Friday, May 7, 2010

This coming Sunday's York Times magazine includes an article titled “The Moral Life of Babies.” In it, Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, summarizes some his findings, which suggest that babies are born with an innate “naïve morality.” For example, babies’ morality includes compassion, that is, babies prefer people who help others achieve their goals over those that hinder them.

The first question which Bloom addresses is, “Why would anyone even entertain the thought of babies as moral beings?” His answer is that empirical evidence suggests that babies seem to respond in ways that we would characterize as moral, and therefore, “some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone.”

In other words, the fact that even babies are moral implies that there is a universal, objective morality, and second, that this universal morality has a biological basis. He recognizes that “the existence of a universal moral code is a highly controversial claim; there is considerable evidence for wide variation from society to society.” But, he continues, “People everywhere have some sense of right and wrong. You won’t find a society where people don’t have some notion of fairness, don’t put some value on loyalty and kindness, don’t distinguish between acts of cruelty and innocent mistakes, don’t categorize people as nasty or nice.”

Bloom argues that these universals “make evolutionary sense.” That is, having compassion for your family will help them survive, and therefore, compassion will evolve.

But wait a second. Bloom's conclusions rely on the assumption that it is actually the case that there are universally shared moral norms. Is it really true that every society puts “some value on loyalty and kindness” or distinguishes between “acts of cruelty and innocent mistakes?”

In her groundbreaking book, Patterns of Culture, Ruth Benedict writes,
“We might suppose that in the matter of taking a life, all peoples would agree in condemnation. On the contrary, in a matter of homicide, it may be held that one is blameless if diplomatic relations have been severed between neighboring countries, or that one kills by custom his first two children, or that a husband has the right of life and death over his wife, or that it is the duty of a child to kill his parents before they are old… among some peoples a person suffers torments at having caused an accidental death; in others, it is a matter of no consequence” (45-46).
A society that punishes someone for something done accidentally seems precisely not to distinguish between “acts of cruelty and innocent mistakes.” It is at least an overstatement to argue that the intention of the criminal plays a role in every moral system. Benedict might even argue that it is false.

Of course, Bloom could respond by following John Rawls and distinguishing between a conception of morality and the concept of morality (Rawls distinguishes between the concept of justice and conceptions of justice in his, "A Theory of Justice" (5). A society that has the concept of morality is one that distinguishes between right actions and wrong actions. It seems plausible that every society makes this distinction. One might even argue that such a distinction is a necessary condition for a society existing at all. A society’s conception of morality is the particular way that a society distinguishes between right and wrong, the particular list of actions that a society counts as right or wrong.

It is probably the case that in every society, you could find something that looks like what we would call categorizing people as “nasty or nice,” that is, the concept of morality, but if one society categorizes action A as nasty and another society categorizes action A as nice, to what extent can the nasty/nice distinction be considered universal? Given a wide enough range of meanings for “nasty,” could we even say that it is, in every case, the same category?

Paul Bloom does not clearly distinguish between the concept of morality, which presumably all societies share, and conceptions of morality, which, according to Ruth Benedict, vary enormously. In the Times article, Paul Bloom describes an experiment in which a baby views an animated square helping a red circle roll up a hill, while a yellow triangle hinders the circle. He argues that the babies prefer the helpful square to the hindering triangle, thus proving that helping someone achieve a goal is part of an innate conception of morality.

It seems easy to imagine a society that would not find the square’s helpful behavior particularly moral. Does that mean that that society is wrong about morality? Maybe the baby is wrong. Baby’s have a lot of preferences that we would not necessarily characterize as moral. Ruth Benedict’s argument raises questions with the whole idea of an innate morality. Whose society gets to judge the whether or not the baby’s conception of morality is correct?

If societies have conceptions of morality that don’t overlap, to what extent can we talk about a universal morality? Perhaps you could argue that there one correct conception of morality, but that not every society shares it. That is, there are right conceptions of morality and wrong conceptions of morality. But if Bloom believes that the sense of morality “seems to be bred in the bone,” that is, universal morality is biologically innate, how could different cultures have such radically different moralities?

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