A Conversation with Paul Bloom, Author of Just Babies
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.