Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil

Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil

"Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil" is superficial breakneck survey of recent anthropological and behavioral studies of morality. Bloom's wry humor and vivid exposition make this a fun and interesting read, but he fails to make good on the promise of the book's title. Frustrating.

And how can you give a book this title without a single reference to Nietzsche?! The guy literally wrote a book called "Beyond Good and Evil" and his "Genealogy of Morals" actually confronts the "origins of good and evil" head on and traces their development throughout history. Inexcusable! Yet somehow Adam Smith's "Theory of Moral Sentiments" is extensively quoted throughout the book. It doesn't make any sense.

The George Orwell quote, "The lower classes smell" in the section on "Disgust" was thought-provoking. Notably, this is the only section where Freud makes an appearance, even though he has plenty of interesting things to say about morality and society as well.

That being said, there are a few gems in here. I loved the section on Boehm's research on hunter-gatherer society status enforcement and Bloom's "invisible-hand egalitarianism" - I had never thought about equality that way:

[Boehm] observes that the egalitarian lifestyles of hunter-gatherers exist because the individuals care a lot about status. Individuals in these societies end up roughly equal because everyone is struggling to ensure that nobody gets too much power over him or her. This is invisible-hand egalitarianism.

And Boehm echoes Nietzsche as well (although Bloom bizarrely fails to note this):

Because the united subordinates are constantly putting down the more assertive alpha types in their midst, egalitarianism is in effect a bizarre type of political hierarchy: the weak combine forces to actively dominate the strong.

The section on "Dictator" games was interesting as well. I was particularly interested in the dynamics of relative vs. absolute gain:

But choosing a 2/3 split over a 1/1 split means that the chooser will get relatively less than the other child. This was unpleasant to the children we tested, and they often chose 1/1, giving up an extra token so that they wouldn’t end up with a relative disadvantage.

This is the sort of thing that is going to become increasingly important in our increasingly automated society. I draw hope from Ariely's experiment with economics students - this highlights the important role that education has in training rational actors.

My highlights below:


Some of the choices I have made in the past still make me squirm. (If this is not true of you, then you are a much better person than I am — or much worse.)

I will argue that contemporary developmental research tells us something striking about our moral lives. It shows that Thomas Jefferson was right when he wrote in a letter to his friend Peter Carr: “The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his 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.”

While in Edinburgh, the summer before completing this book, I found myself entranced by The Theory of the Moral Sentiments. Most know Smith through his more famous text, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, but Smith himself thought his first book was the better one. The work is finely written and thoughtful and generous, with sharp insights into the relationship between imagination and empathy, the limits of compassion, our urge to punish others’ wrongdoing, and much else.

We are by nature indifferent, even hostile, to strangers; we are prone toward parochialism and bigotry. Some of our instinctive emotional responses, most notably disgust, spur us to do terrible things, including acts of genocide.


What I am proposing, though, is that certain moral foundations are not acquired through learning. They do not come from the mother’s knee, or from school or church; they are instead the products of biological evolution.

Someone once told me — and I’m not sure that she was joking— t hat morality is nothing more than rules about whom you can and can’t have sex with.

Here is a good candidate for a moral rule that transcends space and time: If you punch someone in the face, you’d better have a damn good reason for it.

Such restrictions are sometimes justified in terms of harm, but often they have their roots in a gut feeling that such actions are just plain wrong; they violate human dignity, perhaps. Any theory of moral psychology has to explain how these intuitions work and where they come from.

Early in life, then, we are social animals, with a foundational appreciation of the minds of others.

But they did not favor the helper over the neutral character. This is consistent with a “negativity bias” so often found in adults and children: sensitivity to badness (in this case, the hinderer) is more powerful and emerges earlier than sensitivity to goodness (the helper).

I think that we are finding in babies what philosophers in the Scottish Enlightenment described as a moral sense. This is not the same as an impulse to do good and avoid doing evil. Rather, it is the capacity to make certain types of judgments — to distinguish between good and bad, kindness and cruelty.


Some psychologists and sociologists believe that psychopathy can be an asset in business and politics and that, as a result, psychopathic traits are over-represented among successful people. This would be a puzzle if it were so. If our moral feelings evolved through natural selection, then it shouldn’t be the case that one would flourish without them. And, in fact, the successful psychopath is probably the exception.

While psychopaths can be successful in the short term, they tend to fail in the long term and often end up in prison or worse.

there is a big difference between caring about a person (compassion) and putting yourself in the person’s shoes (empathy).

