to describe it based on the ingredients that make it possible.
There are some recent studies on both human infants and non-human animals that lead people to describe "morality" as predisposed and constrained (if not exactly innate). Paul Bloom (Yale) for example has studied the "Moral Life" of young (1 year old) babies who haven't had much time to be instructed in the cultures ideas so this gets at the origin of human ideas of right and wrong. In a NY Times article last year he described how researchers "watched a 1-year-old boy take justice into his own hands" ( - see the 5 minute video on how infants are studied). The boy had just seen a puppet show in which one puppet played with a ball while interacting with two other puppets. The center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the right, who would pass it back. And the center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the left . . . who would run away with it. Then the two puppets on the ends were brought down from the stage and set before the toddler. Each was placed next to a pile of treats. At this point, the toddler was asked to take a treat away from one puppet. Like most children in this situation, the boy took it from the pile of the “naughty” one. But this punishment wasn’t enough — he then leaned over and smacked the puppet in the head. "

There were lots more studies with lots more babies but the key point of the article was to summarize the growing body of evidence which suggests that:

"humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life. With the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone. Which is not to say that parents are wrong to concern themselves with moral development or that their interactions with their children are a waste of time. Socialization is critically important. But this is not because babies and young children lack a sense of right and wrong; it’s because the sense of right and wrong that they naturally possess diverges in important ways from what we adults would want it to be."

So I would make a suggestion that we can objectify some understanding of where human morality comes from, but I want to add that it develops and is influenced by personal experience and culture. In this view there is a degree of morality that is constrained by the species evolution.

I also want to add that this comparative topic of where ours and other species "morality" comes from is also under study. Professor Frans de Waal, a primate behaviorist at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, has a good book on the evolutionary basis of morality and there are several others. De Waal summarizes his belief on the origin of human morality this way:

"Human morality was not formed from scratch, but grew out of our primate psychology. Primate psychology has ancient roots, and I agree that other animals show many of the same tendencies and have an intense sociality."

Here is an example about ownership, which it seems, has old primate roots. In decades of observations at the Yerkes colony, de Waal has noted that if the chimpanzees are given shareable food (like a big watermelon) they will race to get their hands on it. This, he believes, is because whichever chimpanzee gets the watermelon first, even the lowliest cur, will be respected as the owner of that morsel by the most dominant chimpanzee. De Waal concludes this seeing that even if mates beg and whine for some of it, no one will take the food away.

You can read more in his recent book "The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society" or see:

Below is a bit of the argument. I want to stress that this is an organized argument with hypotheses and some data, which researchers are working on. So this isn’t established but an empirical form of some version of this may become a well supported “theory”.

The basic idea is that some substrate for morals tendencies are "inherited” in mammal brains through evolution. These were selected to provide a "social glue" that allowed some mammals (often aggressive and competitive animals, E.g. wolves) to live together in groups. Group life provided advantages so the social glue factors gets selected. During play, dominant wolves for example, will "handicap" themselves by engaging in roll reversal with lower ranking wolves, showing submission and allowing them to bite, provided it is not too hard.

One formulation is that what we might loosely call "moral codes" are species specific, (wolves social cohesion may have been selected in different ways than chimps for example) making them difficult to compare with each other or with humans. In this view there are moral nuances of particular cultures or group swill that make them different from another.

Various ethologists have compiled evidence from around the world that shows how different species of animals appear to develop a sense of thing we generally label as “ fairness”. Behaviorally they display empathy and help other animals that are in distress. One example people may have seen in film are displays of elephants concern for an injured elephant. But experience and culture plays a part in how intelligent species express their concerns. They are organized in different ways that we human describe as moral codes...a cultural phenomena.

So you can see some of the resulting perspective on morality expressed by Frans de Waal,:

"I don't believe animals are moral in the sense we humans are – with well developed and reasoned sense of right and wrong – rather that human morality incorporates a set of psychological tendencies and capacities such as empathy, reciprocity, a desire for co-operation and harmony that are older than our species."

Does view this make morality objective or subjective? Well to me the answer is not exactly either, but the question of how morality develops in individuals and its phylogenetic origins is a question we can study objectively.


lucette said...

