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Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil Hardcover – November 12, 2013

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A Conversation with Paul Bloom, Author of Just Babies

Paul Bloom

Q) What’s up with the title?

A) It’s meant to be playful, because it has two quite different meanings. Just Babies can express a reasonable skepticism about the abilities of these tiny creatures—what do you expect of them, they’re just babies? But of course “just” also derives from justice—as in “a just society”—and so the title captures one of the main arguments of the book, which is that we are born as moral creatures. We start off as just babies. I know this sounds like a remarkable claim, but I hope that my book will convince people to take it seriously.

Q) What made you choose to write this book at this moment?

A) These are exciting times for anyone interested in morality. There are major developments in areas like social neuroscience, evolutionary theory, and moral philosophy. And several research teams—including my own at Yale—are making surprising discoveries about the moral lives of babies and children. I think that now, perhaps for the first time in history, we have scientifically informed answers to some of the questions that matter most: How is it that we are capable of transcendent kindness—and unspeakable cruelty? How do evolution, culture, parenting, and religion conspire to shape our moral natures? How do we make sense of people’s strongly held opinions about abortion, gay marriage, affirmative action, and torture? And how can we become better people? Just Babies tries to answer these questions.

Q) How can you even study morality in babies?

A) In most of our own studies, we use puppet shows. We show babies characters who interact in certain ways—such as one individual helping another or one individual hitting another—and then see who the babies want to interact with, who they want to reward, and who they want to punish. Using these methods, we have discovered that even young babies have the capacity for moral judgment.

Q)So are babies naturally good, or naturally evil?

A) Both! We are born with empathy and compassion, the capacity to judge the actions of others, and a rudimentary understanding of justice and fairness. Morality is bred in the bone. But there is a nastier side to our natures as well. There’s a lot of evidence that even the youngest babies carve the world into Us versus Them—and they are strongly biased to favor the Us. We are very tribal beings. Our natures are not just kind; they are also cruel and selfish. We favor those who look like us and are naturally cold-blooded towards strangers.

Q) Does this mean that prejudice and racism are inevitable?

A) Happily, no. For one thing, social experience really matters—babies and children have to learn who Us versus Them is by observing how those around them act. So while some distinctions are inevitable, such as friends versus strangers, others are not. Notably, it only pretty late in development—by about the age of five—that some children come to use skin color and similar cues when decide who to befriend and who to prefer. Before this, they don’t know that race matters, and so whether or not children will be racist is dependent on how they are raised; what sort of social environments they find themselves in.

Also, we are smart critters, smart enough to override our impulses and biases when we think they are inappropriate. Once we learn about these ugly aspects of our nature, we can move to combat them. We can create treaties and international organizations aimed at protecting universal human rights. We can employ procedures such as blind reviewing and blind auditions that are designed to prevent judges from being biased, consciously or unconsciously, by a candidate’s race—or anything other than what is under evaluation.

Q) It seems as if a lot of your interest is in how we come to transcend our hard-wired morality.

A) That’s right. A complete theory of morality has to have two parts. It starts with what we are born with, and this is surprisingly rich. But a critical part of our morality—so much of what makes us human—is not the product of evolution, but emerges over the course of human history and individual development. It is the product of our compassion, our imagination, and our magnificent capacity for reason. We bring all that to bear when we consider such questions as: How much should we give to charity? Is it right to eat meat? Are there any sorts of consensual sex acts that are morally wrong?

Q) What do you want to accomplish with this book?

A) Two things. First, many people believe that we are born selfish and amoral—that we start off as natural-born psychopaths. And many argue that we are, as David Hume put it, slaves of the passions: our moral judgments and moral actions are the product of neural mechanisms that we have no awareness of and no conscious control over. Intelligence and wisdom are largely impotent. This is an ugly view of human nature. Now, if it were true, we should buck up and learn to leave with it. But it’s not true; these dismissive claims are refuted by everyday experience, by history, and by the science of developmental psychology. We are moral animals, and we are powerfully influenced by our capacity for reason.

Second, I think there are practical implications to the scientific study of morality. If you’re interested in reducing racism and bigotry, for instance, it is critical to understand our inborn proclivity to favor our own group over others; if you want to create a just society, you’ll want to learn about how we naturally think about fairness and equity. Good social policy is informed by an understanding of human nature at its best and its worst, and this is what Just Babies is all about.

From Publishers Weekly

With wit and passion, Yale psychology professor Bloom (How Pleasure Works) explores the nature of morality, drawing on current research in psychology, evolutionary biology, and philosophy while discussing which factors appear to be innate and which are culturally determined. Bloom&'s discussion of choices made by babies—three-month-olds through two-year-olds—and researchers&' ability to assess those choices is fascinating and relies heavily on original research performed by him and his colleagues. He documents both good and bad news: Babies are moral animals who appear to have the ability to judge others&' actions and to prefer both fairness and kindness; but they also are distressed by strangers and prone toward parochialism and bigotry. His analysis spans the moral spectrum from empathy to disgust and demonstrates how labile and open to manipulation some of our emotions and opinions are. When asked about their political leanings, for example, college students who were approached near a hand sanitizer in a public hallway claimed to be more conservative than students questioned elsewhere in the hallway. Because the vast majority of the research conducted has been on individuals in Western societies, drawing robust conclusions is difficult. Nonetheless, Bloom convincingly establishes that the nature of morality is open to scientific investigation. Agent: Katinka Matson, Brockman Inc. (Nov.)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Crown (November 12, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307886840
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307886842
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (109 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #265,269 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Paul Bloom is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University. His research explores how children and adults understand the physical and social world, with special focus on morality, religion, fiction, and art. He has published more than a hundred scientific articles in journals such as Science and Nature, and his popular writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, Slate, Natural History, and many other publications. He has won numerous awards for his research and teaching. His newest book--Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil--is coming out in November. Paul Bloom lives in New Haven with his wife and two sons.

Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

45 of 48 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Currie-Knight TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 1, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I read Paul Bloom's Descartes' Baby: How The Science Of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human some years ago and found it an intriguing and persuasive read. This book in some ways picks up where that one left off. Descartes' Baby had the thesis that babies are born in some sense 'hardwired' for things like a very basic understanding of physics, like that objects have some sort of physical permanence and that objects that go up will come down. This book, cataloguing a host of intriguing studies, argues that babies are 'hardwired' for certain basic moral sentiments (a basic sense of justice, fairness, etc).

For instance, in some studies, infants and toddlers will 'help' a stranger by pushing a ball back to the stranger or helping a stranger by reaching for an object the stranger seems to want. In other studies, babies are shown a puppet show with two sets of puppets; in one, the puppets help each other, and in the other, one puppet does not help the other. When given a choice, Bloom reports that a statistically significant number of infants and toddlers choose to play with the helping puppet rather than the non-helping puppet.

Bloom's chapters range from exploring infants' and toddlers' sense of justice (little egalitarians, they tend to be), their sense of empathy (they generally prefer to help others, but this desire increases with age), whether their 'moral sentiments' change when dealing with members of their family or those who look like them, their sense of disgust (both moral and physical), etc. But here is where my mild complaint about Bloom's book starts.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Lita Perna VINE VOICE on November 24, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Sometimes you get more than you expected. Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil is that kind of book. It is a gold mine of ideas that will exceed your expectations. It is the kind of book that is so rich; you could read it many times and find new gems.

Paul Bloom, is a Professor of Psychology at Yale who has authored six books and numerous articles, and writes in a lively conversational and often amusing and unexpected style. He says things like, `We are smart critters' and `...It might well be that the greatest force underlying moral change in the last thirty years of the United States was the situation comedy.'

From the beginning Paul Bloom proposes that certain moral foundations are not acquired by learning, but are the product of biological evolution. Some experiments found that babies have a general appreciation of good and bad behavior. Researchers have evidence that helping others by older children is motivated by their caring for others.

Bloom presents and discusses dozens of experiments and offers many interesting quotes.

He explores the differences between compassion and empathy. `You can have compassion without empathy and empathy without compassion.' He gives examples. He says compassion is not the same as morality.

He explains the theory of mirror neurons and empathy.

There's a fascinating chapter on `Others'.
Bloom devotes this chapter to a `simple theory of the developmental origin of racism,' and cites studies of babies preferring familiar language and accents, suggesting children's preferences are driven by some degree of cultural identification. He discusses the Coalition Theory and language.
Studies show that babies have an adaptive bias to prefer the familiar.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Neal Reynolds VINE VOICE on December 20, 2013
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This is a fairly easy to read book. The discussion is morality and more specifically addresses the question whether our moral senses are loearned or are innate, born into us from infancy. The author leans toward the latter and he is convincing. Obviously, not all will agree with him, but the important thing is that Paul Bloom gets us to thinking and that after all is, or should be, the primary aim of such a book. There are more questions than answers here, and that's okay. The value here is that we're encouraged to use our own grey cells and not just accept a batch of theory because it's given to us by an intellectual. Students studying human behavior will find this a very important book to include in their studies. Student or not, this is a stimulating book, stimulating to the individual reader's intellect.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Dr. Cathy Goodwin TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 30, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Like some other reviewers, I "met" Paul Bloom through his Psych 101 lectures that appear on YouTube. As an ex-professor myself, I appreciated the clarity of his presentations and the way he interacted with his students, along with his wit and intellect.

There's much to enjoy in this book. Bloom has an engaging style of writing that can be deceptive; he's actually delivering some pretty hard-core academic material, sprinkled with references to classical sources and popular culture. He doesn't look for counterintuitive examples that make for popular discussion; in fact, in the last chapter, he specifically disavows popular theories based on emotion and passion in favor of emphasizing the importance of reason.

I especially liked Bloom's discussion of fairness and punishment. He cites studies showing that people will recommend punishment regardless of the outcome; for instance, people say a company should be fined even when the fine will destroy the company, which makes a valuable product.This finding alone deserves more attention, because it's echoed in our outrageously expensive, wasteful justice system. We put people in jail even when there's no gain to society and in fact a huge loss; an editorial in a major, generally liberal newspaper once claimed that we should not let cost deter long prison sentences. It would be hard to imagine someone saying we should not be concerned about cost when it comes to educational or health goals.

More generally, Bloom seems to be moving toward a morality based on social influence. Looking at racism, he discounts theories that racism is based on similarity and familiarity. He suggests instead the "coalition theory," i.e., the notion that racism is a powerful cue to membership in social groups.
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