Adam Smith provides another example:** “When we have read a book or poem so often that we can no longer find any amusement in reading it by ourselves, we can still take pleasure in reading it to a companion.** To him it has all the graces of novelty; we enter into the surprise and admiration which it naturally excites in him... We consider all the ideas which it presents rather in the light in which they appear to him... and we are amused by sympathy with his amusement.” Smith has just explained one of the greatest pleasures of the Internet: the forwarding of jokes, pictures of adorable animals, blog posts, videos, and so on. His analysis also captures one of the joys of being a parent — one gets to have certain pleasurable experiences, such as going to the zoo and eating ice cream, for the first time all over again.

Part of being a good person, then, involves overriding one’s compassion, not cultivating it.

We've seen certain limitations on children’s empathy and compassion, but this should not distract us from how impressive it is to find such moral behavior and sentiments in creatures so young. Samuel Johnson said it best (in a very different context): “It’s like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”


What we do see at all ages, though, is an overall bias toward equality.

It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin... Then, after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a business-like expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved! The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel. That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed the Form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him: “Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding!”

Perhaps Homo sapiens is a hierarchical species, just like some of the great apes that we study. We are wired for dominance and submission — evolutionarily prepared to live in groups with a strong leader (an “alpha male” or “Big Man”) and everyone else below him. If so, then we would expect to see these social structures in contemporary small-scale societies, since, in important regards, they live as all of us lived about ten thousand years ago, before agriculture, the domestication of animals, and modern technology. In 1999, the anthropologist Christopher Boehm addressed this issue in Hierarchy in the Forest, which reviewed the lifestyles of dozens of small-scale human groups. Perhaps surprisingly, he found that they are egalitarian.

I don’t want to romanticize the hunter-gatherer lifestyle — I wouldn’t want to live in a world without novels and antibiotics. And they aren’t that nice to one another, anyway. They are egalitarian when it comes to relationships between adult males but hierarchical otherwise: parents dominate their children and husbands control their wives. Also, egalitarian doesn’t mean pacifist. Hunter-gatherer societies are hyperviolent — there’s violence against women, violence between men competing for mates, and violence against rival groups.

But actually, Boehm argues the opposite. He observes that the egalitarian lifestyles of hunter-gatherers exist because the individuals care a lot about status. Individuals in these societies end up roughly equal because everyone is struggling to ensure that nobody gets too much power over him or her. This is invisible-hand egalitarianism. Think about three children and a pie. One way that they can all get equal shares is if they all care about equality and agree that everyone should get the same. But the other way to get an equal division — the more human way, I think — is that each child is careful to ensure that he or she doesn’t get less than anyone else.

As Boehm puts it, “Individuals who otherwise would be subordinated are clever enough to form a large and united political coalition... Because the united subordinates are constantly putting down the more assertive alpha types in their midst, egalitarianism is in effect a bizarre type of political hierarchy: the weak combine forces to actively dominate the strong.

While turning down low offers is, in some sense, a mistake (the recipient walks away with nothing), the Ultimatum Game turns out to be one of those paradoxical situations in which it pays to be irrational, or at least to be thought of as irrational by others. [Note: Trump!]

(According to the behavioral economist Dan Ariely, when students in economics classes are put in the position of the proposer, they often offer the minimum, and this works out fine for them because they are playing with other economics students, who accept the minimum. It’s only when these rational proposers play with noneconomists that they are in for an unpleasant surprise.)

The recipient’s rejection of a low offer also makes sense when we realize that our minds were not adapted for one-shot anonymous interactions. We evolved in a world in which we engaged in repeated interactions with a relatively small number of other individuals.

Individuals’ behavior in the Ultimatum Game, then, provides no support for the Robin Hood theory. But now consider the Dictator Game. First thought up by the psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues, this is just like the Ultimatum Game except that it removes the stage where the recipients get to make a choice. The participants get sums of money and can give however much they want to anonymous strangers. And that’s it — they keep what they choose to keep. Plainly, a self-interested agent would give nothing. But this is not what people do. There have been more than a hundred published studies on dictator games, and it turns out that most people do give, and the average gift is between 20 and 30 percent. Some studies find even greater generosity, reporting that many people give half or just a bit less than half.

The finding that most people give something might largely be explained by the fact that nobody wants to look like an ass.

It is not surprising that laboratory studies find that the more observable one’s choice is, the more one gives.