I have not yet read Gary's entire post but I must warn you that the experiment about the moral behavior of babies described at the beginning of the post cannot be taken seriously. I have watched the videotape of the experiment: this is not credible scientific research. It is a fraud. Gary will probably be able to let us know how we can access the video. (I don't remember how to do it.) I urge you to watch the video and judge its scientific "value" for yourselves.

On the other hand, I have no doubt that the basic elements of moral behavior of young babies are evolutionarily developed from what we call dismissively the "instincts" of the young apes. We are all animals.

I recommend de Waal's books. They are wonderful.

arensb said...

Sorry to seem dense, but I'm not seeing the fraud.

The main problem I noticed was that in all three cases, the "nice" character was on the right and the "naughty" one on the left. If that's true of the experiment as a whole, then the results could be explained by most babies being right-handed, and reaching for the puppet closest to their dominant hand.

It also seemed that the person presenting the babies with a choice knew which one was "nice" and which one was "naughty", and thus might have been giving unconscious cues as to which one was the right choice. A better experiment would have been randomized and double-blinded.

But that seems like incompetence, not fraud. If there's fraud going on, I missed it.

And, of course, we have to make allowances for the fact that this a popular science piece, not a research article. I don't know how much of this was staged or edited for the NYTimes.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

It good to be skeptical of "research" and the NYTs is not a research journal but Bloom's actual work is reported in places like Nature (Vol 450|22 November 2007_ where they cover the actual control conditions in the study called "Social evaluation by preverbal infants". I've copied one such discussion below from the original article which you can read at:

It includes drawings of what the babies were seeing about "hindering" and "helping" behavior. This is just one of many studies providing a pretty good convergence on models of social development and the cognitive building blocks. Besides Bloom there is the notable work of Csibra,Gopnik,and Tomasello.
Studies include the development of one's own Theory of Mind that allows us to understand and work with others.

Infants sat in parents’ laps; parents were instructed not to interfere with
infants. Parents of all infants in experiment 2 and 6-month-olds in experiment
3 were additionally instructed to close their eyes during choice measure. Infants
received habituation trials until (1) looking time on three consecutive trials (after
the first three) decreased to half that on the first three trials or (2) 14 trials were
presented. End-of-trial for habituation and looking time test trials occurred
when (1) the infant looked away continuously for 2 s or (2) 60 s had elapsed.
A coder blind to the identities of the characters monitored infants’ looking times
and administered the choice measure. A second coder independently coded a
random 25% of subjects of each age group in each experiment; coders achieved
98% positive agreement on both measures.
The following were counterbalanced across subjects in each experiment and
age group: identities of helper/hinderer (experiment 1), pusher-up/pusherdown
(experiment 2) and valenced/neutral characters (experiment 3); order of
habituation events; order of choice and looking time measures (experiments 1
and 3); positions (left/right) of characters in choice and in looking time trials;
order of climber’s approach in looking time test trials to helper/hinderer (experiment
1) and valenced/neutral character (experiment 3).
Full Methods and any associated references are available in the online version of
the paper at

wjk said...

Nice thoughtful discussion. I'm a de Waal fan, too. To me it seems that all normal humans are born with a natural order of values in mind. One test is to ask yourself, ‘do I think that people are more important than things,’ or ‘do I think that people are more important than ideas.’ W/ over 6B people on Earth, the amazing fact is how peacefully we get along. One explanation for this is that normal folks have a natural sense of respect for others, developed through evolution.

I think that personal integrity is also a natural calling for everyone. Unhappily, personal integrity is punished and repressed in US politics — see how, and learn more about the Natural Order of Values at,

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Speaking of getting along and discipline we have a remarkable display of it by the Japanese people in the current post-tsunami crises.

"Respect for others" may be too rich a term for the senses of others that are predisposed as a human development through evolution. But given a reasonable developmental environment, a culture can reasonably encourage this and achieve respect for others. This grows naturally out of some Secular Humanist values and goals of living a democratic and ethical life. I like the positive, affirming idea that human deserve respect and should expect to have this as well as many other rights.

