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" (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/09/magazine/09babies-t.html - 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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frans_de_Waal
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.