Friday, December 2, 2011

Infant Morality

Recent research in child psychology provides new insight into the development of moral judgments. The proximity to the topic of ethics reminds me of how discussions in college philosophy classes very frequently turned to the subject of child psychology at one time or another. The results of the new research raise a variety of questions in my mind.

The study, by Kiley Hamlin of the University of British Columbia, showed babies of five and eight months old a series of videos, in which one puppet either helped or hindered another in a task, and later either had a toy returned to or taken from it by a third puppet. Three quarters of five month old children preferred the third puppet to return the toy no matter what, but eight month olds gave preference to the giver or taker depending on the earlier actions of the puppet from whom it was giving or taking.

The conclusion that has been drawn from this is that between those ages, children learn to determine whether a person deserves good or bad outcomes. That is, they have developed a sense of justice, and see value in rewards and punishments in addition to just straightforward good and bad. University College London child psychologist Uta Frith is quoted in the coverage of this research as saying: “To me this says that toddlers already have more or less adult moral understanding. Isn’t this amazing? I don’t know in what way adults would react in the same situation in a more sophisticated way.”

She may be right that toddlers possess adult moral understanding, but I would add that that doesn’t necessarily say anything good about toddlers; it says something terrible about adults. I also reflects badly on the persons conducting the research, or at least those commenting on it, who seem to be entirely too cavalier about the accuracy of intuitive moral judgments. Although reward and punishment are sensible moral concepts, it seems to me that by lauding eight month olds for having a natural inclination towards tit-for-tat ethics actually contradicts one of the noble axioms we end up teaching them later: two wrongs don’t make a right.

It strikes that based on the description of the experiment, and the accompanying videos of the puppets, the child participants have no reason to believe that the giver and taker puppets actually witnessed the helping or hindering actions of the other puppets. If that’s so, they aren’t judging the appropriateness of specific acts of reward or punishment; rather, they are projecting a sense of justice, from their own points of view, onto independent events. That doesn’t strike me as morally sound. It seems quite subjective, and it may be worth noting that in the experiments this natural subjectivity is coming from someone who has not yet developed an independent sense of self.

I wonder whether it has struck the original researchers that these observations may imply a groundwork for the development of religious concepts in the human mind. Given that the children are not judging the appropriateness of direct reward and punishment from the person who has been harmed or hindered, the justice that is being dispensed turns out to be a sort of cosmic justice. That is, if a child continues to think that good and bad outcomes are deserved or undeserved regardless of their actual connection to prior good deeds or wrongdoing, there comes a certain point at which a sophisticated intelligence needs to give some account of how punishment can work without human intention. Notions like God and karma fit the bill.

So eight month olds and twenty-eight year olds alike might be inclined to think well of unprovoked acts of aggression if their victims have formerly showed themselves to be assholes, because the act is justified from their own limited point of view. That is, many adults may indeed fail to “react in the same situation in a more sophisticated way.” But I certainly think they ought to do better. Adults, who have had some time to reflect on the tremendous nuance of ethical calculations, should be capable of making moral judgments from an objective point of view.

It disturbs me to think that natural human development leads one to consequentialism, because I don’t think that’s the correct conclusion. Rather, acts are good or bad in and of themselves, not based on their outcomes or whether their objects are deserving. You can either give the ball back to the puppet that dropped it, or you can take it from him. Stealing is no more or less wrong if the puppet had been a jerk beforehand. Interestingly, that is apparently the way the five month olds in the study see things. So in my view infant morality may be preferable to toddler morality.

Before this, I thought that deontology and consequentialism were competing on a fairly level playing field. Now I see that the deck may be stacked against my favored category of ethical theory, in that promoting deontology requires overriding aspects of human nature. That makes for a challenging breaking point.

Of course, the results of this research were not unanimous for all participants, and some demonstrated different preferences. That leads me to wonder whether those children that preferred a puppet who returned toys even to bad puppets will naturally grow up to be adults like me, who believe that the rightness or wrongness of an act is unaffected by its surrounding context. Perhaps there is an evolutionary trait that appears in the development of a minority of children and leads them to make ostensibly moral judgments that are quite different from what these researchers conclude is normal and assert is accurate.

But the fact remains that the vast majority of children evidently grow into a natural belief that right and wrong are subjective and context-dependent. And the further fact remains that I believe that’s false and unethical. Thus, my view is that in a philosophically and morally sophisticated society, some natural consequences of child development, such as the impulse to cheer on the misfortune of those who have caused misfortune, need to be overridden later in life.

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