The second set of experiments was done by the economist John List. He started with a game where the dictator was given $10 and the recipient was given $5. As usual, the dictator could give as much of his money to the other person as he wanted. In this simple condition, the average gift was $1.33, a sensibly generous amount. A second group of participants were told that they could give as much as they wanted—but they could also take $1 from the other person. Now, the average gift dropped to 33 cents. And a third group were told that they could give as much as they wanted but could also take as much as they wanted, up to the whole $5. Now, they took on average $2.48, and very few gave anything. We should stop and marvel at how weird this is. If the standard explanation of giving in the Dictator Game is correct — that it reflects an impulse to share the wealth — it shouldn’t matter if someone adds the option of taking. But suppose now that the giving is motivated, at least in part, by a desire to look good. Now the option of taking makes a difference, because the worst possible option is no longer giving nothing, it’s taking away all of the other person’s money. The participant might think: A real jerk would leave this person with nothing. I don’t want to look like a jerk — I’ll just take a little. Taken together, these studies suggest that the behavior in the Dictator Game is influenced by factors that have little to do with altruistic and egalitarian motives and much to do with looking altruistic and egalitarian.

Children are sensitive to inequality, then, but it seems to upset them only when they themselves are the ones getting less.

But choosing a 2/3 split over a 1/1 split means that the chooser will get relatively less than the other child. This was unpleasant to the children we tested, and they often chose 1/1, giving up an extra token so that they wouldn’t end up with a relative disadvantage.

Even so, 80 percent of participants punished at least once. And this punishment, which tended to be directed at those who contributed less than average, solved the problem of defection. Soon enough, just about everyone was contributing. Such punishment makes cooperation possible.

Third-party punishment, then, reduces to revenge plus empathy.

The relevant question isn’t “What does the victim want?” It is “What would I want, if it were me or someone I cared about in the position of the victim?”

Most people didn’t care about the negative consequences of the second scenario; they wanted the company fined in both cases. In other words, people are more concerned that punishment should injure the punisher than that it should make the world a better place. The psychology of revenge is at work here: in Smith’s words, “He must be made to repent and be sorry for this very action.”

Most toddlers do not live in a culture of honor. There is usually a Leviathan that will resolve conflicts and punish wrongdoers — such as a parent, babysitter, or teacher. Things do change in middle childhood, when children often find themselves in societies where tattling is discouraged and one is expected to fight one’s own battles. Many middle schools and high schools are much like the Wild West.

This doesn’t mean that children are innocent of retributive desires. They are hardly pacifists, after all. Young children are highly aggressive; indeed, if you measure the rate of physical violence through the life span, it peaks at about age two. Families survive the Terrible Twos because toddlers aren’t strong enough to kill with their hands and aren’t capable of using lethal weapons. A two-year-old with the physical capacities of an adult would be terrifying.

The love of tattling reveals an appetite for payback, a pleasure in seeing wrongdoers (particularly those who harmed the child, or a friend of the child) being punished. Tattling is a way of off-loading the potential costs of revenge.


But while these other factors might play a role, there is compelling support for the race-as-cue-to-coalition theory.

This way of making sense of race fits well with the work of the psychologists Felicia Pratto and Jim Sidanius, who argue that societies form hierarchies based on three factors: age, sex, and a third, variable category that is sometimes race but may also be religion, ethnicity, clan, or any other social factor.

We start off prepared to make distinctions, but it’s our environments that tell us precisely how to do so.

It is one of the more interesting discoveries of psychology, then, that even the least racist people in the world have unconscious racial biases.

Appiah cites Cicero on this point: “Society and human fellowship will be best served if we confer the most kindness on those with whom we are most closely associated.”


George Orwell is eloquent about the role of disgust in class divisions. Here you come to the real secret of class distinctions in the West... It is summed up in four frightful words which people nowadays are chary of uttering, but which were bandied about quite freely in my childhood. The words were: The lower classes smell.

However well you may wish him, however much you may admire his mind and character, if his breath stinks he is horrible and in your heart of hearts you will hate him.

Intriguingly, one body product is hardly disgusting at all — tears.

If left unattended, young children will touch and even eat all manner of disgusting things. In one of the coolest studies in developmental psychology, Rozin and his colleagues did an experiment in which they offered children under two something that was described as dog feces (“realistically crafted from peanut butter and odorous cheese”). Most of them ate it. Most also ate a whole small dried fish, and about a third ate a grasshopper.

The consensus from the world and from the lab is clear: disgust makes us meaner.

The mystery for moral psychologists isn’t why we would engage in certain types of sex while avoiding other types; it’s why we should be so concerned with the sex that other people are having.

Consider a well-known hypothetical, carefully constructed by Jonathan Haidt to avoid the consequences that are usually connected to incest, such as concerns about coercion or deformed children: Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide never to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that? Was it ok for them to make love? Most people say that Julie and Mark did something wrong. Interestingly, when asked to articulate the basis for this judgment, most cannot, a phenomenon that Haidt describes as “moral dumbfounding.” It just feels wrong.

Sex is disgusting for a much simpler reason. It involves bodies, and bodies can be disgusting. The problem with the exchange of bodily fluids isn’t that it reminds us that we are corporeal beings; it is that such fluids trigger our core disgust response. Other drives shut down or inhibit this response — including love and lust. But disgust is the natural default.