Bill Creasy said...

I'm reading David Brooks's new book "The Social Animal." He does a good job of reviewing a lot of psychology research to explain unconscious behavior. A lot of behavior that we like to think is conscious, or that is based on our trying to be good people, is deeply unconscious and not really a choice. It goes back to the behavior of infants. His book is really making me think about whether much of morality can be a free choice. It raises all kinds of issues about what is "free will."

Gary Berg-Cross said...

I haven't read this book, but have seen Brooks' pop Psych and Sociology in various articles.
The premise that reason is flawed is supported and discussed in a NYT review by Thomas Nagel a prominent social philosopher. See

The review starts out:
"It must be said immediately that Brooks has a terminological problem here. He describes the contents of the unconscious mind as “emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, genetic predispositions, character traits and social norms,” and later he includes “sensations, perceptions, drives and needs.” A majority of the things on this list are “conscious,” in the usual sense of the word, since they are parts of conscious experience. The sense in which they are unconscious, which is what Brooks has in mind, is that they are not under direct conscious control."

Nagel goes on to cite various problems and concludes in the last line of the book summing it up well:

"Brooks is out to expose the superficiality of an overly rational view of human nature, but there is more than one kind of superficiality. "

I take much of the examples discussed to show the ideological influences of what Brooks concludes. Here is an example from Nagel:

"When we discover an unacknowledged influence on our conduct, what should be our critical response? About this question Brooks has essentially nothing to say. He gives lip-service to the idea that moral sentiments are subject to conscious review and improvement, and that reason has a role to play, but when he tries to explain what this means, he is reduced to a fashionable bromide about choosing the narrative we tell about our lives, “the narrative we will use to organize perceptions.”

On what grounds are we supposed to “choose a narrative?” Experiments show that human beings feel greater sympathy for those who resemble them — racially, for example — than for those who do not. How do we know that it would be better to counter the effects of this bias rather than to respect it as a legitimate form of loyalty? The most plausible ground is the conscious and rational one that race is irrelevant to the badness of someone’s suffering, so these differential feelings, however natural, are a poor guide to how we should treat people. But reason is not Brooks’s thing: he prefers to quote a little Sunday school hymn about how Jesus loves the little children, “Be they yellow, black or white / they are precious in his sight.” This is an easy case, but harder ones also demand more reflection than he has time for. "

Don Wharton said...

I have not read Brook's book and I do not intend to do so. It seems to be panned by almost every reviewer that I would respect. I watched his interview with Charlie Rose which I think captured the superficiality of the book.

I think it is relevant to look at the concept of “free will” raised by Bill. The classical philosophical notion of free will as the ability to chose an action independently of deterministic principle is just false. Some people wish to confusedly define free will as action that cannot be predicted by an external observer. While such actions obviously exist it certainly does not imply any freedom from physical causation of those actions by prior events.

We should not confound consciousness of our metal events with any ability to freely chose any future action. Consciousness does not imply an absence of unconscious events that are powerful enough to fully determine the nature of what is conscious.

Obviously we can richly consider the factual details of our environment and rationally decide on an action that reflects our interests (which may include our desires for our families, friends and society as a whole). This possibility can be used as a definition of “free will” which can be defended. However, linguistically it is seldom what is meant when the term is used.

The major philosophical problem raised by a counter-factual notion of free will is that it logically implies so.mething very close to the Christian notion of a soul. Because of this we need to be careful about what we mean when we use the term

Anonymous said...

I've seen the video of the puppets playing with a ball experiment. It is silly. It is not double blinded at all. Bloom claims it is double blind because the researcher who presents the puppets for the child to choose from does not know which was the bad puppet, and the child does not know what is being tested for. However; they forgot to blind someone in the experiment: the mother. The baby sits in the mother's lap while the baby and the mother watch the puppet show, and the baby sits in the mother's lap during the selection process afterwards. She knows which is the good puppet and which is the bad. She can probability guess what info the study is looking for (if she was not actually told). And its believable her body language (or even how she pushes the baby forward to choose the puppet) can influence the outcome. It is cargo cult science.