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Book Review

‘Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil’ by Paul Bloom

Psychologist goes deep, mining the morality of babies

Paul Bloom argues that even the youngest infants possess moral sensibilities.

GREG MARTIN

Paul Bloom argues that even the youngest infants possess moral sensibilities.

Asked to consider the benevolence of babies, some might be reminded of a recent Internet meme: a picture of a smiling infant, captioned “I have a surprise for you . . . it’s poop.”

But Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist who mines his child-development research for insights into morality, makes a compelling case that babies aren’t the self-centered savages that Thomas Hobbes, or the Internet, takes them for. Bloom argues that even the youngest infants are naturally endowed with moral sensibilities, including empathy, compassion, and a rudimentary sense of fairness.

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In this insightful, frequently funny, collection of case studies and philosophical arguments, Bloom explores the competing instincts — selfish and selfless — that form the basis of baby morality. He offers heart-melting examples of altruism in very young children trying to help or console people in distress. These efforts are ham-handed at best; because babies can’t quite see the world from other people’s perspectives, the help they offer is sometimes inappropriate, as when a 14-month-old brings a crying friend to his own mother, not the friend’s. Some toddlers, clearly vexed by the pain of others, console themselves, not the sufferers.

The book, organized into seven sections that evolve from an exploration of baby morality to an examination of its implications for adult society, goes on to reveal other, more significant limits to the compassion of children, who are by nature suspicious of, and sometimes hostile toward, strangers. Bloom tells us that children younger than 4 years old rarely show spontaneous kindness toward people they don’t know, reserving such gestures for their “in-group”: kin first, then friends and people they know well. These preferences bolster Bloom’s argument that biological evolution is at play, since people who help those closest to themselves have a better chance of seeing their genetic material passed on and preserved.

Babies also discriminate in bestowing kindness based on the behavior of others: They are more likely to be help people they’ve seen behaving helpfully, and to withhold help from people who’ve been cruel. In one experiment, Bloom presented 1-year-olds with a puppet show featuring a good guy (who returns a ball to its owner) and a bad guy (who runs away with the ball). The puppets were each then given a treat, but the babies were allowed to take one away. Almost all denied a treat to the bad puppet; one baby was so outraged that he took the treat away, then leaned over and smacked the puppet on the head.

Apart from the adorable anecdotes, Bloom manages to translate abstract principles into clear, readable prose, making complex material accessible to the layperson without oversimplifying. His voice is witty, engaging, and candidly quirky. “When my sons were babies,” he confesses, “I would stare at them and wonder what, precisely, stared back. They were like my dog, only more fascinating.”

A scientist to the core, and eminently curious about the mental life of infants, he goes on to lament the challenges of using them as experimental subjects: “Babies are even harder to study than rats and pigeons, which can at least run mazes or peck at levers.”

Despite his levity, Bloom extrapolates from studies of baby behavior to reveal striking truths about the nature of morality and humanity. If morality were truly innate, he reasons, we could simply trust our intuitions to produce a society that is fair and just. But the instinctive version of morality we are born with is flawed. Although capable of kindness, Bloom says, humans are, by nature, bigoted and parochial. This is the reason human history includes slavery and genocide, both of which were seen as morally defensible by their perpetrators. Cultural influences and our own capacity for reason are what allow us to develop the refined, considered sense of right and wrong that makes us more than just babies.

Jennifer Latson is writing a narrative nonfiction book about a genetic disorder called Williams syndrome, which makes people socially uninhibited and indiscriminately friendly. She tweets at @JennieLatson.
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