Customer Reviews: Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil
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VINE VOICEon 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. While I found the entire book well written and attention-holding, a good half of the book really is not about the moral sense of babies at all, but about what evolutionary accounts there are to humans' moral sense in general. For instance, the chapter on humans' sense of disgust was about 7/8ths a rumination on why humans have a sense of disgust and how much is cultural versus biological, and really only briefly mentioning a few studies about babies' sense of disgust interspersed throughout. Same with the chapter on humans' seemingly innate preference for members of the in-group (those who look like they do or share something in common with them): a few studies having to do with children - of many ages, not just babies - and the rest, theorizing about why we have these biases.

Not that this detracts from the book's interest... if exploring the world of moral psychology in general is your thing. But I do worry that Bloom strays a bit far from what the book is supposed to be about: babies and what kind of innate moral sense they have. Otherwise, the book is a very interesting survey of existing literature (with citations at the end for further reading!) on the world of moral psychology (with SOME emphasis on the moral psychology of babies).
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VINE VOICEon 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. He discusses group identification and suggests it is a function of who is and isn't family for the purpose of survival.

There's a chapter about disgust which begins with the sentence, `Disgust is a powerful force for evil.' He discusses what we find disgusting, the origins of our disgust, theories of disgust and how disgusting images of others can `make us meaner' as with the Nazi's and their propaganda against the Jews.

He presents the philosophical split between the consequentialists (judge actions on the basis of their outcomes, such as whether they increase human happiness.) vs. the deontolgists (broader principles should be respected even if they lead to worse consequences.) He cites numerous moral dilemmas.

A onetime reading of this book doesn't give it justice. This is a gem of a book.
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VINE VOICEon December 20, 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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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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. Language, he suggests, is an even stronger cue.

People tend to behave morally toward those they know and those with whom they share a community, however slight. And it appears that we learn what's considered moral in our own community, and we use what we learn to develop beliefs about what's right for everyone. Since I tend to gravitate more to social psych than developmental, I found these insights fascinating and useful.

There isn't really much about babies, although we learn that young children can make moral judgments fairly early. We learn that racial distinctions become salient as children reach six, and at a certain age children learn that they shouldn't express racist ideas even if they hold those ideas.

This book offers an excellent introduction to the psychology of moral behavior and moral reasoning. I suspect it could be used as an additional text in undergraduate classes. Additionally, it's definitely going to be on the lists of readers who like books about psychology that are both readable and scientific.
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on February 10, 2014
Paul Bloom is a psychologist who studies moral behavior in infants and young children. Much of the field consists in finding ways to tailor games developed for adults (the prisoner's dilemma, the trust game, the public goods game, the ultimatum and dictator games) for very young children. This research is ingenious and extremely interesting.

Bloom argues that humans have an innate moral sense in the same way that we have innate predispositions for many other social behaviors, such as communicating with language, living in families, and cooperating effectively with strangers. The basic material in support of this idea comes from laboratory and field work with human groups (see my edited volume, Moral Sentiments and Material Interests, MIT Press, 2005 for description and bibliography). Bloom argues that even very young children have moral sensibilities, and that these grow with age not only because children are taught to be moral, but also through the maturation of the brain as a child grows into adulthood, and through the use of reason as an adult.

Bloom depends on his authoritative knowledge about children to press his message, but in fact after the first two chapters, most of the experimental evidence involves adults, and he insightfully discusses may issues inspired by everyday social observation. I found his social analysis very well written and often insightful. Bloom never simply regurgitates the received wisdom on a topic, but constantly supplies his own interpretation, which is often superior.