It is not moral philosophy in general, however, that influences how we do our work, but rather a particular strand of moral philosophy — one that focuses primarily on the question of which actions are morally obligatory, which are optional, and which are forbidden. Philosophers in this area are split into two main camps: consequentialists (who judge actions on the basis of their outcomes, such as whether they increase the sum of human happiness) and deontologists (who propose that certain broader principles should be respected, even if they lead to worse consequences).

Some philosophers believe that the difference between pushing the man and throwing the switch is captured by a principle known as the Doctrine of Double Effect, or DDE. The DDE, which is often attributed to the Catholic philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas, posits a critical moral difference between killing or harming someone as an unintended consequence of causing a greater good to occur (which can be morally permissible) and intentionally causing a death or harm in order to bring about a greater good (which is not permissible).

As Greene puts it, trolley problems might be the fruit flies of the moral mind.

Indeed, when philosopher Philippa Foot introduced the trolley problem in 1967, it was intended to explore the morality of abortion, looking at cases in which the death of the fetus results from actions taken to save the life of the mother.

But this is the wrong way to do moral psychology. From the standpoint of looking at human nature and human interactions, it makes no sense to start with strangers and view family and friends as a special case. That goes against everything we know about how morality evolved in the species and develops in the individual. Imagine that we could start again, without taking moral philosophy as a foundation. If we build our moral psychology from evolutionary biology and developmental psychology instead of philosophy, things begin to look very different.

The anthropologist Richard Shweder developed one of the most influential alternatives to the standard view, proposing a trinity of moral foundations. There is an ethics of autonomy, which focuses on individual rights and freedoms. This is the dominant moral foundation for most Westerners, and certainly most Western philosophers; it’s the sort of morality that makes you think up trolley problems. But there is also an ethics of community, which focuses on notions including respect, duty, hierarchy, and patriotism, and an ethics of divinity, which focuses on pollution and purity, sanctity and sacred order. This theory has been extended and developed by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who argues that we possess a sextuplet of distinct moral foundations—care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression.

Loyalty is a virtue; betrayal is a sin — and a very serious one. It was treachery, and not lust or anger, that earned sinners a place in Dante’s ninth, deepest, circle of hell.

Here Dante was following scripture. Religious texts, not surprisingly, insist that the religious in-group is more important than kin.

Coming to see strangers as falling into the moral domain is as much a human accomplishment as coming to appreciate that zero is a number.

Many societies have a system of “fictive kin,” where genetically unrelated individuals are talked about, and presumably thought of, as blood relatives.


Also, as the sociologist Thorstein Veblen observed, charitable giving is the perfect way to advertise one’s wealth and status. It’s also a good way to attract sexual and romantic partners; it hardly hurts to be seen as generous and caring.

These critics are like men marveling at eyeglasses and arguing that since natural selection couldn’t have created such intricate wonders they must be the handiwork of God. They are forgetting the third option. We made them. Similarly, our enhanced morality is the product of human interaction and human ingenuity. We create the environments that can transform an only partially moral baby into a very moral adult.

Another important factor in expanding the circle is exposure to stories... Travel broadens, and literature is a form of travel.

He notes as well that there is little evidence that frequent readers are any nicer than everybody else. The Nazis were famously literate; Joseph Goebbels was said to love Greek tragedy.

For a more recent example, consider how radically the treatment of racial and sexual minorities in the United States has changed over the last few decades. Much of the credit here should go to television; we often relate to characters on our favorite shows as if they were our friends, and millions of Americans regularly interacted with pleasant and amusing and nonthreatening blacks and gays on programs like The Cosby Show and Will and Grace. This can be powerful stuff; it might well be that the greatest force underlying moral change in the last thirty years of the United States was the situation comedy.

Robert Jensen and Emily Oster find that when rural Indian villages start to get cable television, more women attend school, people find spousal abuse less acceptable, and there is a decrease in the preference for sons over daughters.

The fall of reason is particularly dramatic in the study of moral psychology. This is in large part due to the work of the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who in a classic 2001 paper argued that “moral reasoning does not cause moral judgment; rather, moral reasoning is usually a post hoc construction, generated after a judgment has been reached”; he claimed that moral intuitions drive moral reasoning “just as surely as a dog wags its tail.”

We sometimes forget that this bias in publication exists and take what is reported in scientific journals and the popular press as an accurate reflection of our best science of how the mind works. But this is like watching the nightly news and concluding that rape, robbery, and murder are part of any individual’s everyday life — forgetting that the nightly news doesn’t report the vast majority of cases where nothing of this sort happens at all.

When Confucius was asked for a single word that summed up morality, he responded, “Is not reciprocity such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”