September 21, 2011

The scientific basis for justice and altruism-part 3

(An expanded version of a talk given at CWRU's Share the Vision program, Severance Hall, Friday, August 26, 2011 1:00 pm. This program is to welcome all incoming first year students. My comments centered on the ideas in the common reading book selection Justice: What's the right thing to do? by Michael Sandel. See part 1 and part 2.)

There is considerable evidence that the desire for justice and fairness is innate in us. In an article titled The Moral Life of Babies (New York Times, May 5, 2010) child development psychologist Paul Bloom describes how very young children have a strong sense of justice.

A growing body of evidence, though, 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.

He reports on experiments in which babies were presented with puppets who either helped or hindered other puppets.

In the end, we found that 6- and 10-month-old infants overwhelmingly preferred the helpful individual to the hindering individual. This wasn’t a subtle statistical trend; just about all the babies reached for the good guy.

We found that, given a choice, infants prefer a helpful character to a neutral one; and prefer a neutral character to one who hinders. This finding indicates that both inclinations are at work — babies are drawn to the nice guy and repelled by the mean guy. Again, these results were not subtle; babies almost always showed this pattern of response.

Sometimes the babies were quite emphatic about their preferences.

Not long ago, a team of researchers watched a 1-year-old boy take justice into his own hands. 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.

The toddlers also watched pairs of puppets in which one puppet did a good or bad thing and the other puppet rewarded or punished the first. Of the four possible combinations of actions and consequences, toddlers overwhelmingly preferred the puppets that rewarded good acts and punished bad acts over puppets that rewarded bad acts and punished good acts. This showed that the babies were not basing their preferences on what they perceived as good or bad actions but viewed the actions in the context of the purpose they served. This is pretty sophisticated thinking about crime and punishment and justice.

The desire for justice is strong and biological but is limited. For example, toddlers tend to prefer people of their own races, who speak their own language and share their taste in food. Bloom writes that:

3-month-olds prefer the faces of the race that is most familiar to them to those of other races; 11-month-olds prefer individuals who share their own taste in food and expect these individuals to be nicer than those with different tastes; 12-month-olds prefer to learn from someone who speaks their own language over someone who speaks a foreign language. And studies with young children have found that once they are segregated into different groups — even under the most arbitrary of schemes, like wearing different colored T-shirts — they eagerly favor their own groups in their attitudes and their actions.

So are babies and little children racists? If you waggle your finger and go "kitchy-coo" at a baby of a different racial group, will it bite you? It might, but the babies are not making conscious decisions to prefer their own, which is the real mark of racism. They are simply reacting instinctively based on their biology. So biology seems to strongly suggest that our desire for justice, though it is biologically based on our long history of evolution, is also limited to our in-group. This difference in the way we treat in-group members versus the way we view those who are 'out-group' members can and does lead to all manner of strife and tribal behavior between communities, religions, castes, and nations.

So does the theory of evolution say that our biological desire for justice stops with our relatives and immediate community or nation? In the next and final post in this series, I will look at how we overcome that kind of parochialism.


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The elements of Sandel's book are available as a free online course from Harvard:

Posted by healthphysicist on September 21, 2011 09:48 AM