When I began studying social theory, the accepted wisdom was that we are born purely selfish, with morality being a convenient social veneer that hides are fundamentally sociopathic selves. The only reason people act morally, I learned, is because they are afraid of getting caught acting immorally. Moreover, I learned that every society has is own moral rules, and such rules have no communality across societies. The bulk of research in the past twenty years has shown that both of these notions are incorrect. There is a such thing as human morality, this morality has a common substrate across all societies, and we (sociopaths and other wrong-doers excepted) are predisposed by our nature as human beings to express and affirm these moral principles. Indeed, as Samuel Bowles and I show in our book A Cooperative Species (Princeton 2011), and Edward O. Wilson shows in his The Social Conquest of Earth (Norton, 2012), our success as a species depends integrally on our moral constitution. There is no better place to start in appreciating the psychological side of human morality than Paul Bloom's fine book.
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on January 8, 2014
Just Babies is not just babies. It's the story of how everyday morality comes about--kindness to strangers, taking care of family, revenge against those who have harmed you, and immoral acts that we all engage in to a small or great degree. As a developmental psychologist, the author spends much time on fascinating new research on the sparks of moral reasoning in very young children, 6 months old and less. This research tells us that some of our basic moral judgments are in place as young as babies can be tested. But some seeds of badness are there as well, including the desire for revenge and (in somewhat older children) the desire to receive more than others get. However, the book spends as much time on adult matters, including puzzles such as why people are willing to suffer in order to do harm to others or why they will demand fairness even if it costs them. Such desires make little sense in simple evolutionary or economic theory, and the book is very strong in explaining why such ordinary behaviors are in fact puzzles that need to be explained.

Although erudite in its references to experimental psychology, evolutionary theory, religion, economics, and philosophical ethics, the book is exceedingly easy to read and not at all technical. There are no quotes of Aristotle in the original Greek, nor statistical analyses of experiments. This is the kind of book you can give to your intellectually curious uncle or even bright high school student who is interested in how people become good and bad.

The final chapter, "How to Be Good" raises questions that all of us could benefit from thinking about, both as individuals and as builders of our society. The author's humane perspective on how and why we behave morally brings the book to a very fitting close, one that makes you at least somewhat hopeful about the future of goodness in our society.

In spite of the huge importance of this topic to all of us, it is enjoyable to read while remaining thought-provoking. Highly recommended.
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on February 11, 2015
Author Paul Bloom tackles the task of explaining good and evil from the perspective of child development. I'm not done with the book, having only reached the middle of the book but every page has been interesting and well written.
The author's writing style is not the rigid grammatically correct - without contractions and exacting phrases so it comes across as more reader friendly. The "I'm sitting in the room with Paul Bloom" feeling is present when reading this book and the matter is presented in a voice of a conversation rather than a lecture which makes the subject approachable. So far this book has been a great bit of reading.
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VINE VOICEon January 1, 2016
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I've always had an interest in the development of morality in humans. Though I studied ethics in college, it was simply a philosophy course and made no effort to discover how moral behavior develops. We had enough trouble trying to figure out what goodness was to begin with, let alone how primates came to be moral. Bloom's book seemed to promise some insights into that, and while it fell short in that regard, it was intriguing how young humans are when they display what could be termed moral choice.

The problem I had was that many of the examples just don't necessarily exhibit "goodness" in the sense of choosing good over bad/evil. Usually, what we call "good" is simply something that eases our way throughout a life spent with other humans. Is it good to open doors for others? Is it good not to be rude or unkind? Is it good not to fling food across the room? There's that possibility. However, being hard-wired to help others through a door might show up in a smart social species such as our own. Unkindness won't attract helpers to you when you need them. Rudeness might instigate violence against you, and tossing food around when it's scarce threatens not only the group, but the individual himself. Therefore, none of those things would be good, simply cooperative.

Most toddlers will come over and offer some of their food to you, completely unasked. Often when it's refused, they look distressed. When you choose a French fry of your own to trade for their offering, they're gleeful. None of that seemed like goodness to me; it seemed that the baby was developing a social sense. That's a critical skill for any young primate, including us. We feel good when that happens, and children want little more than to be loved and accepted as part of a group.

So I'm not sure these anecdotes and research results illustrated babies' (and older children's) choice to do good, so much as they showed that children and babies want to fit in well. I don't mean this cynically at all, but I'd love to see more research put into it. If we could find out just what impels our choices, that could solve some of the worst problems we have as a species.

