We May Be Hard Wired To Be Moral

Yale Psychologist Paul Bloom believes human beings are hard-wired to be moral. During the discussion of his work at the Edge Foundation conference on the New Science of Morality, Bloom clarifies that he’s more hesitant about his conclusions than he might first appear, but his work still has interesting implications. If any of this is true, then what are the mechanisms that push us to work against our hard wiring? (And, does anyone doubt that humans are not always moral?) If we’re born with a sense of morality, how do we lose it? What is this hard wiring? Is our baby sense of right and wrong specific, or is this just a general sense that these two categories exist?

Bloom provides an intro to his work in his conference bio:

Humans are born with a hard-wired morality. A deep sense of good and evil is bred in the bone. I’m aware that this might sound outlandish, but it’s supported now by research in several laboratories, including my own research at Yale. Babies and toddlers can judge the goodness and badness of others’ actions; they want to reward the good and punish the bad; they act to help those in distress; they feel guilt, shame, pride, and righteous anger. I am admittedly biased, but I think these are the most exciting findings to come out of psychology in the last many years.

If you scroll up on the same page, you’ll find a transcript of Bloom’s presentation (I couldn’t get the video to play.) and video of the discussion of it. In his presentation, Bloom says:

I’ve made three arguments here. The first is that humans are in a very interesting way, nice. The second is that we have evolved a moral sense, and this moral sense is powerful, and can explain much of our niceness. It is far richer than many empiricists would have believed. But the third argument is that this moral sense is not enough. That accomplishments we see and we admire so much in our species are due to factors other than our evolutionary history. They are due to our culture, our intelligence and our imagination.

By the way, the first person who speaks in the discussion is Marc Hauser, who has been found guilty of scientific misconduct.

This entry was posted in good vs. evil, morality, psychology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to We May Be Hard Wired To Be Moral

  1. This fits in with some of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s research. In her most recent book, Mothers and Others, she posits that we have evolved as a cooperative species.

  2. dianesilver says:

    In his presentation, Bloom talks about Hrdy’s research. He opens with a story from her, which is well worth reading.

  3. Darrell Icenogle says:

    I read about some of Paul Bloom’s experiments on his site a while back, and they are interesting. They seem to show that babies only a few months hold have the beginnings of a sense of fairness, and appreciation when someone is helpful, to the point that they want to reward helpfulness. The measures are weak — the amount of time a baby spends looking at something, for example — so a degree of humility in his conclusions is entirely appropriate.

    So a child is, perhaps, born with a ‘first draft’ of morality. It is pretty demonstrable that culture modifies that draft, as does personal experience. Culture seems to be a huge determinant. What of the role of personal intelligence and creativity? Piaget and Kohlberg built their theories around stages of cognitive development, which seem to now be sitting at the back of the New Science of Morality bus, while emotions are in the driver’s seat.

  4. dianesilver says:

    I’m with you, Darrell, in that some of the research with babies, just like Hauser’s research with monkeys, seems to make a lot out of tiny things. But Blooms idea’s are interesting to entertain, at least as hypothoses.

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