Is morality innate ?

The New York Times magazine has a fascinating article entitled “The Moral Life of Babies.” Scientist Paul Bloom describes an experiment where 1-year old babies watch a puppet show where one puppet is a good sharer but another keeps all the toys he gets. Both have a pile of treats in front of them.

At this point, the toddler was asked to take a treat away from one puppet. Like most children in this situation, the boy took it from the pile of the “naughty” one. But this punishment wasn’t enough — he then leaned over and smacked the puppet in the head.

Is this evidence that people are naturally moral and fair ? Some classical sources would disagree. In Leviathan, Hobbes felt that without government, human society is in a state of nature where no rules moderate our behavior. And the Bible says (Gen. 8:21) “the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”

Experiments and observations of animals indicate that some of them (at least) are instinctively fair. An experiment with capuchin monkeys had some receive a reward for giving up a rock to a human, some received no reward, and others got a reward for no work. Monkeys subject to unfair treatment refused to cooperate or refused their reward. Similarly, dogs that were unfairly rewarded for doing a trick stopped doing the trick as quickly or at all (here is the paper).

But the evidence with adults is mixed. In Superfreakonomics, a fascinating book, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner analyze psychology experiments that ‘prove’ that humans are innately altruistic (unselfishly concerned for the welfare of others). Lots of laboratory experiments claim to show that people act fairly even if there appear to be no consequences for acting unfairly. But experiments at baseball card shows by Levitt’s colleague John List showed that subjects under observation generally act fairly while those not under observation are more likely to cheat. Out of town dealers cheated more frequently, since they anticipated fewer negative consequences than a local dealer who might hear from an irate customer. Levitt and Dubner conclude that the psychology experiment subjects know they are being observed and that influences them to demonstrate altruism.

So, are only babies and animals innately fair while many adults have learned they can cheat and get away with it ? Depressing as it sounds, that would seem to explain the data I have seen.


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