Writers don't title their books; publishers do, so Bloom hasn't deceived us in the subtitle. But the book isn't really about seeking the origins of morality. He tries to show us examples of how moral being is a natural part of the human experience from the very beginning. I gave it four stars, rounding up from 3.5 for his clarity and writing skills. Finally, I received the book free as part of the Amazon Vine program, and am glad I did. It was well worth reading at full price, so I got a great deal.
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on September 3, 2015
Jon Bloom presents us an interesting question. "How can we best understand our moral natures?" Surely he points out that theology may be best suited to answer that question, or perhaps Philosophy has the best thinkers on the subject. He goes beyond both of those as the authority on the subject and as can be expected, points to science as the best method for figuring out and piecing together our moral lives. Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil is a out working of the mind of Bloom, a distinguished developmental psychologist, in the ways that morality comes naturally to us.

I was engaged as I read through this volume, though not convinced. Blooms arguments sounds like much of what Albrecht Ritschl was trying to do in his theological formulations. He was, to the extent that I understand it, trying to create a blank-slate world that was neither good nor evil. Placing the human in the midst of this neutral society he makes the point that we are not born with a propensity towards good or evil but because this world is evil and we are ignorant of the good, our bad or sinful side takes over. The only difference I see here is that Bloom gets rid of God.

Instead of placing the center of the discussion on God he substitutes science and development psychology at the forefront of the means for observing these moral capabilities in children. The whole matter is a little overwhelming and complex but Bloom does an excellent job of clarifying his points and sounds rather convincing for much of this book.

This book will help to fortify the position of some secular humanists, even some Christians who stand by evolution. I thought Bloom drew well on his sources but left out some important theologians and philosophers who were arguing against the points he is making. Though Bloom doesn't make it a point to bring those two diverse groupings into his writings, he does wrestle with those in his own field and comes out the victor in most places.

This book is intense and a little too deep for beginners, like myself. Some of the arguments allowed me to think differently about what position those outside of Christianity hold to, which we all need lest we enjoy setting up straw arguments. As a beginner to the apologetic enterprise I think this volume was very helpful in seeing where the popular opinions lie and where academia is headed. Not that I'm new to secular humanism, but this volume did present some new arguments that I had not yet come across. Good stuff for those on both sides of the fence on this topic.

Bloom, Paul. Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil. New York: Broadway, 2014. 288. Print.
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VINE VOICEon March 3, 2015
I majored in psychology in college, and I'm still fascinated by the science of how the human mind works. For that reason, I decided to read Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil.

The author, Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom, states in the preface that some of his inspiration for this work combining developmental and evolutionary psychology with moral philosophy was a book by Adam Smith which Bloom had studied in Edinburgh. Smith is more widely known for An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (often shortened to The Wealth of Nations), but the volume that concerned Bloom was The Theory of the Moral Sentiments.

In his 1749 work, Smith claimed human beings were born with a sense of morality. Bloom also brings in Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in 1787, "The moral sense, or conscience, is as much part of [a hu]man as his [or her] leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree."

Bloom goes on to demonstrate, using evidence gleaned from various scientific studies, that psychologists tend to favor the view that some of what we call morality is inborn to human beings. The first chapter deals explicitly with what "morality" might mean in human beings who are less than two years old. Subsequent chapters branch out into what morality means in adults, because we have to understand what kinds of behaviors we're talking about when we try to define what moral behavior is.

Overall, Bloom's evidence suggests the moral picture of the human species is a fairly optimistic one. Human beings do seem to be wired to be empathetic and helpful to one another, even when acts of kindness do not immediately reward us. Interestingly, Bloom also cites evidence of empathetic behavior in non-human animals. Even rats hate to see other rats suffering.

Even though the title is a bit of a misdirect, since the entire construction doesn't deal exclusively with infant morality, the research itself is fascinating. Not only that, but Bloom has organized it into chapters that are clear, intuitive, and readable. I don't think one would need to be a psychology major to understand this book. Like Michio Kaku, Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Bill Nye the Science Guy, Bloom has the gift of translating scientific concepts into everyday language.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.
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